The Lofty Chronicles: 4 — On Loan From the Universe

On Loan From the Universe

Tom and Lauren
Tom and Lauren


Winter 1991

A Family Vignette (Thursday, 5 December 1991) A beautiful vignette this evening, of life in our new form of family. After supper, Joyce goes off to the village meeting at the Institute for Sustainable Living. Marlene’s at her weekly gathering with Harry and Doris. The rest of us are sitting around in the community shelter by lamplight. Kent’s in the kitchen, reading the current issue of Harrowsmith. Ron’s near the stove, reading a book about dream-work. I’m on the couch, reading an old issue of Whole Earth Review. And Lauren is in Tom’s lap, in the rocking chair, listening intently to stories about his youth, for which she seems to have an insatiable appetite, and which he loves to share. Everything’s warm and cozy and family.

First Day at School (Wednesday, 11 December 1991) Mary invites Lauren to accompany Sage to Blue Mountain School yesterday. She goes and has a good time. It’s mostly a pre-school play group. I’m sure she’ll want to go back again. So the question of schooling is broached (necessarily so) and we begin to dance our way toward understanding.

They Don’t Need Those Things (Thursday, 12 December 1991) Just as supper is ending, Lauren gets out the Body Boggle game and tries to interest folks in playing it with her. Marlene and Joyce are away for the evening, the former to Harry and Doris’ and the latter to a gathering honoring the women elders of the wider community. So Lauren has only the four men to coax into her energetic game, and most of them are tired out from a full day’s work.

She resolutely goes ahead anyway, explaining what the various players are supposed to do and asking who wants to be which player. “I’ll play the spectator,” says Kent.

She glares at him and turns to Ron. “I’ll be the cheerleader,” Ron suggests.

“No!” Lauren replies in an exasperated tone, clearly frustrated with these old fogies. “They don’t need any of those things.”

Having cooked the meal, and therefore being exempt from the after-dinner chores, I choose to play Body Boggle with her. I’m surprised by how energizing it is, as I stretch into the necessary contortions, spreading out my hands, feet, and head to touch the letters of the words she spells for me.

So having yielded to my daughter’s desire to play, despite my fatigue, I find myself with more energy than I had before I started. An important lesson to remember.

The Infiltration of Garlic (Sunday, 15 December 1991) It’s fascinating to see small but nevertheless dramatic changes slowly being incorporated into our lifestyle. Take garlic, as an example. The first person I recall using garlic medicinally was Irene. She’d chew on a clove occasionally when she felt a cold coming on. We thought it was rather crude, socially, for her to pollute the room with the stench of garlic.

I believe Kent was next, some years later, to give garlic a try. Joyce, Lauren, and I followed suit soon thereafter. And the other night, Stan was talking about how he had tried several cloves to ward off an impending cold. And it worked. Doug, having never tried garlic himself, was encouraging Stan to use it.

So gradually, a small but significant piece of the alternative lifestyle becomes established– because it works, and because it meets a real need, despite the social taboo against its use. It’s a good little parable.

Naomi Dancing (Sunday, 15 December 1991) Lauren dreamt of Naomi last night. She says that Naomi was dancing, that she had dark skin (“like an Indian”), and that she was wearing a dress made of patches (“like a patchwork quilt”). Naomi was at the party last night. And she was dancing quite a bit, which neither Joyce nor I mentioned upon our return.

Beyond the specifics, however, it feels as though Lauren was picking up on something while she slept. The party was significant for the neighborhood. I can’t put my finger on why, other than to say that an event like that was needed, that the need was met, and that Lauren’s dream images capture the feeling-tone of the need having been met.

In the dream, Naomi (who is generally rather reclusive) was dancing. She had skin like an Indian (tribal activity). And she was wearing a patchwork dress (the neighborhood as a patchwork quilt). The specifics are clumsy. Yet the feeling-tone of the party and of the dream do seem to match.

Sleepy-Time Encounter (Monday, 16 December 1991) Lauren falls asleep on the living room floor tonight as we’re getting ready for bed. Joyce has already climbed under the covers. I’m brushing my teeth by the stove.

