On Not Being a Reader…Yet

Blueberry picking: that’s what comes to mind when I read Pernille’s heartfelt plea that we honor each individual child’s timetable, that we put our rigidity aside.

Just last week, my husband and I drove to a nearby local farm to pick blueberries. A friend had urged me to give it a try—being a recent convert to this berry, something about the texture, I wasn’t immediately spurred to action—but on this blue-skied, sunny day, we set out. Arriving early, we had a grove of picking almost to ourselves. The young volunteer who led us to our row said, “Pick all the blue before you move on in that direction,” and she pointed down our row into an unending line of green bushes. So we begin, and there’s A LOT OF BLUE! When I’m directed to do “all” of anything, I take it to heart, so I’m gently lifting canopy branches to discover clusters of unseen blue, blue, blue. Then I realize that, despite these bushes having been planted at the same time, nurtured with the same attention, feasting on the same sun, soil, and air, all of the individual berries are not blue. There are some still deep red, some hard green nubs, some so ripe they’ve fallen to the ground ahead of pickers, all by themselves, just ready to get scooped up—or squashed if we’re not careful.

You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Why can’t we learn more from the lessons nature provides? The volunteer tells us that, at some point, a mechanized picker will roll down the rows and shake whatever lingers off the branches, but until then, the joy of hand gathering what’s ripened in time will continue in waves.

Isn’t is wonderful what nature allows, an ongoing unfolding to elicit wonder rather than concern, in the fullness of time?

Pernille Ripp

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She tells me she doesn’t want to go to first grade.  That she no longer wants to be a first grader.

This child who loves school.

This child who loves her teachers.

This child who has been beaming since the day she realized that after kindergarten came first grade, another year to learn, another year to grow.

And yet, here she is, declaring that for her school is no longer where she wants to be.  So I ask, what changed?  Why not?  And she gets a little quiet, sinks a little bit into my body, snuggles up as if the secret is hard to carry and tells me quietly, “I don’t know how to read…”

Because in her mind, all first graders know how to read.  Because in her mind all first graders know how to look at a book and automatically unlock all of its secrets just like that. …

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WRITE OUT: My Map Experiment

When I was thinking-on-paper about this map-making experiment in my journal, I wrote:  “Don’t let learning the tech eclipse the writing!”  I stand by that, no matter what, but for today, this is primarily a technology lesson, not a writing one, so forgive me.  I had so much fun!  I would definitely encourage students to play with this.  Once Tour Builder is out of beta, it will also be a terrific vehicle for creative expression.

Write Out: Place-Based Making

Where were you last Sunday?  Did you know that the National Writing Project initiated its “open summer online adventure, … [a] collaborative project…with multiple entryways for you to engage with historical and natural spaces….As with any open project, where your interest takes you is where you should go.”

The idea is to use open spaces to connect the very interior life a writer lives with the great space that exists all around us.  Granted, the idea is to explore nature and history, those designated environments spared the march of progress, of development, those areas set aside for preservation and to use these as inspiration.  And these spaces are worth our attention, however…

Emma Marris, a conservationist, talks about our definition of nature and asserts, “Nature is everywhere—we just need to learn to see it.”  She broadens the definition: “Nature is anywhere that life thrives.”  While acknowledging those “Edenic representations” that cause us to draw  reverential breath, citing Yellowstone, and the Great Barrier Reef among others, she makes the case that National Parks are carefully managed, concluding, “It takes a lot of work to make these places look untouched.”  She goes on to say that we humans “love these places a little too hard.

In addition, she argues that kids don’t want that “look-but-don’t-touch” experience.  While adults may happily hike along trails for five hours, a kid wants to “find a spot, hunker down, tinker with it, just work with it.”  So what are we doing to our children when we define nature as wild and untouched when humans have influenced every place on the planet?  Furthermore she points out that so many places of touted beauty are far away and too expensive to access easily.  This relegates appreciation to the elite—a definite problem.

She concludes saying that to guarantee that our children, and this means all of them, urban as well as rural, develop a sense of connection to and meaningful relationship with nature, “we cannot define nature as that which is untouched.  We have to let children touch nature—Because that which is untouched is unloved.”

Her ideas both humble and hearten.  When she argues that, if you want a wild space, all you have to do is stop mowing the lawn, she summons laughter from the audience.  When she cites the elevated train line in urban Philadelphia where a full-fledged wild meadow has established itself “floating above the city” and a vacant lot in Chattanooga where plant species and insect life abound, her point is clear.  Nature is everywhere if we choose to see it.  When we heard Marris talk on TED radio, my husband said, “Nature is like the sun; even if we can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.”

