Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Message: Twisted

This morning I am considering how Mother's Day began as a day for mothers to oppose war--so, as Julia Ward Howe wrote, "Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage…Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience."--and became a tool of commerce as the florist and other industries taught us to honor our mothers by spending money on flowers, cards, candy, jewelry and more.

Show Mom You Love Her
"Show Mom You Love Her" is not a bad recommendation, but, shouldn't the activity occur more than once a year? Do you have to buy a card, or flowers, or anything, in order to show love toward your Mum? Does an annual response to mass-marketing really honor the woman who gave you life?

When my children were young, I incorporated Mr. Rogers' "Many Ways" song into their upbringing. "There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you...." Mr. Rogers would sing examples of actions that say "I love you," and I adapted the song to reflect my values, to teach my children how they could show love to me- and others, in the everyday. "There's the picking up your room so I don't break my toes when I come in to kiss you good-night way to say 'I love you'...." and "...the speaking kindly to me way to say to say 'I care about you'..."

I also gave my girls an object lesson in the cycle of giving and receiving. Setting two clear plastic cups on the table, I told them, "one is your cup and one is mine," then I put colorful glass "jewels" --borrowed from our Mancala game--into the cups, about half in each. Taking jewels from "my" cup and putting them one by one into "your" cup, I talked about each bit of glass as I placed it into the new container. "When I cook dinner for you, I am giving you a gift, a jewel, a treasure." I included other examples, like, "when I set up a play date with your friend...take you to the you find your you to the library so you can pick up your book on hold...take care of you when you are sick..." and so on.

After a dozen or so examples, my cup of jewels was wiped out. "Now look! My cup is empty. I have nothing left to give you. So when you need to go somewhere, want me to fix your toy that broke, need a bandage on your knee...I don't have a jewel to give you."

After letting that sink in a little, I gave them the rest of the picture. Taking some jewels from "your" cup, I started placing them into "my" cup, one by one, with the explanation, "But you can give me jewels, too! When you come up and give me a big hug, that is a gift, a jewel, a treasure. When you do your chores conscientiously, without my having to check up on you, then you are putting a jewel in my cup. I gave further examples until the cups were again about even in the number of jewels.

"Now, since you gave jewels back to me, I have some to give to you, when you need something, or when I just feel like giving you one. It is a cycle of love, me giving to you, you giving to me."

This lesson made a big impression on my daughters, one that they remember even today. My 5'8" ninteen-year-old still comes to sit on my lap now and then. My almost-as-tall-as-her-sister younger daughter, at sixteen, still tips her head so I can plant a good-night kiss on her forehead. They sometimes pick a vase full of flowers for "no particular reason," and they often have dinner ready when I come home, because they know it is a jewel that fills my cup in the cycle of love.

The Hallmark Power Drain
The concerted effort to turn Mother's Day from a day of conscientious observation--a day of protest, even--into a Hallmark holiday, where a card and a gift "That Says 'I Love You'", has drained away the power of the original intention. The co-opting has stripped women's power from the holiday, sublimating that to the passive receipt of trinkets. This power, women's power to protest, to speak loudly, to stand firmly, to say, "Arise, all women who have hearts!" is potent, and has the potential to instigate much positive change. Is it wise to let the marketeers erase this vital energy from the observation that motherhood can be and is far more powerful than the sticky-sweet notion of a Shoebox Greeting?

Show your mother that you love her--today and throughout the year. But also, bring back the original intention. Take a moment to reclaim that power today, if only to read Julia Ward Howe's
"Mother's Day Proclamation," which includes, "Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God." Amen!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Much of a Yarn

Someone once said that, "education is what you get when you did not get what you want," and I have enjoyed using that bit of wit numerous times--particularly in reference to the times I received an education instead of what I had initially sought.

This weekend, two of my Sea Scouts and I met Steve Alexander to take our largest boat--a US Yachts 27--on her first cruise in 6 years. Except for the past month while we struggled to make her engine work, his boat had been on dry land all that time.