Suddenly Lauren opens her eyes and smiles at me in the strangest way. The smile is bright and wide, but she is clearly asleep. And her face is different. It’s as though someone else is smiling up at me through her sleeping features.

I kneel down beside her because it feels like she’s wanting to tell me something. She reaches up, still smiling, entwines her fingers in my beard, and pulls me down until our faces are almost touching. Then she closes her eyes, relaxes her grip on my beard, and “goes back to sleep.”

I finished brushing my teeth and carry her to her bed.

Important Things to Say (Friday, 20 December 1991) The community has had a visitor for the past couple of days. He’s an elderly man who is a monologue conversationalist. It’s hard for anyone to get a word in edgewise, and especially so for a child. At one point, Lauren tries to enter the conversation. She wants to tell him something, chooses her opening well, and speaks clearly and in a loud voice. He either doesn’t hear her or he ignores her.

She sits back on the couch, looking rather discouraged. So I lean over and say something about how frustrating it must be for her.

“He listens to what other people say,” she exclaims, with no little heat. “But he won’t listen to me.”

“Adults don’t do a real good job of listening to kids,” I reply.

“They sure don’t!”

Then, after a pause. “And you know what, it’s sad that they don’t.”

“How so?” I ask.

She looks over at me, as the monologue drones on in the background, and says, “Because kids have important things to say.”

Is the Community Poor? (Sunday, 22 December 1991) Rose and Wes came for a visit this morning. Then Rose came back this evening with Shara to go caroling with us. Walking into Light Morning, she asks Shara, “Is the community poor?”

“What do you mean by ‘poor’?”

“Well, Lauren doesn’t have a TV and can’t watch the cartoons on Saturday morning.”

Then, after a moment’s pause, she adds, “But she has the woods that she can play in any time she wants to.”

Another pause.

“I think Lauren’s way is better.”

Double Special (Monday, 23 December 1991) A nice warm time with Lauren after lunch today. She has come over to sit in my lap after she has finished eating. When it comes time to do the chores, she is so cozy and contented that she begs me not to get up. So I relinquish the chore routine and we continue to cuddle for a while.

Then this evening, while she and I are walking over to visit the Days, she says, “You’ve been really special today.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’re always special. But today you feel double special.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yeah. It must go back to that time we spent together after lunch. That was real special.”

New tools for Christmas
New tools for Christmas


Resistance to Change? (Thursday, 26 December 1991) Someone gives Light Morning a used couch. Before any of us have seen it, we are considering whether or not to keep it and, if so, for the community shelter or for one of the guest houses. Lauren is deeply opposed to the idea of having it come into the shelter. She doesn’t want it to take the place of the old bedspread-covered couch that we’ve been tolerating all these years.

I find her attachment to the status quo, her resistance to change, interesting. The rest of us are enthusiastic about replacing the current relic. She, however, is lobbying hard to leave things as they are.

Then we all go out to the parking lot to take a look at the couch, which is in the back of Tom’s truck. We quickly realize that it’s not in good shape, and dismiss the notion of it coming into the shelter. All of us, that is, except Lauren, who does a 180 and starts urging us to bring it in.

I suddenly realize that what she’s exploring isn’t so much a resistance to change, but rather the dynamics of group decision-making. When the adults are all interested in replacing the existing couch, she opposes the idea. And when the adults shift their position and decide against it, she shifts her position and favors the idea.

Tommy Knows (Friday, 3 January 1992) Lauren and Tom went to Roanoke yesterday. They did some laundry, had lunch at Show Biz pizza, and went to see Beauty and the Beast. Both of them had a good time. This morning Lauren says to me, in passing, “Tommy knows when I like things. I don’t know how. He just does.”

Sometimes I Can’t (Saturday, 4 January 1992) Lauren was rough on Joyce tonight. Not listening or being responsive to her needs. Joyce went down to the house early. As Lauren and I leave the community shelter later, I suggest that maybe she hasn’t been very tuned in to where Joyce is. She gets defiant and huffy and distant at first, looking down at me from the deck of the community shelter to where I’m standing on the ground below.

When I re-affirm my feelings that she hasn’t been respecting Joyce’s needs, though, she suddenly shifts gears. Coming over to me, she leans her head softly against mine. “Sometimes I just can’t,” she says. “As I get older, the cant’s are fewer. But sometimes I still can’t.”

