Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wolves at the Door

Just in case anyone is actually reading this blog that is also actually reading His Family, I will avoid any specific spoiling details in this post. But, be warned. . . sadness cometh. And it came as I was sitting in the hallway outside the Principal's office at school. No, I wasn't caught skipping, it just happens to be the only couch on campus. Don't get me started about the anti-learning sterile environment of high school.  I digress. . .

We've had so much sadness in the last week. One week ago, a young man was plotting a lethal, depraved attack. Parents were making shopping lists for their children. Children were learning, reading, laughing, and playing. And then they were not.

I still can't think about it all without a sick sense of nausea rising up. I don't know any of the children taken, but I've thought too often of their sweet faces in the face of death. I've thought too often of the child next to them, who watched them die, and now live with the nightmares. I must stop thinking about them. Dwelling on it does not honor them. So what does?

I believe that loving my own children more patiently, more earnestly, more deliberately honors those children who are gone and who stay on. I can focus on the tragedy or I can embrace the hope.  I've heard the following story twice in the last couple of weeks and it has taken on a new significance:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

We face a different set of wolves now. They are of joy or pain. We can feed the wolf that would tell us to fear, hide from the world, and trust noone. That wolf would have us watch the news, learn about the shooter, and bemoan the tragic demise of our society and the terrible days in which we live.  

Or we can feed the other wolf. That is the wolf that focuses on the heroism of the day. That is the wolf that is grateful without guilt. That is the wolf that would tell us to see the good, embrace the light, and see that there is still so much beauty in this flawed world of ours. That is the wolf that will lift us up and help us do the same for others.

That is the wolf I aim to feed. I will believe, trust, hug, and press forward. I will look at my students and know that if a wolf comes to our door I will do my best to protect them. I will hug my children ever day, pray with them, and tell them that God is real, life is good, and there is always, always hope.  And in time, the other wolf will shrivel and die.  As the people of Connecticut face their wolves, and the characters in His Family do the same, I pray that they will choose the wolf of hope. I pray that there will be light where now there is such darkness. And I pray no more wolves come to their doors.

But they will. Wolves of memories, smells, fears, and nightmares will scratch at their doors. They will howl and huff and puff. But, the other wolf can be there, summoning light, focusing on love, and believing in the future. 

And it can howl too.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

And Who Are Thy Children?

"You will live on in our children's lives."

This was the parting counsel of Roger's wife in His Family before she passed away. The phrase is repeated often and gives a frame for the novel as Roger realizes how little he knew his children, though all he thought he wanted was for them to be happy. Still, Edith is a mother, Deborah, a consumed teacher, and Laura now a newlywed bouncing through Paris.
To know Deborah better he travels with her to her school, in an effort to buoy her up after losing a former student. He is shocked by the energy and pulse of the school, teeming with "foreigners." But, I think what surprises him most is the tenacity and wisdom of Deborah. She is a rock amidst the chaos of the neighborhood, cajoling children to come to school, starting a mother's club, encouraging young women to be "nice." And Roger follows her around, dazed by the rattling school and its countless endeavors at improving the life of the young. 

"He reached home limp and battered from the storm of new impressions coming on top of his sleepless night. He had thought of a school as a simple place, filled with little children, mischievous at times perhaps and some with dirty faces, but still with minds and spirits clean, unsoiled as yet by contact with the grim spirit of the town. He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah's school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, or turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.  But Roger could still hear that band. And behind its blaring crash and din he had felt the vital throbbing of a tremendous joynessness, of gaiety, fresh hopes and reams, of leaping young emotions like deep buried bubbling springs bursting up resistlessly to renew the fevered life of the town! Deborah's big family! Everybody's children!"

In the midst of all this he saw what he had not seen before, Deborah as a mother. Edith had her five babies, Laura was campaigning against ever having one, and here was Deborah, mother and aunt and nurse to hundreds of children. Is that not motherhood? 
My high school classroom is not wild nor barbaric. Neither is it what I imagined it to be either. Sometimes I come home limp and battered as well. The indolence of our youth shakes me up, and the fatigue of teaching those who express no desire to be taught drains me. And I have spent far too much time lamenting that I am in a classroom with other people's children rather than being at home with my own. This is not the script I wrote. Still, perhaps Deborah is on to something. Perhaps all the children on the world are a shared commodity. We place our own first, they are our main stewardship. But, do we ignore the rest? We are in the midst of the "Is our family complete???" conversation, and though we would love to have more children, I often wonder if our immediate family is complete, but there are countless more children God would have me care for. I might only be a Spanish teacher, but there is more that I teach. I smile at them when they come to the door. I express to them love for my husband and children. I demonstrate clean language and respect. I ask them about their lives. I share my opinions on tattoos when they ask. Perhaps I am teaching more than just Spanish. Perhaps these are also my children.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Facts and Fiction