The weather was gorgeous for sailing, with a nice breeze...but we could not raise sails because the halyards had not been put back. Cap'n Alexander showed us how to fasten the "small stuff" that was a placeholder to the sheet, so we could use the thinner line to pull the thicker line into place in the pulley at the top of the mast, but we could not get the line through the pulley at the top of the mast.

We decided to take Amanda Grace out anyway, to put the engine through its paces, but
discovered in preparation that the thimble had been cut off the end of the anchor rode and the anchor wouldn't have worked without it. So, thanks to Cap'n Alexander's patient tutelage and skill, Caitlin and Rebecca learned some marlinespike. They also cleaned out the anchor locker, and laid the rode in neatly.

The Volvo Penta diesel engine started and sounded beautiful for a "one-lunger." Cap'n Alexander reviewed proper procedure for helm commands and responses, then we cast off with Rebecca at the wheel. Out in the main channel, Rebecca gave her half throttle, and in about a minute the engine
temperature alarm went off. Even though Mr. Schmoker cleared the clog in the salt water cooling system, there is apparently not enough water coming through. So, the Cap'n shut her down, turned the boat about, and we sailed back under Bimini power. A three-minute tour. Upon reaching our row in the dock, he turned us deftly, and then we used the boat hook and other boats' bows to crawl back to our slip.

The scouts and I did not get what we wanted--a glorious experience with sails raised and full in the wind--but we got a whole lot more. More experience we can use in future, and more to make a better story. Let's face it, if all had been uneventful, this post would read "we had a nice shakedown sail," and that wouldn't be much of a yarn, would it?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Good Stuff Off the Spoon

I love the markdown section at the back of the grocery store. I never know what I might find, and, often, when there is something good, it is very inexpensive—as in cheap enough that I will buy it, even if my kids and I don’t really need it. This is how I came home with a $1.00 squeeze bottle of crème de coco one day this spring. My kids and I are on a tight budget, and we didn’t need this treat, but I was pretty sure my children—now 18 and 15 years-old—had never tasted it, and, for the price, I thought it worth introducing.

It was a beautiful day, and I was in good spirits, chatting and joking with the cashier, appreciating the puffy clouds in the sky as I headed into the parking lot with my grocery-laden cart, and enjoying a quick, bumpy ride on the shopping cart as it rolled toward my car, which was strategically parked next to the “cart corral,” so I could have a longer coast, and easily stash the gravity-powered vehicle at ride’s end.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself I hop onto the back of a grocery shopping cart and ride it in the parking lot, unmindful of enviously gawking kids and adults. I seek and appreciate the little thrill that makes me smile. Whether in the mark-down section, at the register, or in the parking lot, I look for the lagniappe in every day, and find it in everyday opportunities and actions.

When I arrived home, my younger daughter, Laurel, came into the kitchen to help put away the groceries. As expected, she was curious about my bargain purchase. “Get a spoon,” I instructed as I opened the seal on the bottle. I squirted a pile of Crème de Coco onto her spoon, and onto another for myself. Doubtful eyebrow raised, Laurel lifted the spoon to her mouth, tasted, and smiled. It felt sinfully indulgent to be eating this sweet, creamy, high-fat treat before lunch, standing there at the kitchen counter, licking our utensils, with Laurel noting that, “Sometimes, you just have to eat the good stuff off the spoon.”

There are a lot of sad and angry people upon this earth. Many have survived terrible childhoods, and physical or psychic wounds. In our individual ways, we are all walking wounded, and how we choose to respond to that determines our level of happiness. I have often said that people need to know that happiness is mostly attitude and intention, that it takes the same amount of energy to be happy as it does to be miserable. I am no stranger to abuse, loss, injury, or challenge, and those who know me best say that I have experienced more than my fair share of these. However, by a path of many turns, I have come to a place where I have largely forgiven those who have hurt me, and recognized the self-empowerment that comes with choosing to use those experiences to make myself better and not allowing them to make me bitter. I recognize that a person always fashions his or her own life, unconsciously or consciously--and I choose the latter. I keep my mind and heart open to possibilities, thoughts, and experiences. I look life square in the eye, embrace the whole of it, am responsive to whatever it brings while avoiding the trap of victim and martyr roles, push beyond fear, and strive to hold onto trust in even the darkest hours. I embrace and savor the boundless goodness of life, consider it an adventure, and have a tendency to find and make fun and magic wherever I go. These are characteristics I wish for my children to gain from homeschooling, far above academic success.

