The Lofty Chronicles: 6 — Sifting Through Your Mind

Sifting Through Your Mind

Lauren visiting Aunt Heather
Lauren visiting Aunt Heather

Spring 1992

How Many Words Have You Spoken Today? (Saturday, 18 April 1992) As we are walking up to supper tonight, Lauren again surprises me with an offhand question.

“How many words have you spoken today?”

I am brought up short.

“I have no idea.”

“Take a guess. How many words would you guess you’ve spoken so far today?”

I admit that I don’t have the faintest idea and wouldn’t even know how to make an educated guess.

Inwardly, I find myself associating to financial journals and keeping a budget. Then a weird insight surfaces, of words being the coin of some other realm. It’s a realm and a currency of which I am only vaguely aware. But keeping track of how I “spend” my words might be as important in that realm as keeping track of how I spend my time or my money is in this realm.

Then, as though reading my mind, Lauren continues.

“Wouldn’t it be neat if we carried around a piece of paper and a pencil some day and wrote down how many words we spoke? Not counting each and every one, but stopping to jot down about how many we used each time we spoke, and then adding them up at the end of the day.”

I Haven’t Decided Yet (Saturday, 18 April 1992) After supper, I’m tossing a wiffle ball to Lofty for batting practice. While I’m retrieving a ball that she’s hit over my head, she remarks, “I haven’t decided yet whether, when I grow up, I’m going to play baseball or football.”

Sifting Through Your Mind (Saturday, 18 April 1992) We put away the wiffle ball and bat and start throwing a half-filled water balloon back and forth to each other. I’m amazed that it doesn’t break on the sharp tufts of grass. It must be made from a sturdy grade of rubber.

It’s dusky. Joyce is in the community shelter, talking with her parents who are visiting from Delaware. Ron, Marlene, and Tom are chatting on the porch. Now and then a high-flying jetliner passes overhead on the way to Atlanta. Lower down, a bat skims the treetops, hunting for insects. It’s a gentle evening. We’re both happy to be outside, tossing the balloon around.

“Do you sometimes get real quiet,” Lauren says, as though wondering out loud, “and go sifting through your mind?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes when I’m not doing anything, I kind of sift through my mind, like I’m going through a box to see what I want to get rid of. I throw some stuff away, and keep other stuff.”

She pauses, as the balloon sails through the dusk.

“It’s funny,” she continues. “It’s like that divider on my desk where I keep my different papers. My mind has cubby holes like that, or categories, where different thoughts go when they come in.” She gestures with her hands. “And the strange thing is, there’s always room for more. No matter how many thoughts come in, there’s always room for more.”

“How is it,” I ask, “that there’s always room for more? Why don’t our minds get crowded? Or all filled up?”

She’s quiet for a moment, then lies down on the grass, looking up at the almost dark sky. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “It’s like they’re disks or something.”

The image of a large coin comes to mind. Then it shifts 90 degrees and practically disappears, because, instead of viewing it face on, I am looking at its edge. Maybe huge clusters of thoughts are like galaxies, I muse; great, wheeling disks that appear either slender or enormous, depending upon whether we view them from the “top” or from the “side.”

“Sometimes I sift through my thoughts and get rid of the bad dreams,” she goes on. “So that they don’t build up into something. It’s like I’m collecting things, and deciding what I want to have in my collection.”

Shoo-Shoo (Sunday, 19 April 1992) Returning from my walk this morning, I meet Lofty heading out. We pause and talk a while. Today’s her birthday party and I want to get the details of a game she wants to play, called “Sharks and Fishes.”

“When I played it at Augusta,” she says, “they called it ‘Whales and Fishes.’ But I like ‘Sharks and Fishes’ better.”

She explains the game and shows me how big the playing field should be. Then, as we each move on a good ways in our respective directions, she turns.

“You know,” she calls, smiling, “I’m waiting for someone to come up to me this morning and say, ‘Where’s the birthday girl?’

“And then I’ll say, ‘You mean, where’s the birthday boy?’

“And they’ll say, ‘What birthday boy?’

“And I’ll say, ‘This birthday boy!!'”

“And then when they say, ‘Why do you always want to be a boy instead of a girl?’, I’ll just say, ‘Shoo-shoo!!'”

She gives me a long-distance grin and continues her morning walk.

Happy Birthday to You! (Monday, 20 April 1992) A nice party for Lofty yesterday. Lots of kids. Lots of parents. A combination Easter egg hunt, Sunday morning pancakes, and birthday party. Everyone seemed to have a good time. As though we were all looking for an excuse to get together.