       In His Family, I am at the point where Laura, the youngest daughter, just got hitched. Poor papa bear's house is overtaken by parcels and maids and flowers and an assortment of wedding preparations that I don't think I ever had. The engagement was short, they were bound for Paris in June. Dear Roger gets pushed aside until the bill collector makes his way to his New York home with the butcher's bill for Laura's dream wedding.
       Roger Gale has three daughters, bearing  a striking resemblance to my own family as a matter of fact. I am the youngest of three girls, and though we all three don't have a doppelganger in Holmes' tale, I certainly can relate to the free spirit of Laura. Coming after my sisters in high school had its price. Big Sisters were perfectly behaved and swam peacefully in the crowd--though standing out in their own righteous ways and leaving impressive marks in the school. And then there was Morgen. . . who talked loudly, walked barefoot in the halls, and did a Forrest Gump impression during her graduation speech. I left my own mark, but in many ways I've spent a whole lot of life trying to climb out of the shadow of my two big sisters. They cast incredible shadows.
       I have some Laura in me. I've followed more fancies than my sisters. I had different types of jobs, went to a different college, and have colored my hair many more times in many more colors.

Why do younger siblings do this?

        In the novel, Laura has declared that she will have no children. Roger, her father, is horrified, and listens for his wife Judith to roll over in her grave. Their oldest girl Edith is motherhood: framed on a wall. She begins the novel with four children, just gave birth to a fifth, and who knows what might happen in the next hundred pages or so. She glows in the grind of raising children, sculpting their lives perfectly and running her home impressively. She strikes the ideal of the age and balks at Laura's rebellion. Does she take it personally? I find that often people's disapproval of another's choices is founded in an insecurity of their own. We project judgment and it does little good. Certainly if someone is making a choice that puts their life in danger, morally, spiritually, or physically then we should speak up with love and concern. But when it is a choice made with purposeful thought and good, solid, intentions, then perhaps we should let them be--even (and perhaps especially) if it is different than the way we would do things.

Why do older siblings not do this?

        I've never had a younger sibling, so I wouldn't know. But, I do have younger sibling in-laws and I know I've been guilty of basking in the knowledge that I have more kids and so must know more than they do. Sometimes we all ache with the desire to know something, to be an expert at something, to help someone do things better than we did them. These are often grounded in love. But I think they must also be tempered with patience.
        For Edith and Laura, I think that picking the fight about kids did noone any good. The night before Laura's wedding was the wrong time for Daddy to give a multiply and replenish the earth lecture. She was a mess about just becoming a wife, much less a mother. In those moments, which I imagine we've all had, when lecturing seems so natural and our wisdom seems so clear, perhaps it is best to smile, hug, and trust. I don't yet know what will come of Laura's marriage or Parisian honeymoon. I'm not sure yet how many of my own decisions will pan out. But I am learning to trust myself, even as a baby sister. So, from one youngest sister to another. . . .Good luck, Laura.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fan The Flames.

“Would she stop halfway as he had done, or would she throw all caution aside and let the flames within her rise?” (His Family, Ernest Holmes)

This phrase has been popping into my head repeatedly since I first read it. Roger is speaking of Laura, his daughter driven by flash and fun who is heading into marriage as another experimental adventure. Her yearnings and “burning curiosities” remind Roger of a younger version of himself and as he looks on her potential, he wonders if she’ll waste it.
I do the same. . as I look at myself. What caution do I embrace? What flames do I smother? I don’t think that all flames are grand or daring. I have zero desire to run with bulls or jump from planes. But I do have flames that pop up and crackle at me and make me wish I could be more. I know that I have more, but sometimes the fear of discovery or change makes me stay with the comfortable, the known, and the accepted. I accept the limitations of my rearing and the traditions of my family. Many of these traditions are wonderful. My faith, my work ethic, my compassion, my desire for excellence. . .these are the flames my family has fanned.  But there are others.  I want to write and tell stories. I want to farm. I want to live near the mountains. I want to have chickens and apple trees.
Still, I have realized something. I cannot sit on my hands and build a fire at the same time. If I want change, I must change. The life I envision will not magically happen if I waste time living another one. If I want to write, I must make time to write. The person I picture in my head will not evolve without effort. It will take goals and time and discipline. Will I do it? Will I shake off the caution that makes it more comfortable watching a movie that working on a story? Will I let the flames of courage rise up and drum up a storytelling show?

Will I rise?

I will try.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Not So Simple After All. . .

