Another Home

We lived in a dingy, Indian apartment for three years. We shared square footage with mountain monkeys, mice, and mongooses (mongeese?). The pipes leaked but only when we weren’t experiencing water shortages.

We ended up kind-of loving that place.

A dear family member visited us once and delicately called it a shit hole. After taking a deep breath, I looked around and tried to see it through his eyes in order to cut him some slack. I couldn’t. After all, the neighbors were living in tin shacks. Our concrete floors and lumpy walls had begun to look decent to me. My bedroom with the little porch felt familiar the way pajama pants do, the ones you wore after having your third baby.

Now we’re two years back in the US and we’re house hunting. I find that I’m at odds with myself and Husband about everything pertaining to domiciles. I mean everything. I look at ramshackle houses and love them (memory-soaked walls)/find them repulsive (why must the ceilings be so low and the walls so wood-paneled?) I visit new construction and salivate over stainless steel appliances and shiny wood floors while judging these Americans with their monstrous master bedrooms and cocktail party baths.

I decide that I want to stay in the cottage we’ve been in for two years, the one my parents own.  The one in which I crashed and burned upon our reentry into This American Life. But it feels itchy, like arrested development. I’ve got rocks in my nest, as good as it’s been.

I am propelled forward.

Husband will board a plane to Africa today. The kids and I will wave goodbye and then set the GPS to look at another house. I will imagine myself in it.  I’ll come away hopeful, then worried about money, then worried The One will slip through my fingers. Or I’ll come away muttering.

I will face the fact that I am uncomfortable searching for a home and that this is OK. I will remind myself of what Scripture says. Also C.S. Lewis.

I’ll find a house one of these days and it will be good.  Time will make it a (temporary) home.

Earth

This morning I returned to earth at 9:21 a.m.  The sounds of a made-in-the-eighties cartoon pressed through the doors of my bedroom, elbowing past the hum of my floor fan, and tapped my subconscious on the shoulder.  One of the dogs had curled himself next to me, wedging me on my side.  I suppose it was my tingling right arm that brought me back in the end.  I felt for the dog’s back and pushed him over, sitting up halfway. I blinked away eleven hours.

The first day of getting back to things.

It has been eighteen days since I’ve truly slept, paid attention to the kids, written, or been quiet for that matter.  I’m worn.  Every day I’ve spent with family (first husband’s, then mine) has been a gift.  I am reminded that, other than my faith, my family is really all I need in the end.  And if I had the choice to surround myself with my sisters and their children on a more permanent basis, I would.  I’d wrap them around me like a mink coat, aware of the luxury.

But I am a girl who longs for quiet, who craves routine.  These things are important for my long-term survival.  I’m ready to slip back into the familiar warp and weft of my life, such as it is.  Ready for the odd moment of fruitful nothing.

Husband leaves for Africa next week so life won’t be strictly normal in the days to come.  But I will spend many night hours staring and thinking hard and writing when he’s gone.  When he arrives home he’ll recognize me.  I’ll have put myself back together, one word at a time, and returned to earth for a longer stay.

Security Superpowers (or Just Another Day as Mom)

imagesWe moms all have superpowers of one kind or another.  We can tell our babies’ cries from others’.  Later we can sense when our kids have had a bad day.  We can carry a toddler on one arm, groceries in the other, and a human infant in our womb, all at the same time.

[To wit:  I was at the pool the other day and I watched an enormously pregnant woman in a maternity swimsuit push her toddler up a mulched hill in a stroller.  Sure she had to stop halfway to catch her breath, but that was only because she was doing something amazing.]

Nothing really brings mom superpowers to the fore, though, like discovering our kids are in dangerous situations.  In these cases even the most mild mannered moms become ninjas ready to destroy the opposition.images-1

When my three children were babies, my powers were focused on keeping them physically safe.  Now that they’re older and better able to make commonsense decisions (like looking both ways before crossing the street and not sticking their hands in fire), my focus has shifted to keeping them mentally and emotionally safe.  My superpowers have developed along with my children’s needs.  These days

  • I have X-Ray vision.  I can see when my children are feeling alone or are riding an emotional roller coaster (ah, middle school, we meet again).  I’ve been known to say to my kids, “Oops, honey.  I just peeked into your soul again.”  They roll their eyes but I can see that they feel relieved to know that someone understands them and will ask them the questions they need to answer.  (I can also see if they’re lying but that’s another post for another day).
  • I have fire power.  Well, not really.  But I can–and do–put up firewalls on my kids’ internet access.  I keep our desktop computer in the living room so that the kids have to use it in a common area.  This cuts down on lots of temptations of various kinds.  We have a no-handheld-internet-devices-in-bedrooms rule.  If, and when, the kids get older and want iPads, or phones, or data plans we’ll cycle back and talk about internet safety issues in more depth.
  • I can become invisible.  This one’s a more recent talent.  I find that my kids and I talk a lot about how to talk to adults, how to answer the phone, who to give information to (or not), how to answer the door, etc.  At different points they’ve had to practice these skills on their own.  Even when I’m in the house, I’ve learned to stay silent as my kids navigate conversations with grown-ups they haven’t met before or answer the phone to take down information.  I may not be invisible but I might as well be.  Although it’s hard for me to acknowledge, it’s the one power I’m going to need more and more of as they grow and mature.

All moms have “superpowers” of one kind or another.  It’s just the way we’re made.  Most of the time we use them to keep our kids safe or to help them make good decisions.

What are some of your “superpowers” and how do you use them to steer your kids in the right direction?

