The Lofty Chronicles: 8

This continues an ongoing series of posts about a young girl growing up
and pursuing child-led learning at Light Morning. The series begins here

with an introduction. Links to the other posts in the series are here.

A few notes about the following journal entries: Lauren has asked everyone to call her Lofty. In my journal I sometimes use one name and sometimes the other, and she herself sometimes goes back and forth between the two. / We’re a common table community, meaning that we take all our meals together in the community shelter. / We’re also off-grid, so we heat and cook with wood and use kerosene lamps for light.

Tracing Gender Lines

Lofty in Lauren mode

The Old Western Café (Saturday, 7 March 1992) Lofty and I are most of the way up to the community shelter for the evening meal when she says, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I were dressed up in cowboy clothes, with a hat and everything? And you and Mom were dressed the same way? And we walked into a place called The Old Western Café? Wouldn’t that be neat? I’d like that!”

Lofty’s Treasures (Saturday, 7 March 1992) I’m in the community shelter with Lofty this morning. She’s wearing all her paraphernalia: the Swiss Army knife she got for Christmas — more on that in a moment — fastened to one of her belt loops with a key chain holder and tucked into the front pocket of her favorite pair of black jeans; a leather case she calls her “pouch;” and the small lambskin sack that’s her “fur-bag.”

As she helps me pick up the scattered shards of a broken kerosene lamp chimney, one of the sharp pieces slices her finger. She sucks on the finger, trying to get it to stop bleeding. Then, with a start, she reaches for her leather pouch.

“I almost forgot about them!” she says.

After rummaging through its contents, she triumphantly produces a small band-aid, which she puts on her wounded finger.

“I knew they would come in handy.”

I smile and ask her what else is in the pouch.

“You can look if you’d like.”

Just then her friend Sage appears and off they go. But later in the day I accept Lofty’s offer.

Inside her small “fur-bag” is a pair of dice, one red and one white. I set this aside and turn to her “pouch,” an old leather case with a zippered lid and a carrying strap. Maybe in a prior incarnation it held a pair of opera glasses. Now it’s full of treasures. I open the lid and carefully place each item, one at a time, on a table so that I can take a proper inventory of Lofty’s medicine bundle.

This is what I find:

A blue pocket notebook. A tiny Swingline stapler with two small boxes of staples. A pad of yellow Post-it Notes. A hand-buzzer you conceal in the palm of your hand just before you shake hands with someone and make them jump. (I had one of those when I was a kid.) A small pack of cards from an unfamiliar word game: l) Igloo 2) Glassy 3) Snuggle 4) Twilling. Coupon tickets you can only redeem at Showbiz Pizza. The Masonic trowel that Tom gave her. A pocket-size New Testament, including the Psalms and Proverbs, courtesy of Gideon International. A ballpoint pen, a plastic whistle, and a 1990 quarter. An aluminum medallion with the inscription “Knights Go Back To The Future, 1991.” A clear marble and a plastic cricket. A key-chain ornament from Union Bank. And finally, three additional band-aids.

Tom Sawyer would be proud. And perhaps envious.

A Swiss Army Knife (Saturday, 7 March 1992) This past Christmas, Lofty had a good demonstration of how malleable life’s circumstances can sometimes be. One token of that malleability now hangs from a belt loop of her jeans in a place of honor.

Adam had given the kids presents. Sage and Chris each got a Swiss Army knife. Lofty and Myra received battery-lighted viewing lenses for studying small natural objects. Both sets of gifts were nice, but gender bias clearly played a role in Adam’s choice of who should get what. The boys got knives; the girls got lenses.

I could tell that disappointment was brewing. Lofty had recently lost her pocket knife and was longing for another one. So after the presents had been opened, she managed a polite “thank you” for her viewing lens, while casting covetous glances at Sage’s fine new knife.

The next day she halfheartedly used the viewing lens, but quickly lost interest. Not only was she grieving over the knife she didn’t get, but she couldn’t make the light on the viewing lens work because the battery wouldn’t fit into its compartment. She asked me to take a look at it. I confirmed that the battery was the proper size and then helped her jam it into the compartment. It was a tight fit, but the light went on, so I handed it back to her.

A moment later she dropped it with a yelp and started sucking her finger.

“That dang thing burned me,” she exclaimed.

I picked it up and found that it was still hot. Part of the plastic case had even started to melt!

We showed the lens to Adam, who agreed that it was defective.

“It has a money-back guarantee,” he said. “I’ll ship it back to them for an exchange.”