As we stood in the kitchen with spoons poised, Laurel’s comment told me that over the years, my daughter had absorbed the lesson conveyed through my example of keeping oneself open to the possibilities, embracing joy and finding pleasure. Laurel understood the crème de coco moment and the concept at hand, the significance the value of spending a dollar on something needed only for its surprise luxury, and the importance of sharing a decadent moment eating the good stuff off the spoon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where Experts Fear to Tread

I collect quotes wherever I encounter insightful or amusing phrases. When I find a passage that is both insightful and amusing, I am doubly pleased. Therefore, I felt lucky when this gem came in an email: "Not being an expert on anything, I rush in where experts fear to tread." My immediate response was a gut recognition. I, jack-of-all-trades, or, as some of my more charitable friends say, "Renaissance woman," could relate. My delight with his concept caused me to ask the author, Robert Desmarais Sullivan, for permission to quote him, and he graciously agreed.

While my initial reaction to those words included a giggle, there is more to Sullivan's quote than meets the eye. Something deeper, perhaps even dangerous, is wrapped beneath its flippancy. That blithe remark flies in the face of expertise, and even questions the value of it. In our society, credentials validate one's experience or opinion, and experts have these; the titles and degrees to prove their claim of expertise.

The dangerous little quote also begs the question, "where do experts fear to tread?" I believe it is in the places where they feel they are not experts. You are either an expert, or you do not "go there”; your opinion and experience do not count or matter. If experts hold the trademark on a particular topic or issue, then who are the rest of us to tamper with that propriety? If we dare to question, to rush in, we are often discounted. Pointing out that "she is no expert," is a facile way to discount everything about a person, to minify her as a person, in one swift cut.

At a recent social gathering, I had a conversation with an intellectual property attorney named Bob. He said that in his experience, most people who own a trademark, URL, or other intellectual property believe their right to ownership is much greater than the reality. My reflexive response to Bob's observation was, "That makes them feel better, feel more powerful." It seems that tendency to over-extended ownership pertains to wider intellectual "property," as well.

Many experts seem to believe they have a lock on expertise beyond what they actually have. As a homeschooler, I have seen this attitude expressed by doctors, teachers, counselors, school administrators, and others who presume that their expertise extends to homeschooling, to the point that they may even be certain that they are experts on my children’s needs and lives.

Unfortunately, these are often people who know little about homeschooling, and may be set against it for some misconception they hold.

My second favorite thing to do—after homeschooling my kids—is to help other homeschoolers empower themselves, even though I lack an expert’s credentials. I am not a lawyer, but I can read the law, and so can anyone who has reasonable intelligence and interest. In eleven years as a registered homeschool parent, I have learned a great deal about my state’s Home Instruction statute, asserted myself and rallied others when my county asked for more than the legal requirement, and helped numerous parents find their courage to do the same.

When I began homeschooling in 1995, I was afraid that "they" would "come after" me, because I filed under an option that was not used by anyone I knew at the time. I was sure—for some nebulous reason—that I would be targeted and persecuted. Of course, as for the vast majority of us, that never came to pass.

Still, four years into official homeschooling, the county asked me to provide copies of the tables of contents from the books we would be using. Because the request was beyond what the law requires, I declined with a simple, civil letter that stated, "I have read the Home Instruction statute, and believe that I have met the legal requirements with the materials I have already provided.

However, if you will state the wording of the law, which requires that I provide the tables of contents, I will be happy to comply." A few days later, I received the so-called "approval" letter, and the county has not asked me for anything beyond law since. I encouraged my fellow homeschoolers to question the “experts” when the experts cross the line, and this attitude has spread. It is now common for seasoned homeschoolers in Virginia to advise frightened newbies to write the "show me" letter.

