Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Mighty Queens of Freeville

The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them by Amy Dickinson

Dickinson is the advice columnist for "Ask Amy" which replaced Ann Launders' long-time advice column. After reading this memoir, I think I would like to read her column. The Mighty Queens is an account of Dickinson's life as a single mother after her painful divorce, mixed with memories of her childhood in the small town of Freeville.

With each chapter following a theme in her life, rather than simply following chronological order, this is as much a book of essays as it is a memoir, and Dickinson's wry but clear-eyed view of the world is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor in some way. It was a sweet and charming read, and reminds me to keep faith in every day normal people.

Here's a quote from her chapter about teaching Sunday school and her church experiences:

Some people preach from the pulpit, moving people toward belief or action. Others, like our Freeville neighbors, minister by sharing their joys and concerns, by cooking and selling chickens, or by dressing in their bathrobes and standing in the cold while they demonstrate their faith to the community. All of us had something in common - the desire to show up, to be a witness to others, and to patiently await a miracle.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Now, clothing for the kids!

summer sewing

Okay, I'm a bit obsessed with clothing right now, so I hope you will all bear with me. Now, clothing for the kids has practical issues (they grow out of it so fast, I need to stick to a budget, and it needs to be stuff they can really play in and get dirty). But then I have two special issues, different for the different genders of my children.

Boys Clothing:

It is sad but true that after you graduate into toddler sizes there is less and less "cute" clothing for boys and more and more clothing depicting violent images. In a standard, low-end store (any of the marts, Target, etc.), I have a very hard time finding stuff for Carbon that is OK with me. I'm fine wth dinosaurs, fish, sports images, and large trucks, but even that is limited and gender biased.

There isn't a whole lot of creativity open for boys in the standard clothing that is out there, either, and that is another gender-bias that I want to avoid. Carbon has always enjoyed dress-up and playing at sewing with me, and I want to encourage him to see clothing as a form of creative expression for himself. An easy solution is for me to sew clothing for him, letting him pick out the fabric and have input. This resulted in a famous pair of polka dot pants that he wore when he was 2-3 years old until they literally were more patches than pants. He loved those pants, even though most people thought he was wearing his pajamas.

Girls Clothing:

Like this post from Giddy Goat, many parents I know are disturbed by the early sexualizing displayed in girls clothing. Once again, I see this being worse at the box stores, where the clothing is more affordable. A recent family trip to Target to look at girls clothing sent my husband and me out of there very disturbed by all the, frankly, sleazy clothing that was being sold in a size 4.

There are a few solutions that address all of these issues.

I can sew my kids' clothing. I am fortunate to have the skills and tools that make this a fairly easy process. But, it's still time consuming and I frankly do not have the time to sew all of their clothing as they grow.

I can shop at higher-end stores. Gymboree, Baby Gap, and The Children's Place have all been places that I could find cute clothing that didn't offend my sensibilities either with sexualization or violent-imagery. If I cruise the clearance racks, I can just about afford to shop there. But really, this option is too expensive for growing children.

I can carefully sift through thrift stores. And I do, sometimes finding great items. It's like a treasure hunt, and it's fun, but once again I don't have time to get all their clothes this way, and I can't guarantee finding something when we actually need it.

I can order from catalogs. I love CWDKids, Hannah Anderssen, and Lands End Kids. Once again, they are expensive, but the kids and I enjoy flipping through them and ripping out pictures we like. It might inspire me to try and sew something like it. Or, every now and then I might order something. (I think tights are a must to order - cute tights and I can just whip up a simple skirt to go with them).

What about you? How do you dress your kids?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

the reality of partnered life

I recently had a conversation with a new friend who is a single mom and has just started to work as a Director of Religious Education. She spoke to the envy she felt for married women, as she didn't have any help with her kids or back-up when she had to go to work.

We talked about that, and I asked her to specify each of the things she imagined I had better than she did: someone at home to watch the kids when I go to work - NO, someone fixing me breakfast on Saturday mornings - NO, someone helping with house and car maintenance - NO. The only advantages I had over her were that I don't have to deal with a custody battle with an Ex and I don't have to worry about money as much as she does.

