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My grandfather died this week. It seems all I write about these days is death and more death.

I’ve lost both grandparents, husband and wife, in the last seven months, and I’ve heard it often happens this way–the wife dies, the husband follows soon after. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and didn’t realize my grandmother had died back in the summer, but he deteriorated at warp speed afterward. Like he did know, somehow.

He was a jazz musician, a complicated genius, a laid-back optimist with the ability to tune things out. He was 92 when he died, but we all felt shocked when the nurses called and said he was gone for real.

He’s not here. We are. I’m still running, but with weights on my heart. That’s all I know right now.

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Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now

It’s February, the shortest month that lasts forever.  Of course, I kind of like it because my birthday is in February, along with my mom’s.  Still, it’s a gray month if you don’t count all the pink and red from Valentine’s Day.

Though there are plenty of things that seem to suck the life out of us during the cold months, over at Modern Mrs. Darcy people are talking about how they’re surviving, and even enjoying, winter in a series entitled ‘Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now.’  I’m adding my two cents below.

  • Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Tea and Half-Caf Coffee.  This tea is heavy on cinnamon and is caffeine free.  It’s sweet, too, without any added sugars.  I’ve been drinking it throughout the day, and at night before bed.  As for the half-caf, it’s my weak attempt at ever-so-slowly reducing the amount of caffeine I consume because I read that higher levels of caffeine are linked to anxiety in women (something I battle).  In the end, I just can’t give up coffee right now because the warmth and ritual of drinking it is so powerful–especially in the winter when it seems I never get truly warm for more than a few minutes.  I don’t want to go cold turkey and drink full-on decaf coffee, either, because I’m chicken about the headaches and flulike symptoms of withdrawal.  Half-caf is my solution for now.
  • Music on Pandora Radio.  This is not new for me, but music becomes even more important in the winter when the sun is stingy.  I have a couple of favorite stations I play on the laptop (I work from home) while tidying up the house in the morning.  The good news is that the right music can set the tone–pun intended–for the entire day.  The bad news is certain kinds of music can be depressing earworms that also set the tone, but not one I want.  I try to choose carefully.
  • Reading Aloud to My Teenagers.  I kind of thought we were done with this aspect of our family life since my kids are voracious readers themselves and increasingly seem to have their own agendas for…everything.  It turns out, though, that spending a few minutes a day re-reading a favorite series while my teens loll on my bed and stare at the ceiling has made winter more bearable so far.  I didn’t plan it, i.e. we fell back into reading aloud from sheer weather induced boredom, but we’re all secretly becoming attached to this ritual again (some of us not so secretly).
  • Very Hot Baths with Epsom Salt before Bed.  Again, not something I actually planned because I’m not old yet.  But it happens that old timers have lots of wisdom.  When they say that Epsom salt is the solution for several of life’s little problems, including muscle ache, fatigue, and trouble falling asleep, they’re right.  At least in my case.  I’m taking hot baths for a few minutes before bed, soaking up the magnesium found in Epsom salt through my skin, and heading under the covers soon after.  While I may not fall asleep immediately, at least I’m warm to my bones for a while and feeling relaxed.

Those are a few things that are saving my life this winter.  Of course, prayer, off and on all day, everyday, is my actual lifeline.  And then there’s poetry reading and writing, which feels increasingly like its own kind of prayer.  But these are things I cling to even when the sun is out.

What are some things that are saving your life this winter?

On Being the Audience

I grew up on the stage, playing my first violin recital at age three. I vaguely remember the corsage on my shoulder being bigger than my face at the time, and that I got a white ribbon afterward.  Everything else is a blank–including what I played, which was likely three notes.

At six, I switched to the cello.  From then on I performed, year after year, in venues as diverse as they were plentiful.  It got to be a thing where I felt a little nervous before a performance, sometimes, but usually only if I found myself queued up in an endless stretch of fellow recital-bots.

Weddings, office parties, tours?  Not so much.

It was probably good for me to have started so young, to have learned from an early age how to use the energy we call nerves instead of letting it use me.  There were crash-and-burn moments, of course, when my bow hand shook so violently it cut audibly anxious paths across my strings. But in time I got less nervous about getting nervous.  Or else I got numb.

Flash forward.