As I was wrapping up the original version of this article, I came across another pertinent quote, from Steve Kurtz of
Critical Art Ensemble, who said, “Amateurs can fully exercise their rights to free speech. They can function as watchdogs to a certain degree. They can keep an eye on what is in the public's interest. Experts are incredibly beholden to whoever's doing the investing."

Kurtz’s words struck a strong chord, and brought to mind the situation in June of 2005, when a national organization concerned with homeschooling knew that the Prince William County school division in Virginia had an extra-legal regulation on the books, but did nothing, because they didn’t know- or, it seems, care that local families were being harassed. When confronted with their lack of action, the organization’s representative indicated that the group had been hesitant to correct problem due to their fear of what might happen if they “opened up” the homeschool regulation. But I, "not being an expert on anything,” rushed in “where experts fear to tread,” spearheading a grassroots coalition that worked with the school board to resolve the erroneous regulation.

Unfortunately, this accomplishment also involved standing up to the national organization, which took issue with the idea of a local group of amateur moms who dared to initiate change in the school division’s regulations without prior consent from the organization’s experts. The result was that I not only questioned the school division’s regulations, going where the “experts” feared to tread, but also questioned the experts’ involvement and their planned course of action.

The situation was complicated and challenging, but my fellow coalition members and I were committed to riding it out, and the end result was a local homeschool regulation that does not stray beyond state law. This kind of personal action empowers individuals to stick up for themselves, and makes us each the authority of our own lives, rather than relegating it to the domain of "experts." We need to be our own experts. Doing so makes us stronger, better, more courageous people who feel good about ourselves- and about what we do. Through homeschooling, I am raising my kids to be the experts of their own lives, and, in the process, doing the same for myself. Perhaps I am also creating a place where experts fear to tread.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Homeschooling to Counter the Culture of Consumption

I came across a Washington Post article titled "Spending More for a Little Solace," which explains reasons that people buy "features they do not need and may never use," the bells and whistles on their DVD player, SUV, digital camera, etc. As a parent who taught her children consumer awareness from their toddler years on, and who views mainstream American culture as largely driven by Madison Avenue, a passage jumped out at me. It noted that interviews with children and parents show that "low-income parents do not splurge because they fail to understand the importance of delayed gratification or because they are impulsive," but because "they are acutely sensitive to how certain consumer products influence their children's 'search for dignity.'" The researcher said that, even among famlies that were extremely poor, every 8-year-old boy in her sample "had a Game Boy or Nintendo." This is because "parents, especially poor parents, tend to buy products they cannot afford because they are acutely focused on whether their children are fitting into peer groups." The parents "were choosing their child's psychological desires over their own material needs.'" That is a sad indictment on mainstream cultural identity in the US, and it gives good reason to resist assimilation.

Because consumer awareness has been a consistent part of my children's home education, Caitlin (17) and Laurel (14) are keenly aware of the psychological effect of advertising, as well as the lack of real value in most things heavily advertised. As a result, they are not materialistic; they don't feel the need to have whatever product is "in." Instead, when making consumer choices they follow their own hearts, and even then, they tend to set aside instant gratification, often spending time researching the product and reading reviews online before making the decision to spend.

Unbeholden to Madison Avenue's commands to "Collect 'Em All!" and "Get the New Improved!," the kind of things my children buy reflect a different set of values. The goods they desire are thoughtfully chosen books, music, and movies--all things that enrich them on well beyond the temporary rush of obtaining something new, and on levels deeper than the simple brief amusement from items bearing little "
play value."

Although many of the myths about homeschooling have been dispelled in recent years, our educational choice is still considered by many to be a "fringe" activity, practiced by oddballs from either end of the extremist spectrum. While I will continue working to clear those stereotypes in my own way, I also embrace the oddity of my educational choice, feeling comfortable being outside the mainstream, and so do my children. While Caitlin and Laurel are still sometimes looked at askance because of their unique educational paths, homeschooling has given them something of infinite value. Their desires are their own.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stranger Danger? Maybe

I did not teach my children “never talk to strangers,” that all-too-common line that makes every unknown person a danger. Nor did I teach- or model for them the idea that every stranger is “just a friend you have not met.” I am certain that if we never talked to strangers, we would never meet potential new friends, but I temper that with commonsense caution.