Her turning instantly turns me. I’m deeply moved by her recognition of her limits and can easily empathize with her bumping up against the hard edges of those limits now and then.

Flexibility Is the Key (Thursday, 9 January 1992) With home schooling, flexibility is the key. My being able to read “the signs of the times” is crucial. Lauren clearly signals her interests and disinterests. If I am ready, willing, and able to follow these “highway signs,” we will both have an easier, happier, and more educational experience than if I don’t.

This afternoon, for example, coming down to the house with some pressing project or another on my mind, I find Lauren sitting on the couch surrounded by musical instruments. I have just barely enough grace to surrender my plans and follow her impulse to do music. We end up, all at her initiative, learning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the recorder. She has me practice it with her at least at dozen times.

Then she runs into her room, gets her blackboard and chalk, and writes out Mary Had a Little Lamb: A Recorder Duet by Lofty and Robert. She asks me how to spell the words she’s unsure of. Finally, she draws a lamb and a little girl at the top of the blackboard.

After carefully putting away the blackboard and the instruments, she arranges with me how we will surprise Joyce with the blackboard and then play the duet for her when she comes down. Which we do. All of this unfolds with such spontaneity and grace that I am staggered by the ease with which she has “studied” music, art, handwriting, and spelling.

And all that was asked of me was a willingness to be flexible and responsive. To give myself to the educational opportunities of the moment. To be open to “the signs of the times.”

I Wish This Day Had Never Come (Wednesday, 15 January 1992) When Lauren awakens this morning, the first thing she says to Joyce is, “I wish this day had never come.”

“You mean because the snow they predicted didn’t come in last night?”

“No! Because I was dreaming that you and Dad got me this little gray horse. And then I woke up.”

Tamper Tentrum (Sunday, 19 January 1992) Richard and Jacob tried to spend the night with us last night. Jacob went to sleep OK in Lauren’s room, but a while later he woke up and wanted his mother. He got to screaming and raising quite a ruckus. Richard finally capitulated and took him home.

In the morning, Lauren comments that, “Jacob really threw a tamper tentrum, didn’t he?”

Then she laughs at her own tongue twister and has to try several versions of it before coming out with what she intended.

Long Lost Brothers (Wednesday, 22 January 1992) I walk past Sage and Lauren this morning. They’re off in the woods a ways, chanting in unison, “We’re long lost brothers! We’re long lost brothers!” I have no idea what the context is or where the phrase has come from, and I forget to ask Lauren about it later.

I’m Happy! (Wednesday, 29 January 1992) We start working on the expansion of Tom’s cabin, Snowberry, today. David is focalizing. The rest of us are participating. At one point, as Joyce and I are clearing the new approach to the building, Lauren comes up to help. It’s a warm day for January, somewhere in the 50’s. Lauren has just come back from the house, having changed into shorts. She stands there in the sun, watching us work, and says, “I’m happy!!” It feels like such a true and healthy thing to say, that we all smile.

On Loan From the Universe (Friday, 31 January 1992) Lauren is growing up so fast. The years go sprinting by. Some day soon she’ll hop to the edge of the nest, test her wings, and fly. I’m realizing today that she’s only on loan from the universe. Feeling the tears rise up, at the thought of life without her. Strange tears, blending sadness and gladness.

Then comes the understanding, the visceral awareness, that not only Lauren, but also Joyce, and everyone else I know and love, are likewise on loan from the universe. Having not yet been faced with the death of a parent or the departure of a child, I am mostly shielded from the immensity of this mystery–that the universe asks us to return all that we’ve borrowed. And that the purpose of the loan isn’t to cling to those we love, but to use our passing moments with them to deepen our capacity to experience and demonstrate love itself.

More Bedtime Stories (Friday, 7 February 1992) Last April I listed the different stories that Joyce, Lauren, and I had been reading aloud as bedtime stories. Here is a more or less complete list of those we have read together since then.