The weather threw a scare at me, threatening to drizzle. I had planned for a lot of outside activities for the 15+ kids. No conceivable way that everyone could have squeezed into our small shelter. But the clouds parted and the drizzle held off.

Myra and Claire spent the night. The three of them are downstairs now, supposedly getting ready to go up for breakfast. Sounds to me like they’re singing and clapping along with some music from Sweet Honey in the Rock.

“Time to get ready to go up for breakfast, girls,” I call down.

No answer.

I’m guessing that they’ll opt to stay here and munch on the Cheerios that Lauren’s grandparents brought. So I’ll sign off and go to breakfast myself. Hard to leave the music, though.

Nearing Our Destiny (Wednesday, 22 April 1992) We’ve had torrential rains the past several days. Roanoke’s expecting another flood by the time all these swollen mountain tributaries funnel their waters into the Roanoke River. Wes and Shara, who live next to the river, will probably have to evacuate their home tonight.

But today dawns clear and the roar of Free State Creek proves an irresistible lure. So Lofty and I decide to pay it a visit. We pretend we’re rain drops. Starting from close to our house, where the runoff from the vineyard hillside spills across the path, we follow the water into the overgrown clearing where the old homestead used to be, then down a rocky cascade into the Free State valley.

The walking proves steep and difficult. Finally, however, the ground levels out.

“Sounds like we’re nearing our destiny,” Lauren remarks, listening to the tumult of the water.

I smile and agree.

Then we round a bend and our little stream pours its generous share of rain drops into the already turbulent Free State Creek. There’s an impressive amount of water barreling toward an anxious Roanoke. The creek is well out of its banks.

We fool around in the valley for most of the day, finding brown salamanders, wine-red trillium, and, by the bend in the river, a “robbers’ hideout” straight out of Tom Sawyer. We return home up a longer and gentler slope, getting back just in time for supper.

A note from the next day: Wes & Shara were forced to evacuate. The flood waters eventually crested less than an inch below the threshold of their front door. They have no basement, though, and were largely unscathed. Rosie and her friends had fun chasing a big fish and a snapping turtle through the lake that was formerly their front yard.

The Power of Prayer (Saturday, 25 April 1992) Joyce, Lauren, and I, and a few neighbors, are going to the annual meeting of the Virginia chapter of the Nature Conservancy today. It’s being held at their new Bottom Creek Gorge preserve, just a few miles from here.

A big tent is set up to protect the chairs and tables from possible rain, but most of the planned activities involve various hikes and other outdoor events. They are clearly gambling that the day will be nice enough to enable them to show off their new acquisition. They are also clearly keeping an eye on the weather. The last few times they’ve tried outdoor annual meetings, they have been rained out.

But the morning’s bright and clear, with only a few suspicious clouds on the horizon. In her opening remarks, the matriarchal chairman of the board of trustees refers to their concern about the weather. Then, looking up appreciatively at the blue sky, she says, “We must have a lot of Christians, and other people who pray, here with us today.”

Several of us local folks roll our eyes a bit and wonder, in passing, about the Buddhists and pagans and atheists. Lauren, sitting next to us, overhears our remarks. But she seems more interested in what the other kids are doing to entertain themselves during this wordy and boring portion of the day.

The formal, talky part of the event wraps up just before noon. A short break is announced, to be followed by lunch and then the hikes. The sky, meanwhile, is no longer blue. The little white clouds having taken on an ominous shade of gray. A light drizzle starts to fall. Lauren and I decide to avoid the rush for the tent by seeking shelter in our car.

“Well,” she remarks, as rain drops patter against the windshield, “it looks like the Christians and the people who pray must have left.”

I laugh and nod, marveling to myself yet again at how kids take in everything that goes on around them. Even when they don’t seem to be paying any attention to it.

The Christians, by the way, must have poured on some prayer power, because those few drops of rain are all that come down. It doesn’t actually clear, but the black clouds back off and everyone enjoys the hikes.

Palm and Sun (by Lauren)
Palm and Sun

A Sweet Gesture (Sunday, 3 May 1992) Lofty, Sage, and I are preparing to walk to the pond for a swim. Sage wants to go barefoot, despite our suggestions that the gravel will be sharp on his still tender feet. Lofty even offers him the use of her second set of flip-flops.

But he insists on going shoeless. So we shrug and set off.

Sure enough, just beyond our mailbox, Sage starts to bemoan how hard the gravel is. He tries the side of the road, but finds it not much better. Then Lofty stops, takes off her day pack, and removes the spare flip-flops which Sage had previously rejected. She had surreptitiously stashed them away, knowing that he would need them.