My kids started taking piano lessons this semester.  For one reason or another, my husband and I did not emphasize formal musical instruction with them for several years.  For one thing, we wanted to see if they actually wanted to put the time in to practice before we made the commitment.  We homeschool, and practicing an instrument felt like one more thing we’d have to “encourage” if it didn’t go well.  Then there was the fact that we lived for three years in a remote place where we couldn’t secure music lessons.

But we’re in the States now, and they really wanted to learn how to play the piano, so we let them.  The only problem is that they’re 14, 13, and 11.5–old enough to be self-conscious.  So I had no idea how they were going to handle their upcoming recital.

Who am I kidding?  I had no idea how I was going to handle it.

In the end, they did very well, though my daughter was shaking so bad she had to steady her hands before she began her piece.  They didn’t crack under pressure, didn’t goof up, didn’t get up and walk out, or nervous-burp, or barf.  Believe me when I say that those things are fairly common, and that I’ve seen enough recital train wrecks to have lost my innocence forever.

So they played while I cried in the audience like some kind of unstable Tiger Mom.  And, yeah, I aged a couple of years.  But the thing I learned is, they’re really going to be OK, after all.

And so am I.

Letting Kids Be Kids

My kids are getting older, and this means things are changing around our house.  This Fall marks the first in which all three of mine will be involved in sports practices, music lessons, co-op classes, various church activities, and more–every, single week.

I know that, for a lot of people, that’s nothing new.  But up to this point, we’ve led a slow-paced–and a tad unconventional–life, both here and abroad.  Since I’ll soon have two teenagers, though, I feel our pace of life naturally accelerating.  And it should, I remind myself, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable.

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But what I want to keep remembering in this new parenting season is, childhood is (still) fleeting, each day (still) has only 24 hours in it, and a few activities (still) go a long way in enriching a kid’s life–even a teenager’s.  There’s a tendency in our culture to do too much, and I don’t want to join the ranks of the worn out and stressed just because everyone else is doing it.

On that note, I found this article on letting kids have time to be kids to be both encouraging and informative.  Maybe you will, too.  In the end, our kids only get one childhood.  We should try to protect it for as long as we can.

Sisters

DSC_0219I wake up to a fast heart because there are minutes over coffee that I’ve already wasted,

and I can’t remember what day it is.

So I hurry on a wrinkled cardigan I grabbed off the floor (I’ve stopped picking up around here),

and I find you in the middle of the kitchen, with crazy hair and childhood eyes, and

you’re sipping my memories with careful lips.

You see that my face is blotchy, that I look like something from the future, but I don’t mind,

for once.

Because my future will have you in it, and we’ll sink together as we listen to

Dvorak and watch Wheel of Fortune, in three of those gliding chairs.

No Room in the Inn: Why High School is No Place for Weirdos

weirdo, n.

1. A person who is considered strange to other people. One who may do strange things can be considered a “weirdo”.
2. A non-conformist who does not follow trends or a subculture.  Urban Dictionary

There’s no room for weirdos in America’s high schools. They exist, of course, but they aren’t welcome. I sensed it the moment I stepped through the front doors of the small town school I’d attend for the next four years. I was a transplant from another state and I’d been warned that I had several strikes against me. I talked with a Midwestern accent, for one thing. Then there was my upbringing. I’d traveled a fair bit, played the cello, cried to Rachmaninoff. I used two-dollar words, was unselfconscious. That last part would change.

I don’t know about other people’s schools. I hear that some students don’t feel like they’re in prison all day, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they feel like the meals and the workout equipment make their jail time bearable. Whatever. I’m not here to argue with the jocks and the cheerleaders. If they like things the way they are, so be it. But what happens if you’re fat or pimply or strange?

We all know.

At the very least you sit at a table by yourself during lunch. In fact, this is small potatoes compared to what could happen to you and you figure that out soon. So then sitting alone surrounded by shiny-haired kids with good teeth starts to seem acceptable—like it’s the least bad thing that could happen to you and, by comparison, you’re kind-of thankful.

I was strange in an OK way. It didn’t feel like that at first but I came to see that I had it pretty good, all things considered. I mean, people didn’t really like or understand me but they left me alone, too. I managed to scrape together a few unlikely friends eventually, so I didn’t have to eat my sack lunch alone for more than a few weeks at the beginning of my freshman year. I always knew, however, that there was a Cold War on at our school. You could feel it. I knew that there were kids getting the treatment and it sobered me.

