Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Swing and Sing! This is the meaning of life.

 When carrying the worry-bundles in my "parent" backpack, I often forget that a teacher-mom must equally be a learner-mom. Every single day, I must remain wide open to the lessons my children offer.  

First: go outside and swing.  Swing with abandon, with the wind in your face.  Defy gravity.  Swing up to the sky, touch your toes to the edge of the moon. 

Then, take time to learn how to sing.

For a week or so, I really thought I was getting better at this teaching journey.  I had a big plan for a month long project called Moon Journals, in which we would practice nightly observation, then create nature/art journals to record the process.  I checked out lots of books, spent a day with Elliot making home-made musical instruments to score poems, brought out the art supplies and planned.  It was a properly fleshed out unit study.  And it was working beautifully for the first week and a half.  But just now, as the moon is full, I am ready to let go of this plan.  Or at least relax my expectations.  It's difficult to maintain interest in any one thing for 28 straight days.

We've just said goodbye to my mom, who drove over 700 miles and through mountains for her annual visit.  We enjoyed every single day she was here, brightening up our lives with her love.  She was there with us when we said goodbye to our library friends.  She joined in our moon journal project, sitting in the dark with us on lovely warm evenings surrounded by Elliot, Ozzie, Annie, Richard and I.  We plugged in the strings of lights on the back porch and wrote creative thoughts about the moon together.  Together we shared what we had written, which infused the writing process with a warm, accepting, supportive feeling.  This is what I hope Elliot will experience more as he develops his writing skills.  I hope to teach that we write not to produce standard, acceptable sentences with proper punctuation, but to connect with others in a way that is different and somehow deeper than spoken conversation.

After a weekend of swinging emotions, I woke up to Monday.  I had just said goodbye to my mom, which is always difficult and sad.  I was full of worry as she was driving through a winter storm on the western edge of Hurricane Sandy.  I was also feeling a little lost because there seemed to be so many goodbyes last week.

My mom's visit began the day after my best friend's mother passed away unexpectedly.  So there was this hyper-awareness in my heart about us being temporal and how I've lived too far away for so long.  I've missed a lot of my mom's life. 

  Then there was also a little loss because the busy work season is over.  I closed up shop because there's no more time for last minute shipments to make it by Halloween, but anxious customers will still make demanding requests.  So there's a suspension of  daily routine.  Surrounding this vertigo, the news reports of the hurricane seemed to squash my usual drive to move through the day with purpose and activity.  It was like I was in a holding pattern, caught in a mix of goodbyes and what-ifs and wondering if New York would be as devastated as New Orleans.

But for a child, ordinary life is still happening.  The child is still engaged in activity and needs to have structure and a reliable routine even when things feel out of whack.

Sometimes it happens that Elliot is interested in learning something that I did not plan. When I am open to letting go of work and school and just "being" who I am, Elliot steps up and leads the day.  After lunch, while he played with Lego clone troopers, I turned on some music.  When he called me from the next room, I tuned off the speakers.  Then he said, "why did you turn the music off?  I like that song."

It was Heart of Gold by Neil Young.  I had it on my playlist on Spotify, so I played it again.  Elliot started singing along, so I printed out the lyrics.  I grabbed the harmonica, and soon we were deeply involved in listening and learning the notes and words.  When Richard came home, he brought down his guitar and for the rest of the evening we worked on learning the song together.  While the wind howled outside and the screen door slammed, while the Hunter's Moon was obscured by Sandy, we jammed.

I've been holding on to life as I know it with white knuckles; that's why change becomes such rough emotional territory.  Today I'm breathing out, looking forward to joining together with the family band.  In all the changes, I'm getting on the swing, raising my feet to the sky while singing.  Maybe my feet will touch the moon.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Our Library Closes Part 2

We live where the sidewalk ends, where the City stops and the County begins.  One mile from our home there is a beautiful lake (our city's reservoir) and a marina.  For the last few years our mobile library named "The Reading Railroad" has sat in semi-retirement at the edge of the woods, overlooking the lake.  On our weekly visits we weren't thinking about it's retirement.

We just enjoyed our Thursday visits, assuming it would always be around.  Since the beginning of our home schooling journey it has been a highlight of our week.  How wonderful it was to know we could walk through the woods or take a short drive to browse the shelves and chat with the librarians. We took it for granted that we'd be able to continue this way for years.  At times I did wonder why it never moved from it's spot at the lake.  I wondered why was it not being driven around to other places, to meet other children who might not have regular access to books.

For many years it was a truly mobile library, making trips to local child development centers all over the city.  Then it was parked and opened only one day a week.