It’s a sweet gesture, and eagerly received. Sage promptly and thankfully slips them on and off we go to the pond.

“A Wild Ride” (Sunday, 10 May 1992) We had a long meeting last night to discuss the pros and cons of building a new community shelter. The question is being called because of the large stash of old plywood pallets to which Adam has gained access.

Joyce has been tenaciously advocating the need for such a shelter for years, and has drawn up elaborate architecture layouts and renderings. From a practical point of view, however, the project seems ludicrous. All of us are already up to our ears in other responsibilities. We can’t imagine where the time and energy will come from for something this major.

So this morning I awaken with a dream of Lauren getting ready to ride down a steep woodland trail, the way she used to ride her tricycle down the path to our house at break-neck speed. This time, however, she’s going to be riding Ron’s wheeled plywood dolly that we use to move heavy furniture and appliances. Kevin, a friend and local builder, is standing with Lauren at the top of the path.

Lying down on the plywood as though it’s a sled, Lauren pushes off. She starts down the hill backward, however. Feet first, rather than head first. As she picks up speed, the swiveled wheels start to spin her around. She’s having a wonderful time. I’m appalled, though, watching her head spin round and round, just barely missing the rocks and trees.

She whirls all the way down to the bottom of the hill and part way up the other side before her momentum finally slows and she comes to a stop. I am amazed and relieved that she hasn’t crashed.

Upon awaking from the dream, my immediate associations are to the potential plywood for the new community shelter, and for going “feet first” rather than “head first.” Just jump into it, the dream seems to be saying, rather than analyzing it to death. And my association to Kevin has to do with an insistence upon quality.

[A much later postscript: We accepted Adam’s offer of the plywood pallets and three years later broke ground on the dicey project. Now, eight years into construction, and having officially moved into Rivendell, our new shelter, both the hidden costs and the incalculable benefits are continuing to manifest themselves to us.]

Lofty’s Full Week (Thursday, 14 May 1992) Lofty’s had a full week of it. Sage was here a couple of days. She over there once. We helped Ed and Randye with their fence and she spent the day playing with Eli: goats, kittens, ponies, swimming.

Another day in town with Rosie. Then to Dixie Caverns with the Blue Mountain kids. And to top it off, her first horseback riding lesson with Alysia. She says she’s ready for a break, a quiet day at home with not too much going on.

A Question of Trust (Saturday, 16 May 1992) I come down to the house on this sunny afternoon to find Lauren in a rather contemplative mood, swinging on her swing,. We don’t talk. I simply watch her from the window, wondering how much I trust her. Wondering how much I trust myself.

If she were going to school, my primary concern would be whether I trusted the school to be responsive to her feelings and needs. But given our choices, my questions lie closer to home, so to speak. Do I trust her indigenous interests and curiosities, and her desire and ability to pursue these, independent of outside pressures?

Doesn’t true education, in other words, have its roots in a child’s innate need to creatively explore the tidal zone between his or her inner and outer worlds? And isn’t this need like a bold spring head, bubbling out of the ground like sudden laughter or spontaneous play? Or like natural hunger, which can reliably guide us to an understanding of what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat?

One of my quarrels with compulsory education is that an outside agency assumes the role of telling children what to learn, when to learn it, and when to move on to something else. Over time, the child’s innate capacity to be inner-directed is thwarted and suppressed. Eventually they are taught to look to others, and to become dependent upon others, not only for direction and evaluation, but also for the intimately related sense of self-worth.

So the seemingly simple act of choosing to trust Lauren to make most of her own decisions about when and what and how much to eat, both literally and figuratively, has far-reaching implications.

This question comes home to roost, of course, when I consider how much I trust myself. At one level, do I trust myself to give her the time, the attention, and the support that she needs? Beyond that, do I trust myself to pursue my own gifts, interests, and inclinations? Because I’m unlikely to trust Lauren, or anyone else for that matter, any more than I’m willing to trust myself.

The Bottom Line (Tuesday, 19 May 1992) Doug is in a confrontational mood during our Tuesday night meeting, probing various people. At one point he tells Lofty, who only rarely joins us for these events, that her parents don’t tell her the truth.

“They do too!” she immediately counters.

Then, after a brief pause. “Most of the time they do.”

“No they don’t,” Doug insists.

I know what he’s getting at–that truth and integration go hand in hand; that the more segregated we are, psychologically and spiritually, the less truthful we will be, both with one another and with ourselves. But he doesn’t explain what he means, of course, and I wonder how Lofty will respond to his inimitable style.

She ponders his assertion for a moment.

Then she says, “Well, I know that one thing they tell me is true.”