I am reminded of the poem by Marcie Hans:

Fueled

Fueled
by a million
man-made
wings of fire-
the rocket tore a tunnel
through the sky-
and everybody cheered.
Fueled
only by a thought from God-
the seedling
urged its way
through thicknesses of black-
and as it pierced
the heavy ceiling of the soil-
and lauched itself
up into outer space –
no
one
even
clapped.
–Marcie Hans
I am one of the lucky ones; the Pacific Ocean is my front yard and Oregon’s Yaquina Head bounds my view to the north.  I no longer have a young child to plunk down in the backyard with a trowel and time to explore, but that, I’m convinced, is at the heart of fostering stewardship.  My adult child creates oases of nature in New Orleans, spends weekends laying sod and visiting the lovely city park.  He pays attention and has developed what Marris calls “a meaningful relationship with the landscape.”
During the Write Out, I urge everyone to go outside.  Find any place where varieties of life thrive.  Touch and be touched—and maybe…write about it.

The Way of Experience

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Readings converge, as they so often do.  I’ve just previewed a novel-in-verse Every Little Bad Idea, a debut by author Caitie McKay.  The poem above immediately sprang to mind and triggered a connection with an excellent analysis of neuroscience research in Sarah-Jane Blakemore’s fascinating and readable Inventing Ourselves The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

McKay uses the good-girl-chooses-bad-boy trope when she writes about high school junior Skyler Ann Wise, smart and focused on her future —that means college— who has thus far avoided the pitfalls of normal high school life: parties, excesses, dating.  “Skyler Wise/ the ultimate prize./ Untouchable in every way.”  Her life has been carefully designed to avoid history repeating itself; her mother had Skyler in high school, after following a  “little bad idea” of her own: “From the very start/ your dad/ was a very bad/ idea.”  This mistake and subsequent abandonment when Skyler was a little girl is at the heart of their life together, but real love joins them.

As the novel begins, Skyler, urged by her best friend Layla, succumbs and attends her first party.  There she meets Cole, and the magnetism of first love pulls them together and her well-orchestrated life apart.  This story unfolds predictably— the growing deceit between mother and daughter, the deepening bond between Skyler and Cole, the rift between friends, the criticism from valued others.  Miss Anders, Skyler’s English teacher, who sees Cole drop Skyler off from her apartment building across the street and says: “You’re just such/ a good kid./ And he’s just/ not./ I always thought/ Miss Anders was/ the cool teacher/…But now, I think/ it’s me and Cole/ against Miss Anders.”

What is unique and effective is Skyler’s work in the NICU at the hospital.  She wants to become a doctor and is given a position to support these most fragile newborns despite her youth. “My new job is to hold/ the babies/ who are too tiny and weak/ to take home.”  The trust and respect she’s earned, her relationship to these infants adds dimension to Skyler’s character.

In Inventing Ourselves, Blakemore discusses the differences between the parts of the brain that are activated in teens as compared with adults in highly charged emotional “hot” situations.  There is no “hotter” context than first love.  Skyler’s mother is operating on her stored experiences, on her history.  Many novels depend on this brain difference.  When in the throes of love, her mother’s admonitions means little to her daughter, just as it is highly unlikely that the poet’s reference in “The Romantic Age” (above) to Romeo and Juliet, “Remind her how that one turned out,” will yield any instant wisdom.  Though there are some heartening conclusions in Blakemore’s book regarding helping adolescents avoid risky behavior such as drinking, smoking, and unhealthy eating, she avoids the topic of love altogether.

Fortunately for young adults there are authors like Caitie McCay who are prepared to wrestle with the conflicts that love engenders.  Her verse and the first-person narrative enable her to do so in an engaging way for a teen audience.  Love will remain fodder for young adult authors, and in its demise, a saner and more experienced teen.  As McCay writes:

Mom Says It First

I’m sorry, baby girl,

I know I need to

let you fly.

I know I need to

keep an open mind.

I know I need to

let you make

your own mistakes.

 

I’m sorry, momma.

I know I need to

be more honest.

I know I need to

be more careful.

I know that I need

you now more than

ever.

 

 

 

 

Grace and Grit

Today I’m drafting an article about retirement, referencing an article in Everyday Health and reading from Brain Pickings. All thoughts converge in Steve McCurry’s blog—as they so often do: his genius. To repeat: “A man’s age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories.” To add: “…And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do…what was possible has been done.” Bertrand Russell

Steve McCurry's Blog

 Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.
– Edmund Waller

Karelia, Russia

Brazil

When we’re young we have faith in what is seen, but when we’re old we know that what is seen is traced in air and built on water.
– Maxwell Anderson

Zagreb, Croatia

Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India

The great secret that all old people share is that you really
haven’t changed in 70 or 80 years. 