When you notice the condition of the Reading Railroad, it looks brand new.  This is not a case of a decrepit, rusting, uncared for bus that belongs in a junk yard.  

It must have been an object of desire for someone with political power.  They must have been thinking, "what can we do with this vehicle?"  As if it wasn't doing enough by opening the world to people of all ages through books and literature, music, movies, and personal friendships.

As if it wasn't doing enough by helping children to learn to love reading and books.

For some person at a board room table, on paper they couldn't see the child who used to avoid books gradually come to look closely at the shelves, gaining the confidence to say to himself, "I can read this one!" At home, this child was inspired to find places around the house to be with the books, delighted to find interesting stories and information. He discovered how the words began to make sense, how they created images in the mind and brought emotion and feeling to the surface. 

The library sends out emails titled "Raising Readers" every month.  In those emails, there are tips to help parents.  Honestly, I never read those emails.  The tips are not really the answer to bringing a non reader into the world of books.

If you want to teach a child to love nature, you don't show him an animal in a cage.  That is not natural, that is captivity. If you want him to love nature, you take him outdoors.

 If you want to teach a child to love books, you don't bring a book to him and say "read this."  You take him to a library and let him browse in wonder.  Then you introduce him to people who care about children and books.  The answer to raising a reader is exploration of the stacks combined with trusting relationships.

When you are a small child, facing this great big, enormous challenge of learning to read, the people who are guiding you can make or break this journey.  When your kindergarten teacher is impatient, and when your first grade teacher sends home a backpack stuffed to the brim with unfinished work, a feeling of  "I can't do anything" sets in.

Remember this picture?

This workload was sent home in first grade as homework to finish over the course of one weekend.  Elliot sat for six hours a day trying to get it all done.

All of his recess time was taken away during the week to keep up with his daily work.

His teacher gave us a deadline that if things didn't improve by Christmas, specialist help would be the next avenue.

We weren't going to wait for that.

Elliot DREADED school.

At home, he wasn't even interested in stories anymore.

I cried myself to sleep the night I knew without a doubt what we were going to do.  I cried big, heaping sobs thinking about taking Elliot's education into our hands. I didn't know if I would be enough.  Now I know that I'm not enough, and that is as it should be.  Children need healthy community for learning.

Now I look back on that turning point when we withdrew Elliot from public school and rejoice.  We are living such a beautiful journey together, and we have found support in our community.

We needed people to trust along the way.  People who wouldn't be critical or overbearing, but who were gentle, encouraging and understanding.  We needed people who were there on a regular basis to offer support in a non-threatening manner.  We found them at the Reading Railroad.

We are so thankful to have Geneva Headen, Conductor of the Reading Railroad, as our friend.

When Elliot is visiting the library, his first steps are taken toward Geneva.  He's there with his books to return and they both fall into an easy conversation.  Her warmth, her gentleness, her kindness tells a child that this is a safe, good place to be, a place where you belong, where you are welcome.  Geneva is a friend to all of us, including our dog Ozzie.  On times when we've walked through the woods and brought him, Geneva comes out to greet him.

She is the kind of person who makes you feel good inside.  We love her.  Thankfully after the Reading Railroad closes, she will be working at another branch location so that we don't really have to say goodbye just yet.

We are also thankful to have met Sandra Cramer, who volunteers an entire day every week to help.  Sandra is also a gentle, trusting soul who is easy to talk to and approach with questions.  Elliot relies on Sandra to help navigate the stacks, and she walks with Elliot to search for books of interest.  For the last three weeks, Elliot has been totally engrossed in the Geronimo Stilton series because she pointed it out to him.  We have Geronimo on audio cds, on DVD, and in chapter books.

On the last day of the Reading Railroad, all three librarians will be together.  We'll get another visit with Carolyn Powell, and have another chance to say thank you to all of these beautiful people who have made such a positive impact on us.  They probably didn't even know how much they mean to us.

So we want to say thank you to Geneva, Carolyn and Sandra, for every kind word, for your constant, regular presence, for your generosity and friendship.  Thank you also for supporting Elliot's Ninjas and purchasing paintings to help people experiencing homelessness in our community!  That was such a great experience for Elliot to share his mission with you.  I was totally awe-struck by the level of trust that has been established between these women and my son when he shared his project.

We are not ready to say goodbye to our friends and the Reading Railroad.

Not ready at all.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When The Pieces Fall into Place

While the leaves are making soft landings, things here are falling into place.  Over a year ago, while brainstorming all the things I wanted to do with my Knees and Paws shop, one idea for an add-on product stuck with me.  I wanted to create a light weight "pet house" for kids who loved to play puppy.  Two weeks ago, while standing in line for fabric, I struck up a conversation with a customer who was crafting her own version of a playhouse for her three year old granddaughter.  I asked her all kinds of questions about the structure, and how she planned to build the internal parts.  Her idea was to use PVC pipes.  This wouldn't work for me because I don't want to worry about shipping that kind of bulk through the mail.