“And what’s that?” he asks, his curiosity clearly piqued.

“They tell me they love me,” she replies, with quiet certainty.

Doug smiles and agrees with her. I am warmed by her response, sensing how important it is that she has something relatively unshakable to fall back upon when she’s feeling threatened.

Bushwhacked by John Gatto (Friday, 29 May 1992) Today is my birthday. I wake up with the first telltale symptoms of the flu that both Lofty and Joyce are already experiencing.

“What about my birthday dinner at Transdyne tonight?” I wonder apprehensively. “It’s too late to re-schedule it now.”

So I wander up to the community shelter. After breakfast, Joyce starts preparing lunch and a couple of casseroles for this evening. She can hardly keep on her feet, her energy is so low. I get the cake ready for her and put it into the oven, then drag back down to the house.

Collapsing into a chair, I have an urge to listen to the newly-arrived John Gatto tape. John Taylor Gatto is a controversial teacher in New York City. After winning that city’s Teacher of the Year award three times, he was named New York State’s Teacher of the Year last year.

What makes him so controversial is his scathing indictment of what he calls “government monopoly compulsory schooling.” His acceptance speech for the New York State award was titled, “The Seven Lesson Curriculum.” I was so impressed, upon reading it, that when I heard he had a book out, I asked our local library to obtain it for us via Inter Library Loan.

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling arrived a couple of weeks later, courtesy of a Wyoming library. For me, the book was a powerful articulation of what had previously been a strong but mostly inarticulate resistance to public schooling. It also had a radicalizing effect on Joyce. We decided to order a copy, as well as a tape of a speech that Gatto recently made to a home schooling group in Ohio.

Yesterday, the book and tape arrived in the mail. In the same mail was the third grade home schooling curriculum from Oak Meadow, which we had previously ordered. I noticed the synchronicity, but let it pass. There was too much else going on. Spring is a busy season here.

This morning, however, after coming down from the kitchen, and with the help of a rainy day, a stressed back, and the onset of the flu, I relinquish my crowded agenda and sit down to listen to the Gatto tape. The impact is unexpected and dramatic.

My first impression is an appreciation for the quality of the recording. It’s well done. Then, hearing Gatto speak, I realize once again how powerful the spoken word is, compared to a written transcript. Then, five or ten minutes into his speech, he says something that triggers uncontrollable tears.

The depth of the emotion startles me. My response to ideas is rarely so visceral. I have hardly recovered my composure, however, when another remark sets off a second round of convulsive sobbing. Three or four more times during his talk, I find myself crying my guts out over what he’s saying. By the time the ninety minute tape is over, I am physically and emotionally drained.

Slumped in my chair, the turbulence slowly subsiding, I realize what a tangled and intricate skein those feelings had been. “Tears of rage, tears of grief,” as Bob Dylan once sang. And along with the rage and the grief, an unbearable mingling of hope and fear, despair and determination.

Not just for Lofty. And not just for the public school kids in the neighborhood and beyond, or for their families. But for myself. For my community. For our entire culture.

I feel the terrible consequences of so many children growing up not really knowing either family or home, taught not to trust or to love themselves, fearful of intimacy and spontaneity, disconnected from the Earth. I feel the present and pending price of this devastating alienation, and deep in my bones I tremble for our future.

Then I recall the card that I’d drawn during our last “Tuesday Night Game.” It was from the Seth/Jane Roberts material. I’ve been carrying it around in my pocket ever since, all but forgotten. Until now. So I fish it out and re-read it.

Ideas have no reality unless you make them your own. Make friends or enemies of them. Fight with them or love, them but use and experience them, not only with your intellect but with your feelings.

Shaking my head in amazement at how appropriate the card is, I get up and trudge to the community shelter for lunch. Folks ask how I’m feeling, knowing my energy is low, and are astonished to see me burst into tears. Eventually I get the story out. Lofty comes over and puts her arms around me, comforting her uncharacteristically distraught father.

After lunch, I barely have the stamina to get back down to the house, take off my clothes, and crawl into bed. Joyce is in the same shape. Lauren tends both of us. She turns back the covers, brings us drinking water, and stokes the stove. We tell her that she must be growing up; never before have both her parents been sick at the same time. She smiles and agrees, and ends up going to Transdyne with Ron, Marlene, and Adam to celebrate my birthday, with the guest of honor and his wife “in absentia.”

The following day brings a slow recovery. We’re told that the party was fun and that Lofty did an admirable job of standing in for her ailing parents.

And the three of us are now leaning toward returning the third grade curriculum. While attractive, it feels rather tightly structured. It appears that we’re being nudged still further down the road of child-led learning.