The Lofty Chronicles: 2 — Gifts and Abilities

Gifts and Abilities

Lauren and Joyce at the pond
Lauren and Joyce at the pond

Summer 1991

Richard and Lin and Lauren (Saturday, 1 June 1991) Richard and Lin come over for some problem-solving this morning. They have asked for help in facilitating their attempts to work out a thorny child-custody problem. It doesn’t feel as though we’re too successful. The roots of fear and resentment run deep, overpowering a verbally affirmed desire to stretch toward a win-win solution. I’m left with a discouraging sense of how compelling our inertial patterns are.

Later this afternoon, however, at the pond, I watch as Lauren makes a startling breakthrough in learning to swim. In fifteen or twenty minutes, with virtually no assistance from me, she goes from a highly tentative, apprehensive, and very brief ducking of her head underwater to actually swimming underwater. I am astonished, and she is surprised and pleased as well.

It presents a nice counterpoint to my discouraging morning, for here she is transforming compulsive fear into accomplishment before my eyes. Maybe the key is ripeness. Today Lauren was ready and willing to learn. Her motivation was high. Her desire, in other words, overcame her fear.

Cathartic Illnesses (Thursday, 6 June 1991) I find it curious, in retrospect, that my transition from Arden to Light Morning consisted of three stages, each marked or triggered by a severe illness–the arm tumor which confronted Joyce and me with the possibility of my death and helped set up our pilgrimage in the van; the devastating flu-like illness on the campus of Dalhousie University which loosened our focus on Nova Scotia and set the stage for the impulse to go to Virginia Beach; and the similar illness in Virginia Beach, which set the stage for the A.L.M. readings and the move to Light Morning.

It’s as though the three illnesses were a deep and thorough cleansing which helped free me from the constraints of the familiar. In the same vein, my highly traumatic “fire experience,” coming just one week after Lauren was born, prepared me for parenthood.

Rites of passage. Initiations. A forced surrender of the old to make way for the new.

Super Heroes (Friday, 7 June 1991) We’re in Roanoke, taking Felix (a cat who’s trying to adopt us) to the vet. While in town we run a few errands. Lauren’s hot to get something at K-Mart. After much sorting through of items and prices she ends up purchasing two small figures, one of Bat Man and the other of Spider Man. Later in the afternoon, at Goodwill, she buys a small statuette of the Virgin Mary, who immediately becomes the companion of Bat Man and Spider Man. Quite the archetypal threesome!

Lifelong Learning (Thursday, 13 June 1991) I’m watching Lauren and Nathan build a dam in the small trickle of a creek in the woods behind where the Days’ house is being re-built after the fire. I’m watching the workmen lay the block for the new foundation walls. I’m watching myself watching the children and the workers, and feeling that learning is truly lifelong. If we’re alive, we’re learning. The only choice lies in what attitude we hold as we approach our learnings.

That Dumb Bar Hit Me (Friday, 14 June 1991) This is a variation on the theme of the mason hitting his head on the lintel and believing that someone has dropped something on him. Lauren’s best friend Sage is in the garden with me this morning, using her tools to help double-dig a bed. While swinging the fork to break up the soil, he hits himself with the handle. He glares at the tool accusingly, then says, “That dumb tool hit me.” After giving the fork a good pinch to punish it, he goes back to work.

What a perfect mirror, I think with a smile, of how most of us react, most of the time, when people or circumstances cross us or cause us pain. “That dumb bar hit me,” we think, in an accusatory tone, and we’re tempted to give the person or circumstance a good pinch in return, conveniently ignoring our own intimately co-creative role in the drama.

Be a Good Sport (Saturday, 15 June 1991) It’s funny how words and phrases sometimes fly in out of the blue. I’m working in the garden, for example, minding my own business, when I “hear” the words, “Be a good sport.”

“Now what in the world does that mean,” I wonder.

At first I take the phrase rather literally. A good sport loses a game gracefully. Coming close upon the heels of this association, however, and almost as a correction, is the felt sense that the word “sport” is intended in its biological connotation. During lunch I double-check my memory with the dictionary and, sure enough, “sport” is defined as “a sudden spontaneous deviation or variation from type; a mutation; an individual organism which differs from its parents beyond the usual limits of individual variation.”

Then I remember visiting Jim and Amber yesterday and seeing Dan’s dog Sport in their front yard, nursing an injured paw. Perhaps my playfully associative mind starts with the name of Dan’s dog, takes it to the phrase “be a good sport,” and then puts a creative twist on it by implying the biological definition of sport.