Then, just this morning, my good friend Corinne posted a status about making handmade gifts for her children for Christmas and asked her friends for ideas.  In the comments, someone posted a link to a McCall's pattern for a play house.  So I went to Amazon and conducted a search myself.  Minutes later, I ordered a pattern for a playhouse that fits over a card table.  It was the perfect size and shape that could be customized into a pretend "pet house."


So today I'm inspired! And excited!  I plan to host a big Christmas giveaway here on the blog that will include one of the pet houses, a set or two of Knees and Paws with assorted toys and accessories.  I am so excited to have something to work on after the Halloween rush is over.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Our Library Closes, Part One

It is with a heavy heavy heart that I write these words.  Elliot and I have to say goodbye to our library at the end of this month.  It feels like amputation.

It feels like amputation because the City of Greensboro has decided to repurpose the bookmobile, The Reading Railroad, into a mobile nature education classroom which will be run by the parks and recreation department.

Many of my loyal readers understand how much I value nature and especially the importance of connecting children with as many natural encounters as possible.  For goodness sake, we named our home school "Learning Free and in the Wild" because of Elliot's love of nature biology.  His transition from traditional public school was influenced by the fact while he was in school,  he was only allowed fifteen minutes a day to play outside, and only if the weather was warm, clear and dry.

I believe in the necessity of a child's exposure to their natural surroundings on a daily basis.  We have spent entire days hiking trails during the Audobon Society's Big Back Yard Bird Count and identified over 300 birds in one afternoon.  Elliot hiked Stone Mountain in North Carolina when he was five.  He was tired, and he complained, but he finished.

Our son loves the natural world and is deeply concerned about it's protection.

Our sadness is in no way diminished by the idea of a new mobile classroom that aims to teach nature to children through books and caged animals.

I say, if a child wants to learn about nature, take him OUTSIDE.

There are over 90 miles of trails within the city limits, some of which connect to the Mountains to Sea trail that spans over 1,000 miles.  There are ten large parks, and numerous neighborhood parks.  There are three large public lakes, and several private lakes.  In this city, every child has room to play outside and experience nature on a daily basis.

If you have ever visited Greensboro or live here, you might say that the city and its surrounding areas look like a garden, part manicured and cultivated, part wild natural wilderness.  It's a place that you can connect with people while also finding solitude in nature.

Even in the inner city areas.  Even downtown.

In contrast, there is one Central library, and six branch locations.  Several of the branches, including Central library, are in locations that only the brave soul dare enter.  I can speak from direct experience having worked at one of these branch locations near the Coliseum and lost my job triggered by the event of a gangster pointing a semi automatic weapon at the staff and teens in search of his target; after which I took a medical leave of absence and returned later to discover that my position was terminated, no matter that I had a doctor's note stating the legitimate reason for my absence, which included stress from the assault incident in which a homeless patron attempted to strangle me to death for closing the building. While I worked at this location, I had to call the police nearly every single night for gang related activity. I lobbied for security and it was REPEATEDLY DENIED.

 Yes, there was grounds for a major lawsuit.  No, I did not follow up on that, but decided to take my career into my own loving, caring hands.

Yet that history has not taken from me my love of books, my love of libraries, or the devoted people who work hard every single day to share the world through literature and words to all people, regardless of their status or situation in life.

I care about libraries in the way I care about my family, about my church, about our nation.

Deeply. In a committed relationship sort of way.

So to just say "cest' la vie" and "au revoir" with a tissue at the corner of my eye is not my style.

I'm touchy, angry, and sad.

But mostly, despite that the mobile library here in my area was a portal to the world of books for Elliot and I in our home schooling journey, I will miss the people.

I will miss Carolyn Powell.

If ever there was a woman with a heart for all children, genuinely interested in their lives, it is Carolyn.  She has made a PROFOUND impression on Elliot, who struggled with reading and writing in his early years at school, but who is now bounding through chapter books and sitting for long periods, completely engrossed in the world of words.   While he sits on the bench in the Reading Railroad, he's so involved that he arrives at the counter saying "sorry it took me so long."