Gifts of Unknown Things, Watson
Star Wars, Lucas
The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas et al
The Return of the Jedi, ibid
A Wizard of Earthsea, LeGuinn
The Tombs of Atuan, ibid
The Farthest Shore, ibid
Treasure Island, Stevenson
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Afternoon of the Elves, Lisle
George Washington Carver, Holt
Carver’s George, Means
Oversoul Seven and the Museum of Time, Roberts
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, L’Engle

“The Runaway Elephant” (Thursday, 13 February 1992) Lauren awakens this morning with a scary dream. It was triggered by the news account of a rampaging elephant at a circus in Florida. Having just been to the circus in Roanoke, Lauren related to the story directly.

In the dream, she is at the circus and an elephant gets loose and starts chasing people. We are all running away. Finally we are able to get into our car and drive back up the mountain. But soon the elephant shows up and continues to pursue us.

Upon hearing her dream, I remark that it sounds pretty frightening and that she must have wanted it to be over.

“Yeah, at first I did. But then I said to myself, ‘Hey man, it’s only a dream. Let’s see how it turns out.'”

An impressive touch of lucidity!

“Call Me Back When It’s Done” (Thursday, 13 February 1992) Lauren whimpers in her sleep early this morning. Later, after she has awakened, I ask her about her dreams. She can’t recall any at first, but then remembers one about Tom leaving Light Morning in the middle of the Snowberry expansion project. Apparently the pressure has become too much for him. His comment, on leaving, is, “Call me back when it’s done.”

[A note: Lauren was picking up on something here. A month or two later, the pressure does become too much for Tom and he takes off, asking us to let him know when the project is finished.]

Welded (Friday, 14 February 1992) Funny, the phrases kids pick up. It snowed this morning. I mention to Lauren that Sage will probably stay home today, rather than go to Blue Mountain school.

“I’m welded to going over there!” she exclaims. “And you can’t break a weld. Not unless you can break iron.”

Mommy (Sunday, 16 February 1992) When Lauren awakens this morning, her first word is a somewhat plaintive, “Mommy!” She doesn’t have anything special on her mind; just wants to check in with Joyce and see what she’s doing. Her way of checking in, however, triggers a rush of associations. I feel the depth and intensity of the connection between a mother and her child. What a difference between calling someone “mother” and calling her “mommy.” Like the difference between “father” and “daddy.”

Then I remember reading that when Jesus, during his agony in Gethsemane, calls out to his Father, he addresses him as abba. In Aramaic, abba signifies not so much “father” as it does “poppa” or “daddy.” It’s the word that a young child might use. And it conveys the same feeling-tone as Lauren calling for her “mommy.”

I then associate to the phrase “Mother Earth.” For a brief moment, I catch a visceral glimpse of how it might feel to have a relationship with the Earth like that which Lauren has with Joyce. To carry in one’s heart such an emotional intensity toward our home planet that we refer to it not only as “mother” but also, at times, as “mommy.”

A Fleeting Taste of Sweetness (Monday, 17 February 1992) Lauren has just bought a large flower pot so that she can transplant her small but growing spider plant into it. As the image of the plant passes through my mind, there comes what I can only describe as a fleeting taste of sweetness. Very subtle, like the faint fragrance of faraway honeysuckle.

I snuffle at the sensation for a moment, but it’s clearly not physical. Instead, it feels as though my body, at a cellular level, knows that plants sweeten the air in a room, and that this knowing has somehow been translated into a familiar, olfactory language. The “scent” of sweetness is delicate and transitory, yet distinct and pleasurable.

Perhaps this process is like the translators who work at the United Nations–the “Japanese” of my cellular knowing is magically transformed into the “English” of my normal sensory awareness. Maybe something similar happens when we awaken with a dream–the ineffable feelings of the night are translated into stories and images in the morning.

An Elegant Solution (Wednesday, 19 February 1992) Joyce, Lauren, and I have a wonderful problem-solving session today. The focal point is a cluster of frustrations about home-schooling. Joyce is feeling that I’m too busy to give home-schooling the amount of time it needs. Lauren is grousing about Joyce putting too much pressure on her. And Joyce, in turn, feels that Lauren is being uncooperative and unappreciative. Normal stuff, but important to attend to.