Then some wheels began to turn. After a hurried consultation with Adam, he turned to Lofty.

“Do you want a new lens?” he said. “Or should we get the refund and order a Swiss Army knife for you instead?”

Lofty’s eyes lit up like a sparkler and before a word was spoken Adam got his answer.

The next two weeks were an agony of waiting. Lofty’s attention was riveted to each package that came in from the mailbox. Finally it arrived. She ripped open the box, pulled out the new knife, and carefully examined all its various blades and tools. Then she lovingly fastened it to her belt loop and slipped it into her pocket. The rest of us were impressed by how a cooperative universe can so easily transform a faulty lens into a beloved knife.

George Carver’s First Knife (Saturday, 7 March 1992) As an amusing postscript to the above story, Lauren has been asking Joyce to read her some more about George Washington Carver. Joyce was initially reluctant, as we had already gone through two biographies of Carver last fall. Joyce wants to turn to someone else.

George Washington Carver, circa 1910

But with Lauren pleading for more Carver, I pull out the packet of materials we had requested from Tuskegee University and find a small book by Glenn Clark: The Man Who Talks With the Flowers. So Joyce surrenders to child-led learning and starts reading it to Lauren. Almost immediately they come upon a serendipitous story. I’ll share it in full because it’s so delightfully relevant to Lauren’s Swiss Army knife. George Washington Carver is being interviewed by Glenn Clark.

* * *

“Could you describe to us your methods when you meet a problem?”

“I never grope for methods. The method is revealed the moment I am inspired to create something new. I live in the woods. I gather specimens and listen to what God has to say to me. After my morning’s talk with God I go into my laboratory and begin to carry out His wishes for the day.”

“Can you recall your first answer to prayer?” I asked.

“One of my most surprising answers to prayer came when I was a little boy of five or six. I had no pocket knife, and how I longed for one! I was very mechanical-minded. And of all things — a boy without a pocket knife!

“So one night I prayed to the Father to send me a knife, and that night I had a dream. I dreamed that out in the field where the corn rows joined the tobacco rows there was a watermelon cut in halves. One half was all gouged out. The other half, plump and full, was leaning up against three stalks of corn, and out of it stuck the black handle of a pocket knife.

“The next morning I could hardly wait till I got through breakfast before I scampered out to the cornfield. There where the corn rows joined the tobacco rows I saw a watermelon cut in halves, one half was all gouged out and the other half, plump and solid, rested up against three stalks of corn. And sticking out of it was the black handle of a pocket knife.”

* * *

Lauren is enthralled by the story and relates to it directly. None of us had heard this story before. The other two books we had read hadn’t mentioned it. Then Clark asks Carver another question.

* * *

“You have the habit of talking to a little flower or a peanut and making it give up its secrets to you. How do you do it?”

“You have to love it enough,” said Dr. Carver. “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets,” he continued as if talking to himself, “but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also — if you love them enough.”

* * *

Tracing Gender Lines (Tuesday, 17 March 1992) Today is Joyce’s birthday. It’s also Saint Patrick’s Day. The occasion inspires me to tell Lauren something about her ancestors. Genealogy can quickly become labyrinthian, so I’m only going to trace back her direct father-line and mother-line.

“Your father is Robert,” I say. “Robert’s father is Caleb. Caleb’s father is Henry Wilder. And since Henry Wilder was big into genealogy, I can trace your father-line back twelve generations, to when Pasco arrived from England on the shores of Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s.

Then I turn to Lauren’s mother-line.

“Your mother is Joyce,” I say to our daughter. “Joyce’s mother is Lilly. Lilly’s mother is Dana. Dana’s mother is Melly.” And there the trail grows cold. We don’t know who Melly’s mother was.

A younger Lauren with her mother and grandmother

Mother-lines are hard to trace because in our patrilineal culture girls take their fathers’ names and women generally take their husbands’ names. Women therefore don’t have surnames of their own, only given names. Slaves didn’t have their own surnames either. George Washington Carver, for example, bore the surname of the family that owned him.

What does it mean for a woman to be without her own name? How does being nameless lodge in her psyche? How does it affect her sense of identity and her continuity with the past?

It’s important to offer Lauren and other girl-children whatever slender threads of their maternal blood-line we can tease out of the scanty records available to us. In doing so, we can also open a window through which they may see the pervasive patriarchy that permeates this culture.

Spending a Million Dollars (Saturday, 21 March 1992) Lofty is telling Joyce what she would do if she had a million dollars.

