The Shock Absorber
Shards (Monday, 17 August 1992) Now that I can catch my breath, I’ll log in a few of Lofty’s notes that have appeared recently. The first two were tacked to the wall of the community shelter the past several days. One of them is on a sheet torn out of a small notebook that Lofty has been carrying around with her. It reads, “One thing at a time. Please!!!!!!”
The other is a drawing of a smiling figure, with the caption, “I Can Have Fun Now!”
Still another page from her notebook has a short sentence on it— “Lofty Brown is the best.”
Then there’s the note she wrote to Myra while we were waiting in the therapist’s office the other day. “Dear Myra,” it reads. “Do you want to come over sometime? We can talk about the big Fuss. Love, Lofty.”
Sure enough, Myra came home with us that afternoon and stayed for supper. But as soon as we parked the car, the two girls headed to an empty cabin and had a long talk, all by themselves.
The Shock Absorber (Monday, 17 August 1992) Looking back over the past couple of weeks at how all of us, and in particular Lofty and Adam, have handled this crisis, I realize that a hidden shock absorber has cushioned much of its traumatic impact. This shock absorber is a core belief that has been evolving within and among us ever since we arrived at Light Morning nearly twenty years ago. It has to do with accepting personal responsibility for the circumstances of our lives.
More specifically, the belief holds that each of us co-creates our personal realities. Such ongoing creativity generally operates below the threshold of our conscious awareness. And it is essentially beneficial. In the same way that our body has an innate urge toward homeostasis and health, and will initiate extraordinary (if not always comfortable) processes to achieve these physiological ends, so does the psyche set up precisely those circumstances and conditions that are necessary to restore psychological balance and to bring about psychological health.
This premise goes completely against the grain of the standard culture’s prevailing orthodoxy. And it has far-reaching implications. For it suggests that our conditioned tendency to see things in terms of black and white, or good and bad, is both short-sighted and illusory, in that it creates and perpetuates a world of victims and villains; of scapegoats and saviors.
What it proposes, instead, is the radical view that we all dwell within a miraculously pliant and cooperative universe, in which each of us is always getting what we need, just when we need it.
This scandalously provocative hypothesis sounds far-fetched and abstract in the telling of it. Yet it soon becomes tangible, and challenging, in the living of it. And during a crisis, it serves as an admirable shock absorber.
Adam, for example, has occasionally been able to get beyond regarding himself as a loathsome victimizer of the two girls, or as the potential victim of a harsh “justice” system, and to find a different way of seeing things. From this new perspective he becomes aware of the hard, cocoon-like shell of denial that he has, for so long, been weaving around his soul. He can feel the healing relief that accompanies the shattering of this shell. And he senses, in some incomprehensible way, that both his actions and their consequences are part of a profound process of self-healing and acceptance.
With Lauren, the cushion is neither conceptual nor verbal. Instead, she sees her parents and their friends not treating her as a victim. She sees them actively processing the various flavors and stages of their emotions. And she sees that being angry at Adam and being supportive of him, or condemning what he did while loving who he is, are not necessarily incompatible. In this way she can join us, and in many ways lead us, in choosing to focus on understanding and forgiveness rather than blame and punishment.
Blowing Bubbles (Tuesday, 18 August 1992) The image that comes to mind this morning is a huge, magical soap bubble. On a dusky evening three weeks ago, just after the traumatic revelation first surfaced, a small group of the parents and children directly involved gathered on our back porch. As we quietly talked, it became clear that we were being confronted with a rending choice of how to respond to this situation. And in choosing, it was as though we blew a small, iridescent soap-bubble, which grew to enclose all of us on the porch.
Since that evening, as the story and the crisis inevitably spread to the rest of our Light Morning family, and then down the road and into the neighborhood, the bubble kept growing, too. As it encompassed more and more people, it somehow encouraged each of them, in a subtle but profound way, to make a similar choice, to respond in an equally honest and caring way.
And as the story spread still further, into the offices of lawyers and therapists and commonwealth attorneys, the bubble went with it–tingeing reactions, softening hard edges, coloring judgments.
It’s as though we have fostered the polar opposite of a lynch mob mentality. As painful and challenging as this whole experience continues to be, there have been remarkable compensations. Witnessing the soothing effects of this magical bubble, seeing how truly contagious empathy can be, has certainly been one of them.
Full Speed Ahead (Thursday, 20 August 1992) Ever since Joyce and I read John Gatto’s book, and especially since listening to his tape, our approach to home education has shifted. The Oak Meadow curriculum, which arrived on the same day as the tape, sat around for a couple of weeks. We looked at it, talked about it, slept on it. Then sent it back. The principle of child-led learning, as radical and risky as it seems, feels too deeply right to us. To all three of us.
We have had only occasional misgivings since then. Lofty’s been involved with horses and gymnastics and out-of-school-for-the-summer friends. Nothing properly curricular. And we’ve had our own crises and busyness.
Still, it has continued to feel good.
Then over the past few weeks, Lauren seems to have shifted into over-drive.
She’s constantly asking questions: “I’m writing a letter to someone. How do you spell ‘hold’?”
