Jumping on Couches and Kids
A Shared Love of Tolkien (Saturday, 6 March 1993) Joyce went to Virginia Beach with Wes and Shara this weekend to visit Kathey and her new-born. Lauren and I are continuing to read our bedtime story, which is currently the final volume of The Lord of the Rings. During this evening’s session, we arrive at one of the many passages that Joyce and I have loved over the years. As I begin to read it to her I wonder what, if any, response she’ll have.
At this point in the story, the quest has been completed. A company of travelers, including Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and the hobbits, are returning to their respective homes. They have come near to the Gates of Moria.
Here now for seven days they tarried, for the time was at hand for another parting which they were loath to make. Soon, Celeborn and Galadriel and their folk would turn eastward… They had journeyed thus far by the west-ways, for they had much to speak of with Elrond and with Gandalf, and here they lingered to converse with their friends. Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling the ages that were gone and all their joys and labors in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come.
If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw gray figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.
“That’s neat!” Lauren exclaims, as I finish reading the passage to her.
I look up, strangely moved that she should be touched in much the same way that Joyce and I were so many years before. It’s a special moment when the love you feel for something is reflected back to you in the eyes of another.
I smile, nod, and return to the story.
Reaching For an Answer (Sunday, 7 March 1993) A woman named Bridget came by this morning after breakfast. Several of us are sitting on the deck of the community shelter with her, talking. It’s her second visit. She and her husband are building a house in Patrick Country and are having trouble with hostile neighbors. It’s hard to tell how much of the trouble is real and how much is a product of their paranoia. They had similar problems is North Carolina, before moving to Virginia.
Lauren’s on the porch with us for most of the conversation–climbing in the poplar tree; munching left-over popcorn; talking with Squid (a neighbor whose visit coincided with Bridget’s); or reading one of her books.
She listens as Bridget explains how they had ignored their real estate agent’s warnings about the neighborhood before they bought the land. Bridget is wondering what kind of security lights they might install. We discreetly suggest that perhaps it’s more a question of inner security, and that there might be some significance to the recurring pattern of being persecuted by their neighbors.
Later in the afternoon, Lauren is helping me gather firewood. As we’re carrying logs and branches to the saw buck, she asks, “Why do you think Bridget’s having the same problem here that she had in North Carolina?”
“That’s a good question,” I reply, instantly reaching for an answer. Metaphysical abstractions are clearly inappropriate. So where is something from her own experience that I can build upon? After drawing a momentary blank, the answer “comes” to me.
“Remember that wonderful magnet game you created the other day?” I ask.
I’m referring to one of Lauren’s recent projects. She took a large piece of heavy paper and drew houses and garages and stores on it, all connected by a network of streets. It was like an aerial view of a small village. Then she got a block of staples from the desk, broke off about an inch of it, and laid it flat-side down on one of the streets. This was her car.
Finally, she got out a large magnet. Holding the paper village in one hand, and moving the magnet around underneath it with the other, she caused her “car” to drive down the street, stop at one of the stores, and then return home, turn into the driveway, and park in the garage. It was fun to watch the vehicle moving magically through the village, seemingly of its own volition.
Lauren nods, remembering.
“Well,” I continue, “we’ve come to believe that everything we feel strongly about–all our hopes and fears and needs and beliefs–are like the magnet in that game of yours. You can’t see the magnet under the piece of paper; it’s hidden. And if you don’t know it’s there, the little car seems to be moving all by itself.
“Even if you do know the magnet’s there, the car looks like it’s moving all by itself. And if you look at the magnet and the car together, you still can’t see how it works, because you can’t see the magnetic connection between the magnet and the car; you can’t see that connection passing through the paper to make the car move. But we know the connection’s there, even if we can’t see it.
“Maybe it’s like that with Bridget. Maybe she has some deep fear about people doing bad things to her. Who knows where the fear came from? We don’t know her very well. But maybe her fear is like that magnet under your paper village. It caused her to move to that place in North Carolina where her neighbors were mean to her. Then she wanted to get away, so she drove to Virginia. But that magnet was still under her car, and it pulled her to the very place in Patrick country where she’d have to deal with mean neighbors again.