It's all so much more complicated than labels. When I was in grad school, some of my classmates would complain that they had trouble keeping up with the work load and being single parents. Not to belittle their struggles, but I secretly envied them the simple label. I also envied them their every other weekend free, as they could and would go out and party and have fun with all the single and unencumbered students while their Ex had the kids.

I compared this with my situation: married to a National Guard soldier deployed to Iraq and mother to a 9 month old baby. I had no family of my own in town, and the baby kept me isolated from my classmates because I wasn't free to hang out in bars or at their non-child-friendly houses. I spent grad school feeling horribly alone and just doing it all by myself.

After my husband came home from Iraq, we had a short period of time that felt like we were equal and happy partners. Then I got pregnant, then he got depressed. We've had some years of difficult relationship, and it seemed that it was all he could do to just be here with us. Now he is a commuter with a demanding job at a start up computer company. He can't guarantee being home, so I have to arrange childcare for all my evening work commitments (luckily I have GREAT arrangements, but still ...), and he doesn't have the time to do anything outside of work.

I don't want to bash my husband or our relationship - this is how we have worked out our partnership. It's not perfect, but no relationship is. I can get by, and I can do this. And, I know I am not alone. There are plenty of people who have a loving relationship that does not include childcare help or housework.

This is a long way of saying that we can't label or judge others' circumstances. Single parents, married parents, single folks without kids - everyone has their responsibilities and their challenges and somehow they are all getting by one day at a time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to School

Last week we started First Grade here. I felt like it was a big deal, so the week has been marked with things to make it feel more special to Carbon: new school supplies, new art supplies, a new method of setting up his work, a new routine, and finally, a new computer that is there "just for him".

We used to have one of those wall charts up, so that Carbon could put a little sticker in a box for everything he did each day. It was discouraging, though, when life happened in ways that didn't lead to any stickers, and it didn't really tell us what we had done specifically each day. So now I am just keeping notes in my journal, and the kids don't see them at all. What the journal entries look like so far:

8/17 First Day of First Grade. One page each of math, phonics, and spanish workpages. Read from the greek myths book, Read Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Its Cosmic Story. Started a crystal growing experiment. Read a chapter of Little House in the Big Woods. Follow up idea: paint universe pictures and post them in a timeline.

8/18 Read Stories on Stone by Jennifer Owings Dewey. Math, spanish, and phonics. Greek myths and a chapter of Little House. Follow up idea: paint on rocks.

8/19 Read The Birth of the Earth by Jacqui Bailey and Matthew Lilly. Greek myths and Little House, and math, phonics, and spanish. Today his reading seemed to have suddenly improved.

8/20 Read Digging up Dinosaurs by Aliki, greek myths, Little House. Did math and phonics. Watched IMAX: Island of the Sharks.

8/21 Read greek myths and Little House. Did phonics and math. Played a boardgame and did yoga.

8/24 Read greek myths and Little House. Painted two pictures for the universe time line. Did math, spanish, and phonics. Practiced the piano. Got the computer set up and had a little lesson on how to navigate it.

8/25 Read greek myths and Little House. Did math, spanish, and phonics. Went to homeschool park meet-up, walked around Capitol Lake with a field guide. Played a math game on the computer. Helped cook and take dinner to the homeless camp.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What to Wear to Work

In April, back on my other blog, I wrote:

Thoreau warned, in Walden, that we should beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes. How true!
When I got my job at the church, I stressed a bit about what clothing I should wear. As Director of Religious Education, I should look professional. When I needed to go in front of the whole congregation, I needed to look put together. But then I also would be doing arts and crafts with little kids, sitting on the floor, and standing on my feet for hours.
Back in the fall, I really felt like I needed to be more professional looking. I bought three pairs of nice women’s slacks from Lane Bryant - really nice well fitting pants.
The thing is, I don’t wear those pants at all. They’re nice, and they probably are appropriate for the job. But, they are not “me”. I had never had any pants like that before, and it turns out I just don’t feel very comfortable in them. I’m much, much more comfortable in corduroys, chinos, and skirts (if they are the “right” skirt). In fact, the item I purchased last fall that I wear the most to work is a jean skirt I got at Goodwill for $4. It looks great with all my tops and sweaters, and I’m comfortable in it.
Now, I’m sure my “comfortable” look isn’t quite as professional as the look of those pants that are just hanging in my closet gathering dust. But, honestly, living here in the Northwest I don’t think anyone at church cares. If I’m not wearing faded blue jeans and sneakers with a fleece pull-over, I’m more dressed-up than a good 3/4’s of those in attendance at church.
Fashions come and go, and sometimes “identities” that require a certain “look” come and go too. But, the kind of clothing that I’m comfortable wearing and put on day after day has not changed in years. Maybe I’ll look dated. Maybe I’ll look boring and conservative (I’m sorry - I like polo shirts and khaki pants!). But why spend money on clothing I won’t really wear when I’m pulling things out of the drawer in the morning? I reach for my favorites, not what I “should” wear. So, bring on the L.L. Bean catalog!

As Fall and Ingathering at church approaches, I'm still working on this whole clothing issue. I got through the summer very nicely with skirts, bare legs, a nice pair of "mary jane trekker" shoes from Lands End, and assorted "dressed up" (ruffles and tucks and detail work) t shirts from JCPenney. Now, I have that "back to school" feeling that tells me I want to start fresh with the Fall. And I read a blog called Beauty Tips for Ministers which serves to remind me that there is a look that is appropriate for the clergy and looks that are not. It's my little fashion fix, although it's not completely appropriate advice for me (east coast vs. northwest regional fashion norms, and I'm not a minister so I have different particular issues).

I started by ripping out pictures I like from the catalogs I get in the mail: JCPenney, Lands End, L.L. Bean.

trying to plan the fall wardrobe

And next I did a smart thing and called my mom. She took the time to listen to me go through my closet and describe what I have and what I like to wear. I have a few skirts I love, and yes, some of them are denim skirts. I have three cotton blouses that I have to iron, one crazy cool orange paisley corduroy blazer, and two turtleneck sweaters. I have three cashmere cardigans in bright red, black, and pink. I have a pair of corduroy paints and a pair of dressy gray slacks.

What do I really need to be a Director of Religious Education? As a profession, we want to be taken seriously and respected, and dressing well is part of that effort. On the flipside, I think dressing too professional turns off the kids and youth that I'm actually working with. A little "I'm still fun and hip" for the youth, and a little "I don't mind sitting on the floor or climbing on the playground equipment for the younger kids". Actually, I'm a bit inspired by Ellen DeGeneres.

Her look, of fun shoes and clothes that she can move in and is comfortable in, is really cool.
Okay, I've done my research and talked to someone close to me and thought about it, but now I need to shop. What I'm going to buy for the Fall:
1. A new pair of dark denim jeans. Not for Sunday mornings, but for weeknight meetings and around town. (Last year's jeans, being faded now, get demoted to housework and park play with my kids).
2. A couple plain knit tops that will look good under sweaters.
3. One more good, well-made, and classically styled cardigan sweater, in a fall color (green, brown, or burnt orange).
4. New tights.
5. Maybe some new skirts if I see something really cute.

Friday, August 21, 2009

trying to find a spiritual practice

The week that I spent at Religious Educators Leadership School convinced me that I want a daily spiritual practice in my life. At RELS, we had 1/2 hour each morning for personal spiritual practice, and all along the hill we were staying on there were folks spread out doing their practices. Because I don't have a practice, yet, I tried many different ones throughout the week. I did yoga on the first morning, then I joined a circle for reflective poetry reading the next day. I did walking meditation on the trail around the camp one day, and then on a morning that seemed really noisy in the camp I retreated to my ipod and did a "reflective music meditation" by journaling as I listened to music. On the final day I just journaled, as I tried to process the week and think about re-entry into my "normal" life.