One day last month, before our weekly visit to the Reading Railroad, I purchased a box of  Entemann's donuts for Elliot as a reward, and he decided to share them with Carolyn and Sandra (a faithful volunteer...stay tuned for the next post to meet Sandra and Geneva, the other wonderful librarian) , with no prompting from me.  If you knew Elliot personally, you would know that a donut is more precious commodity around here than LEGO.  He doesn't even like to share donuts with me!  Carolyn has made such an impression on my son that she feels like a part of our family.  She has helped Elliot to feel great about being at the library, about books, about himself.  And I appreciate her because she makes me feel good too; more connected to society...homeschooling can be lonely for moms.  I have looked forward to our Thursday library visits more than big field trips or the rare moments of solitude I'm afforded at the Y during a work out.  I appreciate her open friendship, her knowledge, the way that she cares.  This is our library, this is where our sidewalk ends and our journey into friendship and the world of books begins.  You can't find this online, in a brick and mortar branch location, or at Central.  This is personal, intimate, needed, LOVED.

Please stay tuned next week for part two, to meet Geneva and Sandra.  We plan to stay connected despite this transition.  The last day that the Reading Railroad is scheduled to be open is Thursday, October 24th.

But this will not be the end of our relationships, or our love of books.  Despite erroneous, corrupt, misguided politics, no one can take that away.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Instincts

In the early darkness, in the cold, I've put on the flannel sheets and gone to bed early with a very fat book called Women Who Run With the Wolves by Estes.  I checked it out at the library not because I'm a feminist but because it contains old stories from oral tradition.  One of Estes' interpreted messages that I feel conflicted about is the idea that women should remember to listen to their instincts.

So while I'm reading along, I'm thinking, what she really means to say is to remember to listen to the still small voice, to emotional prompts, to intuition, to feelings, to preferences, to things that bring peace.  In my interpretation she's really saying to to be aware of feelings of conflict and not ignore the repelling or offensive jolt.  The one little word instinct caught my attention. 

 Instincts are not something we need to listen to, because by definition they must:

  •  be automatic
  • be irresistable
  • occur at some point in development
  • be triggered by some event in the environment
  • occur in every member of the species
  • be unmodifiable
  • govern behavior for which the organism needs no training.

Honestly, I would have a very difficult time trying to separate the things I do that are instinctual from the things I've learned to do.

Except maybe eat and sleep.

So I'm having a little argument with the writer in my head as I read along.  I do enjoy some of Estes' insights so far, but it's really dense and full of jungian psychology.  I admit that I have trouble with the discipline of psychology because it requires me to imagine that I have such a thing as a subconscious.  If it's subconscious, then I've not experienced it directly, I'm only consciously aware that it exists because I have been told that it exists, or that it theoretically exists.


Have you read this book?  Should I keep slogging through?  Was is worthwhile?  Did it change you or help you to be closer to your inner self?  Perhaps I'll scan through and just read the oral story portions.

If you haven't read this, but are reading something else right now that you love, please share!  I'm returning to the habit of books and trying to spend less time online.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Meaningful Weekend

I recently had a light-bulb moment that has given a deeper meaning to the sometimes frivolous activity of playing around, dabbling in a business. My etsy shop Knees and Paws is my creative outlet, but one day soon I want to pay bills and be successful at it. Within a week of reading Emilie's Wapnick's Renaissance Business manifesto, I was able to construct an over arching theme: Building on the
Theater of Childhood Imagination. I was so excited when this rose to the surface, because it helped to smoosh together and make sense of the various items I create. But I still needed a name change (this is still a hoped for dream), and a more concrete explanation. I still have no idea how to squeeze what I do into a concise phrase that would be worthy of a vehicle decal and have people immediately understand it.

What I really mean to share is that suddenly I realized the deeper meaning behind all of this silly creative stuff that ends up in my shop. I am not a foolish ding-bat lady who makes cat ears for a living. Here's what I REALLY do in my shop:

Almost every item in Knees and Paws was first an idea in the mind of a child. The process begins with the child, in the place within their imagined desires. The resulting product is a manifestation of their wishing.

I create things for play that children dream into reality. "Building on the Theater of Childhood Imagination" means that my shop is an ever-evolving collaboration between the playful-artist child who longs to experience what their imaginations feel like, and the skilled, constructivist creative person with tools and resources (parent-buyers + me).

The resulting products stimulate new or more expressive forms of live action role play and deeper conscious dreaming.
On the flip side of this exciting revelation, the season of Halloween is my bread and butter.  I could spend 365 days a year making black cat ears, paws and tails and sell out in the first few weeks of October.  But I did not do that this year.  I wonder if I will be financially intelligent and forecast for success next year, making cat ears and pink unicorns every day.
Instead of working all weekend transforming two yards of black faux fur into paws, ears and tails, we took a road trip with our friends to the mountains for an apple festival.  This morning, instead of sitting down at my sewing machine, I made Amish Apple Cake, which is loaded with sugar but absolutely delicious.