Your body changes, but you don’t change at all.
– Doris Lessing

South Korea

Lourdes, France

Grow old along with me.  The best is yet to be. 
– Robert Browning

Paris, France

It takes a long time to become young.
–  Pablo Picasso

India

The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes. 
–  Frank Lloyd…

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Learning by Accident

When she fell, our 78-year-old neighbor was alone at home.  As she tells it, there were so many little opportunities to avoid what happened, and she now lies in bed recuperating and running them over and over in her mind.  She could have turned on the light, illuminating the bottom steps BEFORE she descended, she could have used the handrail, she should have taken the elevator they have installed in their dream house, a magnificent two-story structure facing the Pacific, to take the dogs downstairs for their before-bed constitutional.  But she didn’t.

If you are picturing a frail elderly person, scratch that, and reimagine.  This woman walks up and down hills for miles every day; she is a former runner and remains disciplined and undaunted.  Despite surgeries over the past five years or so, elective, quality-of-life decisions, double-hip  and shoulders, she has met each recuperation with spirit, with determination and commitment to grueling physical therapy.  And she has triumphed.  She’ll be the first to eschew the oxy doctors ply for pain management, sticking to the basics: Tylenol and ibuprofen.  She’s tough and brilliant; if only that inured us from accidents.

As she tells it, she knew she’d broken her leg—her femur, it turns out—and she knew she needed help.  She dragged herself some 30 feet to get her phone, then dragged herself back to the front door near the landing where she fell to meet the ambulance attendants.  “There was no way I was going to let them take an ax to our beautiful front door.”  This, she realizes now, was shock talking.  She tried calling one neighbor, but no one answered.  My husband and I were away in Portland, home to the best trauma center located more than two hours away, unaware that Joann and our paths would cross but not converge.

“Basically those first two weeks are a blur,” she admits now.  This is small mercy for recovering accident victims who have all this time to rue what transpired but a hazy memory for facts and pain.  Now she’s back on the coast in a local hospital with a caring staff who are supporting her efforts to return home, to be independent enough.  This has meant mastering painful hopping on one foot with a walker, for one of her hips, the one connected to her broken femur, was destroyed with the fall.  “They got me the A-team.  I had to wait three days, but it is worth it,” she declares, as she lifts the damaged leg to demonstrate the improvement she’s making.  “I do whatever they tell me.  I am the most compliant patient, proving that a teacher can follow directions as well as give them,” and she grins ruefully.

The National Council on Aging provides this introduction on their website:  “Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans. Falls threaten seniors’ safety and independence and generate enormous economic and personal costs.”  It further details those costs and other facts related to this most common accident as the population ages.  It continues, “Falls, with or without injury, also carry a heavy quality of life impact. A growing number of older adults fear falling and, as a result, limit their activities and social engagements. This can result in further physical decline, depression, social isolation, and feelings of helplessness.”

Fortunately in Joann’s case, social isolation is not a threat.  Her husband sends updating emails to alert a couple dozen people of her status.  She is beset with visitors and best wishes, distracted by the raft of staff whom she has drawn to her, her cheering squad at the hospital.  This is her magic, but even that only goes so far.

Joann has told us that this experience has changed her, made her aware of growing old.  Choosing to have surgery and the accompanying time devoted to recovery is different.  Choice always makes a difference.  It’s not maudlin or melodramatic to consider mortality in the aftermath of an event that makes clear the truth in Marcus Aurelius’ “Sic transit gloria mundi.”  All glory of the world is fleeting—and that means us.  We may pay lip service to the philosophy, but Joann conveys that visceral truth.  In her it’s a wake-up call, a siren that announces, “Be grateful.”  For that reason visiting her is an experience of grace.  She makes my husband and me laugh and celebrate the good friend we’ve found.

Yesterday Joann asked my husband how his sister is doing.  She is in remission after a debilitating treatment to counter multiple myeloma, a pernicious cancer of the blood.  Joann then said, “I’ve got to be grateful.  This,” and she looked down at her leg,” is structural, not systemic.  There are so many people who have it so much more difficult.”

Structural.  Systemic.  Only a distinction of degree.  I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  Note to self:  We can build our dream houses, and follow our dreams, but as the poet William Stafford says, “Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.”  The trick is to breathe in life’s paradox, whatever may come, and grow from it, and for as long as we can, celebrate the ability to do so.