“I’d buy a horse,” she says, “and a saddle and bridle and everything. I’d buy all the materials and have someone build me a barn. Then I’d buy enough fencing to fence in the pasture and have hay for the horse to eat in the winter.”

She pauses, then looks at Joyce.

“Do you think I could do all that for a million dollars?”

Lauren on Satch, a friend’s horse

Lava (Saturday, 21 March 1992) Lauren encountered another peculiar synchronicity today. She awoke from a dream about ice-cold lava flowing slowly across a highway. Then this afternoon she received a picture postcard from her aunt Heather, who is visiting Lauren’s uncle David and aunt Karin on the Big Island in Hawaii. The card showed molten lava from one of Kilauea’s volcanic eruptions flowing across a coastal highway.

The conjunction startles Lauren. It’s the only time she can remember dreaming about lava, and the only time anyone ever sent her a picture postcard of lava. Now they have both happened on the same day. Is this merely a coincidence, or does time do funny things in the realm of dreams and synchronicities?

Bedtime Stories (Friday, 3 April 1992) Lauren is riding another wave of enthusiasm for reading. This evening, after another chapter of our current bedtime story has been read aloud — it’s a long-standing family tradition — Joyce and Lauren climb into bed. Then Lauren reads her mother a few pages from The Cat in the Hat.

Won’t It Be Wonderful (Wednesday, 8 April 1992) We awake to a beautiful spring day. Lofty and I walk out of the house and up toward the community shelter. We’re heading to Roanoke today to pick up my mother at the airport. Hope is flying in from California for another visit with her first grandchild. As we pass between the vineyard and the woods, Lofty stops and takes several deep breaths, drinking in the aroma of the awakening earth.

“Won’t it be wonderful,” she says, “that Hopie will be able to come here and smell this smell?”

A Bomb at Blue Mountain School (Wednesday, 8 April 1992) Lauren dreams about being at Blue Mountain School, a small alternative school in the town of Floyd. She’s having a good time playing with some other kids, but apparently there’s a bomb in the news station that’s attached to the school and it’s about to go off.

A Different Option (Saturday, 18 April 1992) Tomorrow, after Light Morning’s traditional Sunday morning pancake brunch with friends and neighbors, we will celebrate Lauren’s eighth birthday. There will be presents and games and an Easter egg hunt. We’re expecting a big crowd. Fortunately, the weather forecast is favorable. Otherwise we would have to squeeze all those kids and their parents into our small community shelter.

Lauren is helping Joyce dye Easter eggs. They’re using natural ingredients. Over the years, Joyce has learned how to dye eggs to a variety of soft earthy colors. Toward the end of the process, Lauren wants to try an experiment of her own. So she gathers grass, onion skins, and several other substances, then stirs everything together and adds a few eggs. Half an hour later nothing has happened. The eggs are only faintly tinged with a drab color.

Disappointed, Lauren turns to Joyce. “Won’t my experiments ever work?” she says.

“Well, you can find out what I’ve learned,” Joyce replies. “Or you can study different books to see what other people do. Or you can try George Washington Carver’s way.”

George Washington Carver is one of Lauren’s heroes, so she rises to the bait.

“What way is that?”

“You ask God to help you figure out what experiments to try. Then you be quiet and listen.”

A long silence ensues as Lauren mulls over this unorthodox option.

Bowing To My Teacher (Saturday, 18 April 1992) After Lauren has finished dying the Easter eggs with Joyce, she comes down to our cabin to help me choose which games to play during her party. By now it’s mid-afternoon. As usual, I arose well before dawn this morning, so I’m already in a mid-afternoon energy slump and in need of a brief nap.

Perhaps Lauren has picked up on my mood, for once we’ve settled on the list of games she says, “What do you like to do?”

Her out-of-the-blue question surprises me; not only because it was unexpected, but because it’s an important question. My tired body can feel that the question is important, as though it’s something that people should ask each other more often.

So I share several things that I enjoy doing.

She nods. Then, after a pause, she says, “What else do you like to do?”

After thinking it over for a while, I add a few more activities to the list.

“What would you most like to do,” she says, “right now?”

Without any hesitation I say, “I’d like to take a short nap.”

“Well, that’s what you should do!” my almost eight-year-old daughter tells me. “You should do just what you most like to do, no matter what it is, because that’s the best way to get your energy back.”

I silently bow to my teacher and follow her advice.

One of Lauren’s drawings

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