The root correlation between the two uses of the word is that sport derives from disport (to be carried away). In sports, then, such as recreation, play, and amusement, we are literally “carried away” from our normal routines and boundaries. And biologically, a sport is carried far enough away from its parental type to be considered a mutation.

Back in the garden again after lunch, other associations come to mind–watching Tom and Lauren playing together earlier in the day, and my sensing the freedom and expansiveness in such play; my enjoyment of the seemingly hard “work” of double-digging the garden beds, to the point where work and play become indistinguishable; and Seth talking about creative play being a core motivational force in the universe.

To be a “good sport,” therefore, means to not be so attached to winning or so fearful of losing that we spoil the playfulness of the game. And the same phrase implies that as we allow the spirit of creative play to move more freely into our days, it can have such a dramatically transformative effect upon us as to be considered mutational.

Thinking About Telephones (Thursday, 20 June 1991) Lauren’s first words to Joyce this morning are, “I’ve been thinking about telephones.” And she proceeds to describe how she would put the various elements of a telephone together if she were inventing one.

She’s on a curious, problem-solving streak. She loves to join one of our communal brainstorming sessions when we’re trying to figure out the best way to install or repair something. She’ll mull it over, then say, “Maybe this would work,” and go on to offer a suggestion. It reminds me of her grandpa Joe’s inventiveness and her grandmother Hope’s love of tinkering with and fixing mechanical things.

I Hate Poetry (Saturday, 22 June 1991) One of Lauren’s magazines has come in and I’m reading the table of contents to her to see what she’d like to have read to her. She asks about one particular title and I tell her that it’s a poem.

“I hate poetry,” she immediately replies.

I’m fascinated by her response, wondering where it comes from. I’ll try to explore it further with some very subtle and indirect offerings of poems that she mighty enjoy.

Harnessing Her Enthusiasm (Saturday, 6 July 1991) The first key to real home education is to keep my relationship with Lauren clear. To approach her with respect and affection. And to use creative problem-solving to work through the inevitable bumps that arise in our relationship.

The second key is to help provide as rich an environment as possible and then to be responsive to her expressions of interest in the world around her. To fan the small but vital embers of her curiosity. To support her as she explores and then learns to harness her enthusiasm. This is what child-led learning is all about. I avoid the imposition of fixed curriculums like the plague.

At the pond
On the shore of the pond

The Magic of Water (Monday, 8 July 1991) As Lauren and I are getting ready to leave the pond today, she pauses on the shoreline, splashing absently at the water and staring at the ripples. I am already down the path a ways, needing to get home. But I wait for her, not knowing exactly what she’s looking at.

“Come here a minute,” she says, “and I’ll show you some of the magic of the water.”

I put my needs on hold and walk back to the pond.

“Look at all the lights,” she murmurs, kicking at the edge of the water.

The smooth surface instantly refracts into dozens of little suns, dancing and sparkling on the waves. It takes me a few moments to overcome my sense of familiarity and fully enter into the fresh perceptions of the moment. When I succeed in doing so, I am dazzled by the brilliant display of lights on the water.

We stand there for maybe five minutes, Lauren occasionally kicking out new ripples. Afterwards, walking home, I feel completely refreshed and rejuvenated, made literally young again.

Too Small a Space (Friday, 12 July 1991) It’s close to suppertime, toward the end of a long day. We’re picking up the living room in the community shelter. Lauren’s in a rambunctious mood. Finally Joyce says, “This is too small a space for hopscotch or for jump-rope…”

“Or for sermons!” Lauren adds, finishing Joyce’s sentence for her. We all laugh, and even Joyce has the grace to grin.

Wearing Something Girlish (Monday, 15 July 1991) We’re getting ready to head up for supper. I ask Lauren to put on something clean and nice.

“Do I have to wear something girlish?” she asks.

I smile and say no. So she puts on some shorts and a t-shirt. Yet she’ll have Mira over and they’ll play Cinderella together and get decked out in dresses and all the accessories. She’s having fun shifting back and forth between Lofty and Lauren.

Growing a Quick Beard (Sunday, 14 July 1991) Not too long ago, we took Lauren to see the movie version of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Costner. We had just finished reading the book to her and she had wanted to see the movie.

Now, with Joyce on her way to West Virginia to help teach calligraphy, I take Lauren to see Dances With Wolves, also starring Costner. As the movie opens, he is sporting a shaggy beard, whereas in Robin Hood he was clean shaven.

Lauren immediately leans over to me and whispers, “How did he grow his beard so quickly?!”