There was this guy in my classes. He was strange in a bad way, according to the social elites. He wore black clothes back before they became an organized statement. His hair was greasy and lank. Even I was grossed out. I don’t know why he refused to wash it. He’d let it grow long and some of the smart kids called him Jesus. He had zits and that was nothing new, only his kind left scars and made weird patterns along his jawline. The thing is he acted weird, too, and I kind-of thought he did it on purpose. He muttered to himself and had shifty eyes. They were Alaskan husky eyes, the lightest blue, deep set in a swarthy face. His zit scars were bluish. I felt bad about that.

He and I were in typing class together along with several other students of various backgrounds. Truth is, none of our backgrounds meant anything. The real divisions were Popular Kids and Everyone Else. Like I said, I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and kept my head down. I’d made my peace with being on the upper end of Everyone Else. Randy, however, was on the lower end. The lowest were the special ed. kids, which is what they used to be before they were differently-abled, special needs, and finally just special. He wasn’t quite that low but then, in some ways, he had it worse than they did. The special eds could swear in the middle of home room and no one batted an eye. They ran up and down the hallways sometimes, pants half down, drinking sloppily from a water fountain I’d reminded myself never to use. Randy couldn’t show up in a classroom without someone saying something.

It was a Thursday after lunch and we’d all filed in to typing class hoping that our instructor was distracted and bored, as he so often was. We plopped down in our seats and booted up our computers. I slid my backpack under my seat and took a minute to stare into space. The day was almost over. The school week, too. I’d have a couple of days to detox before it all started over.

As my computer came to life a green message popped up on the screen accompanied by a beeping sound. It read: Randy has sex with his mother. I stared for a moment as a sick feeling filled my stomach. I heard laughter and leaned back to look at the computer screen of the person behind me. She was an Everyone Else but she had sex with a lot of boys so she could sort of do what she wanted as long as it didn’t involve self-respect. The message was on her screen, too.

I leaned forward. I knew immediately who was sending the messages. It was a stupid football player who looked like Matt Damon. He was laughing uproariously behind a balled-up fist. He rocked back and forth in a chair that looked too small to hold him. I thought of a gorilla I’d seen at the Nashville zoo. Another message: Randy’s mom does him all night long. She wanted me, too, but I don’t have sex with whores. More laughter.

I’d been raised to value people, to stand up for the underdog. In that moment I had every chance to say something as Randy sat there, humiliated and growling like a junkyard dog. It wouldn’t have done any good but I could have. I should have. Instead I looked around the room at all the blank, merry faces. I let my eyes flick to Randy’s face but I had to look away again fast.

We’re all strange in our own ways. But the real problem is the cruelty and cowardice that exist in all of us. They were in me that day and I had to face it. Randy was a weirdo and there’s no place for weirdos in high school. And, sadly, hatred isn’t strange at all.

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, and probably homeschooling moms hear it most often of all. Children are natural copycats. As early as infancy they mimic the sounds around them, especially the speech rhythms of their mothers, in order to communicate and comprehend. It is intuitive to parents who have watched their babies for any length of time that children acquire language fluency first by repeating sounds, then small words, then phrases, and finally, full sentences.

Moms and dads understand that the more they talk to their babies the greater the chance that their children will develop robust vocabularies. What they may not realize, however, is that this copycat impulse in babies and young children is valuable for learning a variety of skills, extending far beyond the initial acquisition of a mother tongue. Copying is, among other things, 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 as a kid, I trained classically as a cellist from a very young age. I 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, and phrasing. Then I tried to make my sound match theirs.  It was slow-going at first, but in the end, it worked.

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 (yikes)! 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 follow in someone else’s footsteps, again and again, until I no longer needed to rely on them.  It’s a method that has worked for tens of thousands of children worldwide.

Similarly, 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 may struggle to write well because they haven’t internalized the rules of good writing.  They might be creative, but they aren’t proficient.

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It has not always been this way.

For hundreds of years, children first learned to write not by indulging in navel-gazing or flights of fancy but by copying passages from Scripture, the classics, even poems.  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. In fact, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write well by copying paragraphs of articles from discarded newspapers. 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 should 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.