 

Aside

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On vacation this week with my family.  I so wanted to edit out the eye bags I’m wearing in this picture.  But I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter by not editing out my photo flaws.  I was this tired, on this day, of this vacation.  Those eye bags tell the real story.  And it’s OK.  (Now if it had been a zit…)

How the Amish Are Helping Me Get Over It

They were at the farmer’s market the other day, as usual.  The Amish stood behind their stall, an older man and two teenaged boys, inviting us to look at heirloom tomatoes the size of our heads.  My sons surveyed the diverse group around us, a band united in our common love for misshapen produce and hemp soap.  We were people with sunburns and short shorts, people with tattoos, people with canes and perms, moms, dads, kids who helped push strollers, kids who needed time-outs.

My middle son pulled me close and whispered, “Why do they always have those weird haircuts?  You know, those super short bangs and ear flaps.”

I don’t like whispering but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know who he meant.  I turned away and looked at trays of ceramic beads, tugging my eleven-year-old with me.  I told him that there’s a reason Amish men wear their hair in that peculiar way.  True, I didn’t know what that reason was, but there was one, I was sure.  He thought about that for a moment.  Then he turned around again and looked at the teenagers with their overalls and straw hats.  They smiled and nudged one another, eyes betraying inside jokes.  They were lanky and clear-skinned.  The taller boy’s hands revealed nail bitten fingers as he loaded eggplant into a paper sack.

They were just boys with weird haircuts.  And they seemed OK.

I watched them, too, pretending to need cucumbers.  They made me wonder if it might do a person some good to be intentionally different on the outside in order to reflect a difference on the inside.  A person who chooses to look different has already told the world what it wants to know, has already decided that the world wasn’t that important anyway.  This kind of person has learned that most of the time it doesn’t kill you to be stared at, or misunderstood, or judged.  That the feeling is something you can get used to, that sometimes it makes you stronger.

My family is living differently from many others around us.  We don’t wear our differences on our sleeves nor do we wish to make them a bigger deal than they are.  Sometimes, though, looking like everyone else on the outside while feeling different on the inside is its own kind of strange.  You wonder how long it will take before people discover your brand of other.  You wait, bracing yourself for the surprised looks, the head nods or the raised  eyebrows.

The Amish don’t have to wait, and they seem to be doing just fine.

I look at those short bangs and smile.

They make me want to be brave.

In Defense of the Copycat

“Mom! Tell him to stop copying me!”

It’s a phrase mothers everywhere hear at least once on their parenting journey. Children are natural copycats. As early as babyhood they mimic the sounds around them, especially the speech rhythms of their mothers, in order to communicate and comprehend. It is intuitive to parents that children acquire language fluency first by repeating sounds, then small words, then phrases, and finally, full sentences.

Parents understand that the more they talk to their babies the greater the chance that their children will develop robust vocabularies. What some educators don’t realize, however, is that this copycat impulse in babies and young children is valuable for learning a variety of skills, extending far beyond the rudimentary acquisition of a mother tongue. Copying is the key both to learning to play an instrument and to writing well.   iStock_000009943158Smallhelping_your_child_become_a_musician_wrXUdyWHYc_l

Though not homeschooled, I was a classically trained cellist who studied the Suzuki method, one built on the idea that copying the experts is the key to mastery. My instructor gave me recordings of perfectly performed musical pieces and instructed me to listen to them again and again in order to absorb their structure, style, phrasing, and intonation. Then I tried to make my sound match theirs.

Of course, at the time I didn’t understand the significance of what I was doing because I was only three when I began taking lessons! But Suzuki’s philosophy was that any child can learn to play an instrument, and play it well, by first listening to, and eventually copying, perfectly played pieces of music. By hearing the music over and over I was able to capture the flavor of it, eventually understanding what I needed to adjust in my own playing in order to match it. This copying allowed me to simply follow in someone else’s footsteps, again and again, until I no longer had to rely on them.  It’s a method that has worked for thousands of children worldwide.

Learning to write, like learning to play a musical instrument, requires the student to develop an “ear” for good writing and then to be able to sort the good from the bad. This is particularly true in the beginning stages. In recent years mainstream educators have suggested that children learn to write better if they are allowed to write about topics in which they are interested without worrying too much about elements of style and structure. Today many children are taught to write what they know without practicing the crucial first step of imitating excellent writing.  These children struggle to write well because they haven’t internalized the rules of good writing.  They may be creative but they aren’t proficient.

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It has not always been this way.

For hundreds of years, children learned to write not by indulging in navel-gazing or flights of fancy but by copying passages from Scripture, the classics, even poems. Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write well by copying paragraphs of articles from discarded newspapers. Two hundred years ago children were not expected to dig deep inside their souls to come up with interesting things to say without first parroting what the literary greats had already said and how they had said it. Instead they were taught to imitate writing that had already withstood the test of time until they had largely absorbed the essence of good composition. This method was stunningly successful because it capitalized on the way children learn best, by following in someone else’s footsteps.

Apprenticeship

In an age where everyone wants to stand out from the crowd, parents should not despise the copycat impulse in their children. Instead, educators (traditional and homeschoolers alike) would do well to encourage their students to copy examples of excellence before expecting them to produce excellence of their own.  Originality of thought, turns of phrase, or musical interpretation must not be pressed on our children as an ideal, particularly when they are just beginning to learn to write or play.   Too often we praise what we perceive to be creativity in our children while assuming that copying someone else’s work in order to gain skill is an intellectual or artistic evil.

Instead, we must embrace the copycat in our children, encouraging them to walk before they run by treading the worn paths of those masters who came before them.