“It almost seems,” I conclude, “like the magnet’s playing a dirty trick on Bridget. She wanted to get away from the trouble in North Carolina, and she ends up right in the middle of more trouble in Virginia. But we can’t run away from trouble. And that’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t learn very much if we could just pack up and move away from our problems.
“So the magnet keeps drawing to us whatever we need to learn more about. But it doesn’t just bring hard, yucky things; it brings nice things, too. It’s a mighty strange and magical magnet, and all my words don’t hardly touch on how mysterious it is. But that game you invented is a wonderful way to think about how it works.”
We go back to hauling logs and branches. Not wanting my words to outlast Lauren’s interest, I don’t go on to say that the magnet of my sudden need for an answer to her question about Bridget had drawn the image of her game to me, or that perhaps Jesus had been probing the mysteries of magnetism when he said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened.”
The Grace Thing ( Monday, 8 March 1993) Joyce, Lauren, and I are walking up to the community shelter for lunch. “Remember how I used to open my eyes and look around during the grace thing?” Lauren asks, seemingly out of the blue.
“You mean during the silent grace circle before our meals?”
“Yeah. Now I’m not doing that so much any more.”
“What are you doing instead?”
“Well, you know,” she says, with an embarrassed shrug. “Sort of saying thanks.”
After lunch, Joyce and Lauren continue the conversation while working in the garden. They talked about the difference between “sending out” and “receiving” thoughts and energy. Lauren says that she isn’t sure sometimes whether what she’s “receiving” is coming from her own mind or from someplace else.
Joyce acknowledges that she has a similar problem trying to evaluate her own “input.” Later, Joyce tells me she had been surprisingly touched by the exploration of a shared growing edge with her daughter.
Piece, Niece, Geese ( Friday, 19 March 1993) Lauren is reading Freddy the Detective to herself. It’s a series I enjoyed at her age. She looks over at me. “What does p-i-e-c-e spell?”
“Piece,” I tell her. “It’s part of a family of words that all sound the same. Like fall, ball, wall. Piece and niece, for example, sound the same and are spelled the same, with just a different first letter for each word.”
Then, reaching for further illustrations, my associative mind betrays me down a path strewn with deviant misfits.
“Piece, niece, geese,” I find myself saying. “Fleece. Peace. Crease.”
“Yikes!” I conclude lamely. “You sure picked a good word to show how crazy the English language can be. No wonder kids like you, and people from different countries, have such a hard time learning how to read and write so-called ‘plain English.'”
Jumping on Couches and Kids ( Friday, 19 March 1993) It’s lunchtime. Maybe it’s cabin fever (having been cooped up inside for a long string of wet, chilly days), but Lauren’s energy level seems stuck on overdrive. She doesn’t walk to the table to get more carrot sticks; she runs! Then runs back to her seat on the couch, arriving at her destination by way of a flying leap.
“Lauren!” I say, my exasperation clinging to her name. “How many times do we have to tell you?! Please don’t jump on the furniture like that. It tears the fabric and busts up the springs.”
She looks at me calmly for a moment. Then, with disarming frankness, replies, “It’s nice to have a few things to do that adults don’t like.”
Her candor startles me into empathy.
“Yeah,” I say slowly, “I guess if I lived in a world filled with big people, each with a long list of do’s and don’ts, I might feel the same.”
“And if someone’s really been getting on my case,” she continues, in the same calm tone, “I might do one of those things just to get back at them.”
“I know what that feels like,” I reply. “I do it myself once in a while. But it doesn’t work; it just escalates things.”
“I know,” she says, “but sometimes I do it anyway.”
Playing the incident back through my mind after lunch, I remember a journal entry from a couple of years ago. I search for it in the computer and find it. It’s from March of 1991. “Tonight as we’re coming down from the Community Shelter and Lauren is prancing around, running off some of her prodigious energy, she says, ‘I must have been born with a lot of jump in me, because I love to jump and run around so much.'”