The pace of my business success slows as my experience of family, friends and nature becomes deeper and more appreciated.  I savored the hike we took yesterday morning in the woods with our dog, even though we had to walk amidst the racing runners of a trail marathon.  Later that day, I enjoyed the mountain views and cooler fresh air, people wandering, and the scent of food cooked in the open air.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Spiritual Mirror

     Last night before drifting off to sleep, Richard said, "I've been feeling reflective lately."

And I responded, "Me too.  The rain does that for me."

It makes me slow down and rediscover the stillness that I often disturb by throwing too many pebbles into the well.

Photo by Steve Corey

After he said this, I remembered our recent days of rain and this thought arrived:  A single raindrop has a three dimensional reflective property. 

Millions of water droplets split the light into rainbows when colliding with golden rays of light.

Too much of anything becomes weary, and days of cloud cover can bring me down.  But thinking of a single drop, reflecting everything around it, multiplied by a million, a rain shower suddenly becomes a complex spiritual mirror showing us the inner life that a day full of hot, bright sunlight might wash out.

Outside my bedroom window, the pattering of steady rainfall on the maple leaves is the sound of a creek tumbling over rocks.  The sound washes away the worry and the mind chatter, bringing my dominating, language forming machine to rest.

Sitting at the open window, a freshness pervades my senses.  The scent of moisture calls for deeper, slower breathing.

What can we see in a single drop of rain?  Our world reduced to a tiny, reflected image:  a swirling motion picture show.

Is this how God sees us?  Through a veil of shimmering rainfall?  Is this how we see Him?

My longing to return to that still, quiet place inside calls me to return to the woods, to the field, to the mountain and the river.  To open the door and walk outside in the rain.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Scary Halloween Story: Jenny does the MATH

Happy October Friends!  In the spirit of all things spooky and scary on Halloween, I have a nightmare on Knees and Paws street to share.  Cuddle up with a blankie, light the candles and think brave thoughts...

Long ago, in the time of yore, when I was in seventh grade, I became stricken with a math phobia that clouded my life.  This phobia extended to a habit I developed of never remembering a person's phone number, as it just flew out of my brain as soon as my ear received the string of abstract numerals. 

If anyone were to imprison me as a hostage, the way to terrorize me would be to seat me at a desk and order me to complete algebraic formulas, long division and timed multiplication tests.  Then, when I've made a mess of the paper with my tears and smudged eraser marks, check everything wrong with a big red pen and never tell my why I miscalculated.   Write a big fat F at the top with a frowny face and make me feel like I'm permanently defective, a lost cause, an unteachable wretch.

In those days I never would have believed that one day I would pass my Praxis exam on the first try, one point above utter failure in math.  It was a major victory, which helped me to actually look at my check book once and a while.

My husband is a gorgeously handsome, loving, affectionate, intelligent, spiritual guy who knows how to kiss...but friends, he can do the math.  I depend on him for that.

 Through his complete understanding of all things mathematical, I have gradually released my firm grip on numeral aversion. 

So, three years after starting my Knees and Paws shop, I did some math!  I don't mean the kind of math where you check the bank account figures and either breathe a sigh of relief or grab a box of tissues and go back to bed.

This week, I found a formula for pricing an item and figured out the actual real numbers behind a set of products that I offer.  It turns out that my prices are closer to wholesale than retail.

Here's the formula:

Note: For a handmade item, labor is 10.00 per hour minimum.

If it takes me one hour to complete a set of cat ears, paws and tail, the basic black cat costume accessories set adds up to the following:  (warning: the following contains graphic images of NUMBERS!!!)

Time per hour + 2 (cost of materials) x 1.1= wholesale price.  Wholesale price x 2= retail price

So here we go:

One half yard of basic black cuddle plush (not faux fur, I mean the economy version) on sale works out to 6.50.  Thread, satin, headband and poly fill bring up the material cost to 8.50.  Packing materials cost 1.50, making a beautiful round number of 10.00 for materials.

Double that, and we have 20.00

Add in one hour of labor  10.00

1.1= wholesale price    33.00

Double that for retail    66.00

don't forget the gas!      4.00 per trip to the fabric store.  If I'm purchasing multiple yards then the cost is distributed to approximately .50 per item.  Taxes in North Carolina come to approximately 5.00.

66.50 + 5=  $71.50

When selling on Etsy, the customer pays shipping, unless I offer a free shipping sale.

To California, this might be an extra 8.00 just using standard USPS mail, not priority.

 But this story has a happy ending.  I do what I do for the love of it!  Last time I checked, there is no formula to calculate love.

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