Kids flesh out their cultural view of the world so smoothly that it’s startling to see a blank spot. Something that isn’t filled in yet. It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Becoming Limber (Monday, 29 July 1991) Lauren and I are doing yoga together. She can do things with her body that I can’t even begin to do. She tells me that she’s been practicing. I say it has more to do with her still being a limber kid, adding that if I want to get as limber as she is I’ll have to do a lot of yoga practice.

“Or you could become a little kid again,” she replies.

Lauren, Claire, Myra
Lauren, Claire, Myra

I’m a Girl (Sunday, 29 July 1991) Lauren and Claire have been playing together most of the day, dressing up in princess clothes. At one point I overhear Lauren say, either to herself or to Claire, “I’m a girl.”

Apparently she’s wanting to assert her freedom to get into dresses. She even wears one up to lunch, but makes everyone promise not to tease her or make fun of her. She seems a little awkward about it, but is also enjoying the change. Later in the afternoon she’s back in shorts and a t-shirt, sitting out on the back porch, busily removing the toenail polish from her toes before going up to supper.

Loss of Innocence (Wednesday, 31 July 1991) Lauren and I are heading out for the final pee of the evening. I tell her that tomorrow it will be August. We get to talking about the different months and seasons. She tells me that she can’t wait until Christmas. After a pause she says, “You know, Mom was the one that filled my stocking with presents last year.”


“Yeah. I recognized the wrapping paper.”

“Well,” I say, feeling her loss of innocence, “at least you don’t know what your presents are going to be.”

She simply ignores my attempt to soften it, however, saying, “Now it’s no fun any more.”

The President’s Wife (Thursday, 1 August 1991) I’m raking gravel along the driveway. Lauren has come out on her bike to join me and is playing by the roadside while I rake. After a long silence, she asks, “Do you think that I might grow up to be the President’s wife?”

“Sure,” I reply. “That’s possible. What’s more, you might grow up to be the President.”

She looks at me astonished. “Can a woman be President?!”

“Yes,” I say, wincing a bit at the memory of my suffragette grandmother fighting for the right to even vote. “It hasn’t happened yet, but by the time you grow up I bet there will be a woman President. They’ve just had a woman President, called a Prime Minister, in England, and other countries have had women Presidents, too.”

She looks thrilled at the prospect and declares that it would be much more fun to be President than to be the President’s wife. We go on to joke about her husband being the President’s husband. I ask what she’d like to do if she were President. She says she’d put an end to all the big wars.


Beautiful Mating Cicadas (Monday, 5 August 1991) Walking back from the pond today, after swimming with Joyce and Lauren, I find a pair of beautifully interlocked cicadas on the road, entwined in their mating and absolutely still, as though they’re dead or in some kind of deep trance.

I carefully pick them up so that we can get a better look at them. There is only the barest hint of movement in one of the legs. While I’m carrying them homeward, they very gradually come back to life. By the time we reach our house, they are gripping my hand with their feet but are still joined together. I transfer them on our outdoor lantern and they settle there without moving. But when I check on them shortly thereafter they have flown away.

They are extraordinarily beautiful creatures, with their translucent wings and richly colored bodies. Lauren got a lovely demonstration of the “birds and the bees.”

The Birthday Balloon (Tuesday, 13 August 1991) A startling experience in the woods today. Lauren has been eager to go for more walks as part of our home-schooling times. I haven’t been carving enough time out of my busy schedule to follow up on her impulse. It’s easier to flow into schooling projects around the house or the community shelter, even though I know that not only will it be good for her to get out in the woods and prowl around more often, it will also be a tonic for me.

So today we finally shake free of our inertial patterns and go for a walk, following no particular plan, just letting our interests guide us from one place to the next, from stream to hill to fallen tree.

We are well into the woods, in a place to the west of the dwellings, where neither of us has ever been before. Suddenly I see a flash of bright red and white lodged against the underside of some bushes a little ways ahead. My first impression is that it’s a piece of litter; probably an empty potato chips bag.

Then I wonder how in the world it could have ended up in this remote spot. It couldn’t have blown in this far, and we make a point of not leaving trash around. So I walk over, pull it out from under the bush, and smooth it out as best as I can.

Slowly the pattern comes into focus: a variety of white hearts on a flamboyantly red background. And there’s a string or ribbon attached to it. Suddenly it clicks into a recognizable object. It’s a helium birthday balloon. Obviously Lauren’s, even though her birthday is in April and now it’s August. One that had apparently escaped and sailed away over the tree tops to eventually land in this obscure part of the forest.

Then Lauren remembers that on her last birthday, Gretel had left a birthday balloon for her, tied to our mailbox. It had disappeared before Lauren or anyone else had seen it. We always assumed that it had come untied and drifted skyward, never to be seen again.