Without going into all the details of the session (the solution has to do with shifting from an implied and/or imposed curriculum to an emphasis on collective goal-setting), I can report that what we arrive at is not only satisfactory to each of us, it’s also exciting and liberating. It’s another excellent demonstration of the creative use of the E.T. (Effectiveness Training) approach to problem-solving, and follows hard on the heels on an equally cathartic session with Lin and Richard. Elegant solutions are transformative.

The Old Paths (Wednesday, 19 February 1992) Lauren and I are walking up the path from our house this morning. I’m was heading toward the community shelter; she’s on her way over to Sage’s. We part company at Merriwether, each going our own way.

A few moments later she calls to me, “You know, I like the old paths and the woods paths [meaning, respectively, the former logging roads and bushwhacking], because you can move around without being seen by anybody, and you can go wherever you want to go secretly.”

And off she tromps through the woods.

Taking After Her Uncle David (Thursday, 20 February 1992) Part of our family mythology as I was growing up was that my brother Ethan would squirrellishly hoard away all his money, while any cash that his twin brother David happened to come by would immediately run through his fingers.

Lauren seems to be taking after her uncle David. In Roanoke today, she has her Ninja Turtles money belt strapped around her waist, filled with dollars and quarters and nickels. Toward the end of the day there’s a new Barbie, a set of bubble-blowing devices, and a key clip for Sage’s knife on the front seat of the car, and her Turtle pouch has only loose change in it.

We get to the Co-op, where I finish setting up our new box of calligraphy. Lauren comes to the check-out counter with a few more “trinkets” in her hands. Her purchases are tallied up and she fishes out the last few coins from her pouch, borrowing a penny from me to complete the transaction.

I have to smile. She has taken it right down to zero and it doesn’t seem to bother her a bit. What’s money for, she seems to be saying, if not to be spent?

I Like the Japanese (Thursday, 20 February 1992) While driving into town today, Lauren and I get to talking about the Olympics. She is enamored of the young Japanese-American figure skater and is hoping that she wins the gold medal.

“I like the Japanese,” she says. “They’re always smiling and they’re always small.”

A cute comment from one of the little people. I forget, even after my dream about the Tall Ones, how different your perspective is if you’re four feet tall. I forget about the biblical observation that, “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Lauren obviously feels friendly toward the Japanese, at least in part because they are more her size.

Wild Horses (Thursday, 20 February 1992) We also get to talking about death. I forget how. Maybe she asks what I want to happen to my body after I die. I say that I don’t know yet; that I can feel good about either returning my body to the earth through burial, or having it burned.

Then I ask Lauren what she would like to have done with her body.

“Oh, I think I would like to have my body tied to the back of a wild horse.”

“Hmm. That sounds like it might be fun. But I don’t know if it would be fun for the horse when your body starts to stink.”

She giggles and agrees. Finally she decides that she wants to be buried under a field where wild horses graze.

“Then the grass that feeds off your body,” I say, “will feed the wild horses.”

She smiles and nods.

I Won’t Take Your Gaff (Friday, 21 February 1992) I overhear Lauren singing a little ditty to herself during chores after supper tonight. “I won’t take your gaff. I won’t take your gaff.”

I ask, rather nonchalantly, where the song comes from.

“Oh, I just made it up.”

I’m not sure who in particular, if anyone, she is singing to. It must be tough sometimes to live with a bunch of pig-headed adults.

Lofty’s Three Jobs (Tuesday, 25 February 1992) Lauren is talking about what she wants to be when she grows up. “I’d like to have one of three jobs: a cowboy who works with wild horses; a singer who writes her own songs; or an inventor, working with someone who can build what I invent.”

This is Fun! (Thursday, 27 February 1992) Lauren is reading me a story from one of her books. We set a goal of so many pages. But when we reach the cut-off point, she keeps right on going and reads through to the end of the story.

“This is fun!” she exudes. “I like to read.”

Then we start joking about my having to hide the bedtime story that I’m reading aloud, so that she won’t “cheat” by sneaking a look at the book and reading ahead of where we are. She says that the first book she wants to read is Riddle Master, by Patricia McKillip.

And the reason she has plowed ahead and finished today’s story?

“I wanted to see what happened. I didn’t know how the story was going to turn out.”