Or she’ll sit beside me in the evening while I’m reading a book and she’ll work out math problems on a pad of paper. Or she’ll accost Joyce, who’s cooking, and she’ll ask for help with cursive handwriting. Or she’ll prod me into helping her set up a gymnastics balance beam, or using Word Perfect on the computer, or finding some books she can take out of the library.
I know these surges come and go, but her current binge is particularly well-timed. It has strengthened our faith in the rightness of child-led learning. Not that we don’t have as many responsibilities for her “education.” In some ways we have more. But now it feels like we’re all on the same team. And instead of us pushing her, she’s pulling us.
Sharks (Friday, 21 August 1992) We’ll be going to the North Carolina beach with Joyce’s family again this fall. On the final night of last year’s stay, we went swimming by moonlight. The water was warm; the moon shimmering on the waves; the sea gently rolling. It felt peaceful, womb-like, soothing. Archetypal.
Today, however, Joyce reports a phone conversation that her mother just had with someone at the beach.
“She happened to mention our night-time swim,” Joyce says. “And the person’s response was that swimming at night on that beach isn’t advisable. Seems like the sharks come in to feed during the night. They’re not around during the daytime, but they come in at night. It’s apparently not safe to swim then.”
I have several immediate reactions.
The first is, “Jesus, we might have had a close call last year,” and my mind strays to various shark-attack stories I’ve read over the years.
The second reaction is more skeptical: “I wonder if that person knows what he’s talking about. I’ll have to ask around down there and see what other people say.”
This is followed by disappointment at the possible loss of our night-time swims.
Finally, and hard on the heels of my first reactions, comes a sudden sense of, “How perfect, how appropriate, that (at a dream level) our strong yearning to return to the womb, to float on the moon-softened surface of the ocean, should be counter-balanced by the threat of sharks. There they both are–the dreamy bliss and the hideous nightmare; the unsuspecting swimmer and the approaching shark–each gently cradled in the dark, rolling waters of the great Sea.”
Whatever the literal truth of the rumor turns out to be, it’s a perfect metaphor.
Clipper Ships (Saturday, 22 August 1992) Our current bedtime story is about Abbie Burgess. As a young girl in the mid-1800s, Abbie helped her father tend the lighthouse on Matinicus Rock, off the coast of Maine. Lauren’s aunt Heather found the book in Southwest Harbor this summer and sent it to Lofty. We’ve all been enjoying it.
Tonight, Abbie makes a rare visit to Rockland to visit her friend Prissy. While there, she attends the launching of a new clipper ship. Rockland, by the time of Abbie’s visit in 1855, had become one of the busiest ship-building centers on the Atlantic, and was providing many of the clipper ships for the coastal cities of Boston and Philadelphia.
Here I pause in my reading of the story and remind Lofty that one of her many-great-grandfathers, Thomas Cope, had a big fleet of clipper ships sailing out of Philadelphia in the 1850s.
“Probably,” I say, “some of his ships were built in Rockland, at the very time that Abbie was tending the lights on Matinicus Rock.”
Lofty enjoys the connection.
“What’s more,” I go on, “Thomas Cope made a lot of money from his clipper ships. And when Thomas Cope died, that money passed down through his family to his children, and his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren–one of whom is your great-grandmother, Eleanor Cope. And when she died, she left some of that same clipper ship money to her children and grandchildren–one of whom is me.
“And Joyce and I took that money, back in the early 70’s, and used it to help pay for an old farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So some of those very same ships that Abbie saw being built, when she was just your age, helped us buy the land in Virginia where we’re now sitting, reading the story about Abbie Burgess in Maine.”
Look What I Found (Saturday, 22 August 1992) We’re in town today. A few errands to attend to, but mostly it’s a chance to get away from the crisis and do something fun with Lofty. She has an urge to stop somewhere and shop.
“But I didn’t bring any money with me,” she sighs. “I think I have some, but I don’t know where.”
When we visit the bank, she considers drawing some cash out of her savings account. She’s been slowly building it up for something special, though, and is able to resist the temptation.
“Why don’t I take you to see that movie you’ve been wanting to see,” I suggest. “The one about the three Ninjas.”
This elicits an enthusiastic response. So Joyce drops us off at the theater, I buy tickets, and we go into the lobby. As Lofty stuffs her ticket stub into the pocket of her shorts, a puzzled look comes over her face.
She pulls out a wad of green paper and grins.
“Look what I found! I knew I had some somewhere.”
In her hand are some dollar bills.
I laugh, remembering times in college when I’d come across similar stashes of money in the pockets of old clothes. My room-mates had been amazed and horrified at how indifferent I was toward all things financial. And here’s my daughter, thirty years later, carrying on the same tradition.
As it turns out, Lauren’s money remains unspent. After the movie, we visit Rose and her family. Lofty and Rose spend the rest of the day dressing up in fancy dresses, then changing into bathing suits in order to catch tadpoles, minnows, and crayfish in the Roanoke River. They have a wonderful time, and the thought of going out to buy something never even crosses Lofty’s mind.