But here it is, spread out on the ground before us, still very much heart-shaped and still retaining its bright birthday colors. Lauren and I grin at each other, and I muse on the wonderful synchronicity of finding this marvelous token on the very first time that we rouse ourselves enough to actually get out into the woods and walk. Good confirmation of the impulse.

Just Like When I Was a Little Kid (Tuesday, 20 August 1991) We’re leaving the community shelter, heading toward our house. It’s a crisp, autumn-like evening. The sky is clear. A waxing gibbous moon lights up the hills.

Lauren takes a deep breath and says, “I love nights like this. They’re my very favorite kind of nights.”

“What do you like about them?” I ask.

“I don’t know. They make me feel… They make me feel just like when I was a little kid.”

I Like Being Blind (Tuesday, 13 August 1991) Lauren walks down to the house this evening with her eyes closed, pretending to be blind. She carries her sightlessness into the house, trying to floss and brush her teeth without opening her eyes.

“I like being blind,” she says.

“What do you like about it?” I ask, remembering her interest in Laura’s blind sister Mary in The Little House series.

“Oh, I like not being able to see things, and having to feel everything. I wish I were magical so I could be blind whenever I felt like it. It would be fun to be blind sometimes. But I wouldn’t want to be blind all the time. That’s why I don’t poke my eyes out.”

Double-Take (Monday, 26 August 1991) David, Mary, and Sage have been away at the beach the past week and are due back soon. Lauren’s eager for their return. This morning in the community shelter, she and I are in the kitchen, canning tomatoes. Lauren sees Ron drive his yellow pick-up truck, Sunshine, toward the tool shed. So she decides to trick me.

“Here come David and Mary and Sage,” she says.

At the very moment she speaks these words, however, Sage walks through the door into the kitchen and says, “Hi, Lauren.”

He and Mary are back from the beach and have walked over to visit, unbeknownst to Lauren, who does the most classic double-take imaginable. She is completely nonplussed. Her face displays a mixture of disbelief, wonder, and fear. Then the tension of all these feelings explode into hilarious laughter, which helps her to quickly re-arrange her normal waking sense of reality, and she and Sage run outside to play.

Public Education (Tuesday, 27 August 1991) I have just read an article in the Fall 1991 issue of Whole Earth Review that really strikes home. It’s called “The 6-Lesson Schoolteacher,” by John Taylor Gatto. He’s the New York State Teacher of the Year, yet he writes a damning indictment of public education. I can’t begin to summarize it here. It’s quite powerful, and is a strong inducement to continue home schooling with Lauren.

A Question Out of the Blue (Tuesday, 27 August 1991) Lauren pops a fascinating question out of the blue at me today. As we’re walking down the path, she asks, “Who do you think is at the top of the tallest building in the world right now?”

Who but a child could ask a question like that?

Gifts and Abilities (Saturday, 31 August 1991) Lauren and I returning from the Days, having helped them paint some of the trim for their new house. She’s tickled, because I had warned her that she might not be able to paint much, if at all, and then it had unfolded to where she, Nathan, and I had painted the trim for a couple of hours. She got to use both a brush and a small roller, only stepped in the tray of paint twice, and had a wonderful time doing something she’d never done before.

“This is like Tom Sawyer white-washing the fence,” she had said at one point. “This is fun!”

So walking home at dusk, she suddenly asks me what I have that she doesn’t have. I’m puzzled at her question, thinking it must be some kind of guessing game.

“A belt?” I say.

“No, no. What do you have inside you that I don’t have? What special things, like painting, can you do better than I can do? And what special things can I do better than you can do?”

So this leads into a discussion of gifts and abilities. I explain that I don’t necessarily have a gift for painting, but that I have done more painting than she has and have therefore developed more of an ability to paint. She wants to know what gifts I think I have. I mention working with dreams, and listening to other people, and writing.

“I’m not sure about gardening,” I say, “whether that’s a gift or an ability.”

Then she asks what gifts I think she has. Things that she can do better than I can.

“Art,” I reply. “You have a wonderful sense of shapes and designs and colors that I don’t have.”

Then she talks about how much she likes to draw and how she can happily spend hours with just a pencil and a piece of paper.

The conversation meanders on as we walk down the driveway in the fading light, Lauren riding her bike slowly beside me, puzzling over those talents that we seem to be born with, and whether or not we choose to develop them. Her interest may have been seeded by the two biographies of George Washington Carver that we’ve been reading aloud in the evenings. And, of course, by her growing interest in her own specialness and uniqueness. Who she is as a person. What her gifts and potentials are.

Circles (by Lauren)