Lauren’s New “Do” ( Saturday, 20 March 1993) Marlene’s been setting her hair with curlers now and then. Lauren got intrigued and asked Joyce to pick her up a set. Joyce did so. This afternoon the three of them come down to the house all grins and giggles, Lauren be-decked with curlers. It’s an odd sight. I grab my camera and pose them on our back porch for a quick picture.
At supper, Lauren shows up in her new “do.” We all do a double-take, then smile appreciatively at the long, curly locks. Her hair looks good, but somehow strange, too. It reminds me of her recent comments about a “shrunken teenager.”
Lauren apparently has mixed feelings herself. After spending quite a while in front of the mirror, eying herself from every conceivable angle, she finally decides, with a wrinkle of her nose, that she doesn’t much like it. She’s happy to have her normal hair back again the next morning and allows as how she’ll “never do that again.”
So I recorded the “before (in curlers)” look for posterity, but never had the chance to get a photo of the curls themselves.
Bedtime Stories ( Monday, 22 March 1993) Lauren has been lobbying today for a re-read of the Riddle Master trilogy. I tell her that it seems like we just read it recently, but promise to look up the list of her bedtime stories in my journal.
I do so, and discover that our last reading of Riddle Master was longer ago than I thought. So her lobbying is successful and we’ll start the first volume tonight. It’s a hard choice: re-reading an old favorite or exploring a new book. We just finished re-reading another old favorite, The Lord of the Rings.
The following list is our bedtime stories from the past year. It doesn’t include the huge number of books that all of us have read to her during the daytime hours, nor the books she’s read to herself. And the list may be somewhat incomplete. We tried to reconstruct it from memory, and probably missed a few.
The Prince and the Pauper, Twain
The Dark is Rising, Cooper
Abbey Burgess: Lighthouse Heroine, Jones & Sargeant
The Lord of the Rings (three volumes), Tolkien
Broken Record ( Friday, 26 March 1993) Lauren’s helping me cook. She’s making a funny, repetitive, stuttering sound with her voice. “Don’t I sound like a broken record?” she asks.
“Almost, but not quite,” I reply, wondering where she picked up the phrase. “The sound needs to be more abrupt and insistent.”
Then a wild thought flashes through my mind.
“Lauren, have you ever seen a record?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe I saw one on TV one time.”
Her response rocks me. Somehow, having Lauren grow up with computers, a technology that was inconceivable in my youth, doesn’t pack nearly the same punch as suddenly realizing that the LP and 45 records that I grew up with and loved as a child have become an abstract museum piece to my daughter.
At least Lauren has played with the wonderful little Hermes typewriter that I wrote all my college papers on and that now gathers dust in the loft of the community shelter. She has never even seen a record. Her entire exposure to music has come through cassette tapes.
What’s Dynamic? ( Monday, 29 March 1993) Joyce is sharing an amusingly bizarre story she heard on the radio today. An engaged couple is in a serious car wreck. The woman is hospitalized in critical condition. Her fiancé, though, is pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and is transported to the morgue.
The reports of the man’s death, however, are apparently premature. For he “wakes up” to find himself enclosed in a cold metal box. Horrified by the sudden realization of his predicament, he starts to scream. The startled morgue attendants hear the muffled cries and rush to release him.
According to this supposedly true story, he is then conveyed to the bedside of his fiancée, who, having previously been informed of his death, refuses to believe her eyes. She is certain that she is either hallucinating, or has gone to heaven and is being met by the one she loves. None of his passionate words can convince her, at first, that he is standing before her in the flesh.
Joyce concludes the story with a laugh, saying, “This couple’s dynamic was certainly different from Robert’s and mine. Can you imagine Robert telling me something and me adamantly refusing to believe him?”
Then Lauren, who has been listening to the story, pipes up. “Mom, what’s ‘dynamic’?”
Her question triggers a long talk about the qualities of being projective and receptive in relationships between men and women, between children and adults, and between Lauren’s younger friends and her older friends. Interesting how a funny story can open doors into important questions.
Snowmelt (Friday, 2 April 1993) Joyce conveys a disturbing piece of environmental news today. Perhaps I’ve become inured to most of the ecological hazards facing us. We try to remain aware of the vast web of effects that our attitudes and actions have upon the planet, and to keep adjusting our lifestyle accordingly. In some ways we’ve made significant changes; in others, we still have far to go. But ironically, the very act of keeping in touch with the litany of environmental crises hardens us to them. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a tough skin. Part of our emotional self-defense.