When my then-3-year-old daughter and I were at the local shopping mall, we spotted a man who had the most unusual walking stick, hand-carved with a snake undulating up its length, and embedded with semi-precious stones. We were both fascinated and curious, so I stopped him for a chat. The "stranger" told us that he had carved the stick himself, and collected the stones while on rock hound vacations with his family when the kids were young. We learned that his entire family had been into gem hunting and cutting, and that common interest was the center of their leisure time and a source of many happy memories. My daughter and I expressed appreciation for his work of art, and I thanked him for taking the time to share his story.

As my little girl and I continued on our walk around the mall, we passed by the little county police booth off the food court. A staffer saw my daughter and came out to offer her a McGruff the Crime Dog pencil and a coloring book, and proceeded to tell her she should "never talk to strangers!" and I almost burst out laughing.

According to personal safety expert and author
Gavin De Becker , the police rep was more likely a danger—by virtue that she approached my daughter—than the man with the remarkable stick, whom we chose to approach. Of course, I used both of those encounters as examples of being open to approaching new people, and being cautious about those who approach us.

The majority of perps are not strangers; they know their victims, and gradually encroach, planning out every step, wooing the kids with friendship, attention, and special treatment. I know this from experience. Yes, it happened to me, and because of that, I have taught my children to trust their instincts, to worry about personal safety first, and “being nice” second.
Through example and careful words throughout their lives, I have let my children know that you can't recognize a perp by looking at him (I say "him" because most offenders are male), and that they have the right to say “NO!” to anyone whose presence or behavior makes them feel uncomfortable. This was reinforced by their taking the
radKIDS and RAD self-defense courses, which provide interactive, physical lessons in defending bodily integrity.

My children’s “lessons” in self-protection have been learned slowly over time, gently, and as appropriate. For instance, they have long known that adults have no business asking them for assistance, that adults should ask other adults for help. I have told my daughters that, if anyone approaches in a car, they are to walk in the opposite direction from the way the car is heading, and go to an area where there are a lot of people. They know that if they are lost or in trouble, they should seek assistance from someone—preferably a woman—working nearby, and they should not look for a security guard, because, statistically, most of them are ill-trained at best, and may be dangerous themselves.

I am glad that my daughters know that predators exist, and proud that my girls know they can stand up for themselves when need be. I am also pleased that they understand that strangers do not necessarily represent danger, that they are comfortable in a variety of situations. It is immensely satisfying to know that my children’s lives will be uncolored by the taint of abuse, that they are free to be who they are, to live confidently in the world and enjoy it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

History Buffs

Much unlike either of their parents, my daughters are history buffs. Caitlín especially likes the Oregon Trail, Colonial and Medieval periods. Laurel's favorites are the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War eras, but she also likes the medieval period. Browsing some old e-mails tonight, I found this one of interest:

Out of curiosity, a few weeks ago I gave Caitlín an oral "test" on the history SOLs for 6th grade (which are rather lofty, and highly unlikely to be achieved in a public school setting). She already knew everything included--except for the terms "speakeasy" and "fascism." When I asked Caitlín if she could explain the influx of immigrants, the reasons they came, the hardships they faced, and their relationship to the rise of industrialism, she floored me! She has a very clear understanding of it all. Her knowledge was across the board, from the end of WWII through the Civil Rights movement. And nobody "taught" her a thing; she learned it because she found the books interesting. Caitlín didn't study history in chronological order, but bounced around, starting with 1847 on the Oregon Trail, then to 1777, forward to 1912 aboard the Titanic, and when the "Royal Diaries" came out, she went all the way back to 57 BCE, to Cleopatra's youth.

We don't do tons of hands-on activities for history. Caitlín sometimes will want to try a recipe or activity found in one of the books, but most of our "real life" history studies focus on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, as there is a wealth of historical sites in our area. But she is asking for help finding historical sites of other time periods, such as the Victorian or Great Depression.

My daughters' enjoyment of history has far surpassed what I wrote just over 5 years ago--to places I could not have imagined at that time. I will post more about that soon.