“And after that you buy ‘em clothes—not fluffy clothes, but ‘simple’ clothes, the kind which always cost the most. And you then you build a simple home, in a simple place like Morristown. The whole idea is simplicity, if you can’t make enough to buy it, you’re lost.” (His Family, Ernest Holmes)

    Today, there is a lovely glow about that word: simplicity. We visit old-fashioned farms and buy their apple butter. We meander through Farmer’s markets and ponder cloth diapers. Natural childbirth is best and breastmilk is a must. Simplify. Streamline. Get in touch with the earth and true humanity.
       The glitch is this: That which boasts simplicity comes with its own costs. I’ve often dreamt of a Little House life—complete with acreage, chickens, and long hair blowing in the wind. But, Laura and Mary could walk to school by themselves through the prairies. And Baby Carrie didn’t get ballet lessons. And after their chores, they were free to run in the prairie grass until Ma called them home. If we lived on acreage today, it could mean hours a week in a van together, to school and back, to church and back, to playdates and back. . . . and so on. The ideal of simplicity is a flawed one if approached too purely (which I have a tendency to do). In actuality, I’ve thought, the city life is the simplest of all. You can actually walk everywhere you need to go, avoiding the car seat wrestling match and burden of a car at all. You can get to the park, the library, the school, etc. quickly and easily—preserving time for family. The market is close by, as are any friends. You can build a simple little microcosm. But in sprawling isolation, you must make the choice to be at peace with either constant shuttling or true, unadorned simplicity of few errands and little outside enhancements. I think we beat ourselves up with simplicity.
          My best case in point? Breastfeeding. I am no milkmaid. I don’t make milk and am anatomically challenged when it comes to feeding babes. Even the lactation specialist said so. My children would be in serious peril had I lived in a sod house. Still, I try. I know it is best. I’ve tried every time. It is ideal. It is simple. It is handy and natural and wonderful. And it is hard. I pumped, I took herbs, and I cried apologies to my little girl as I gave her a bottle.  If breastfeeding alone were the only requirement to raising a happy healthy child, then I’d be screwed. But, it isn’t that simple, is it? Each and every mama does their best for their babies, be it breast, bottle, cloth, disposable, organic, or Wal-mart. Simplicity is holding a baby and loving with all the heart you have. That is simple.
          My jury is still out on how to truly create simplicity in my life. It seems that if simplicity means stretching the budget too thin to get the simple ideal, then perhaps that isn’t as simple after all. I think true simplicity must be defined individually. If we aim for the simple life that leaves us happy, fulfilled, peaceful, and productive—then I think we can get there, especially if we don’t pay attention to the way “everyone” else is doing it. Buy the frozen dinner. Use the formula. Plant the garden. Get the cheap produce. Do what feels right. Perhaps it is just that simple. 

Any Other Thoughts?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Blessings of a Sinus Infection

    One might think this would be a fairly brief list. I was knocked out Ali-style with a sinus monster for the last week and a half. It isn't that I thought I would die. . I just sort of hoped I would. Okay, not really, but the hyperbole carries the point. I was low. And in that lowness I could do little but rest and read. I had one day that I was home all by myself for hours, and I willed myself to stay in bed. Guilty pangs of productivity bothered me: "I should vacuum" "I should organize our garage" "I should create a better storage system in our kitchen" NO! I shouted. I will rest and recover! Though I could not sleep, I vowed I would stay in bed--away from computer screens that burned my eyes and ladled away my time.
    What did I do? I reintroduced myself to Annie Dillard and pen and paper. And in the throes of infection, I remembered who I was. I was once a reader, a voracious one. I was once a writer, a prolific (unpublished) one. I used to love words. I would mark pages, re-read paragraphs, and tilt my head back as the beauty of the words washed over me. I was a Reader. I decided to be one again.
   Where to start? With my MA in English I've read much of the canon, though certainly not all. I queried the Facebook universe but my hook came back with far too many options. It was then that the Pulitzer Mama Project was born. I found a list of all the Pulitzer winners (84!) and pronounced it as my own personal reading list. I aim to read through the list, staggering it at times with excellent non-fiction finds, until I've read them all.

The Guidelines. . .
  • I will not read a book I find offensive. I recognize this might undermine the purity of the project, but is is my project and I can do what I want. So there.
  • I will read the books in order, re-reading those I have already read. Yes, I recognize this means I must again venture into the mammoth that is Gone With the Wind. I can take it. Bring it on Scarlet.
  • I will not put this on a timeline. As a full-time teacher and mother of three, my personal reading windows might be fairly small.  This could take years and I'm fine with that.
  • I will write as I read. Observations, thoughts, memories, and opinions that the texts stir will fill this blog. This way anyone else who is joining the challenge can find a place to dig deeper and respond as they read along.
  I hope that this project will encourage lots of folks to join in this adventure. Reading, especially for women that enjoy reading, often gets placed at the bottom of the list. The "to-do" we can only do if the rest of the "to-do's" are done. Can't we look at it instead as a method of growth, productivity, and enhancement? We make time for exercise, we scour articles about weight loss, and we research parenting methods. What if we just read a novel and sat with it a bit, and see what it stirred within us?

First up: His Family by Ernest Holmes.

Away I go.

P.S: In full disclosure, I am fully aware that it will take time for my writing to settle into my own voice. I will have hits of Dillard, Holmes, Wharton, and whomever else I might be reading for some time. I might be too flowery, obtuse, or long-winded for many of my posts. I recognize that, and I am determined to be patient with my writing until it catches up to my ambition. Having been warned, I hope you'll be able to do the same.