In this area of the country, for example, there’s a growing problem with acid rain. Being downwind from the huge coal-fired generating plants in the Ohio River valley, our streams and forests and farms are becoming increasingly acidified. Trees and aquatic creatures are already dying. And we don’t begin to know the full effects of it as yet. It’s an affliction, moreover, from which there is no easy release, given this culture’s voracious appetite for electricity.
But again, the more pressing a problem is, and the more we hear about it, the less of an impact it seems to have. Unless it happens to slip in through a side door of our awareness; through a chink in our emotional armor.
Joyce’s report has to do with one of the after-effects of our recent blizzard. We were snowed in for almost a week. The enormous snowplow clearing our local road broke down in a great drift by the pond and had to be dragged away by another monstrous machine. It was a wonderful storm.
Lauren, Becky, and Nathan dug “dens” in the snow banks by the driveway–large, cave-like rooms beneath the solid crust, connected by smaller passageways. The hills and houses and woods and fields were all blanketed in white. After the elemental fury of the storm, which meteorologists now believe was an off-season hurricane, the world felt quiet, peaceful, pristine.
Then came some warm March days. The snow melted, swelling the streams, causing minor flooding in Roanoke. And, according to the news account that Joyce is telling us about, killing most of the trout that had just been stocked in the Roanoke River. It wasn’t the runoff itself that had killed the fish, she explains. It was the melted snow’s high level of acidity. The trout had succumbed to what the biologists were describing as “acid snow.”
It is this phrase, “acid snow,” which somehow pierces my emotional armor. I remember the small, speckled brook trout I once caught with my bare hands in Free State Creek. Lauren and I had been enchanted by their glistening beauty as we watched them swim around in a small pool we constructed for them by the edge of the stream.
Then I recall Lauren and the other kids, just after the blizzard, tunneling into the snow drifts with flushed, laughing faces, pausing only to refresh themselves with great gulps of powdery snow. Then I see, in my mind’s eye, scores of trout floating belly-up in the snow-swollen Roanoke River.
“My god!” I exclaim, with a sickening sense of apprehension, “what have we done to the snow?”
Dear Mom ( Sunday, 4 April 1993) One of Lauren’s friends spent the night. They’ve been playing together all day. At one point, after the two girls have gone up to the community shelter to swing on the grape vine swing, or maybe conduct an archaeological dig in an early Poff family midden, Joyce finds a note from Lauren on her desk.
“Dear Mom,” it reads. “Why is my friend so downhearted? How do you get people to cheer up? Love, Lauren.”
At the bottom of the note she has written, “P.S. I love you and Dad and I love me.”
The Flip Side of John Gatto (Wednesday, 7 April 1993) We have received in the mail a “complimentary” copy of the maiden issue of a glossy new home schooling magazine. It has a Christian focus. Much of the home schooling momentum in Virginia and elsewhere derives from the fundamentalists’ dismay over what they perceive as a tilt on the part of public schools toward humanism.
These Christian home-schooling advocates are in the vanguard of those lobbying the legislature to protect and extend the rights of families to home school their children. We have certainly benefited from their efforts over the years. When we first came to Virginia, for example, it was illegal to educate your children yourself. Briah and the other kids had to duck down in the seats of the car when we’d drive through our little town during school hours, so that we wouldn’t end up in court facing truancy charges. Now home schooling is a legally sanctioned option.
One of the articles in this magazine is about college-level home study courses. The author describes a woman who is midway through home schooling her ten(!) children. Her pattern is to have the kids receive their high school equivalency diploma at age 11; their B.A. degree at age 15; and a Masters degree at age 16. After that, they’re on their own.
I don’t know which aspect of the story impresses Joyce and I more–the woman’s admirable tenacity, or her frightening inflexibility. It certainly feels like the flip side of John Gatto. Not that a learner-led child may not go on to get a Masters degree at age 16; but that all ten children should “choose” to do so hints at a zealous and probably overbearing parental agenda.