A spiritual practice can be anything that someone does with the intention of deepening their spirituality, so it is deeply personal and can take many forms. There are people who swim laps as a spiritual practice, or run, and there are people who have very formal practices with chants or prayers.

I still don't know what is right for me. My minister and I have talked about it, but of course I can't just do what he does - his spiritual practice is what is right for him but we are very different people. He says I'm "still fishing", which reminds me that I think fishing could be a practice for some people.

This week I have done 10 minutes of yoga every morning, using segments from a couple Shiva Rea DVD's.

Things I love about this practice: it gets rid of all the morning stiffness I feel when I get out of bed in the morning, I'm awake and present to my body afterward, and it gets my metabolism revving for some breakfast.

Things I only just like: the music feels nice, and I like the balance of being gentle with myself and challenging myself that yoga entails.

Things that are missing: my mind is bored (maybe that's the point, though?), and I crave more insight and very little comes this way.

I'm going to continue the yoga. Maybe I don't need a more cerebral practice in my life since I have plenty of other cerebral activities already. Maybe the real answer will be that I need a couple different practices. But the yoga definitely makes me feel good, and it is a beautiful way to start the day.

I'm still fishing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to NOT do church for kids

I'm reading Little House in the Big Woods to Carbon, and last night we read the chapter titled "Sundays". Here is the description in Pa's story about his father's church experience:

In church, Grandpa and his brothers must sit perfectly still for two long hours and listen to the sermon. They dared not fidget on the hard bench. They dared not swing their feet. They dared not turn their heads to look at the windows or the walls or the ceiling of the church. They must sit perfectly motionless, and never for one instant take their eyes off the preacher.

When church was over, they walked slowly home. They might talk on the way, but they must not talk loudly and they must never laugh or smile. At home they ate a cold dinner which had been cooked the day before. Then all the long afternoon they must sit in a row on a bench and study their catechism, until at last the sun went down and Sunday was over.

Carbon was wide-eyed as I read that to him. "They couldn't even stretch?! What if they got a cramp in their leg during church?!"

This is just about the opposite of how I do religious education for kids. It was pretty fun to come across this description in the book, and to see how shocked Carbon was. (It was right up there with his shock when he went to my grandparent's Presbyterian church and they didn't tell a children's story in the service.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Teaching generosity

Today, as I sit in my little office at church, I am listening to the podcasts of the sermons I missed in the last month, and I am rolling coins. Counting out the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies that children have brought to the children's collection, I am reminded of their small contributions and their grasping toward generosity. Sure, the change the kids brought each Sunday isn't exactly a huge sacrifice for them. But still, they have taken pride in giving.

Here is an article I wrote about this for my church newsletter:

Cultivating a Spirit of Generosity
Generosity may not be a quality you associate with children and youth. These are times of high personal consumerism, as children beg for toys, as teens spend their money on clothes and music, and as parents can feel like there are always extra hands reaching for their wallets. From a developmental standpoint, children and youth are so busy figuring out who they are that they have less thought and empathy for others.
But this doesn’t have to be the whole story. Children and youth also have a very fine sense of justice and fairness, and they want things to be fair. When they are shown injustice, they have a passionate desire for it to be “made fair”. If we give them the information, we may be surprised at how much they care.
Children and youth also want and need to discover their own capabilities. They can thrive when they are given a chance to take care of others, and prove to themselves and others how useful they can be. Children naturally feel an attraction to animals, partly because they can “take care of” animals. Older children can care for younger children, and if they are properly supported and supervised children and youth can take care of adults.
It’s also important for us to remember that children and youth may really have less to give (less money, less ability/strength, less time, less personal-choice), and that we need to honor what they do give as being as much as they could. When a child saves up pennies to give, that is as generous as an adult of means donating thousands of dollars. When a youth comes out for an afternoon of volunteer work, they may be juggling a ride to get there, or their school or family schedule.
Part of our work in Religious Education is to cultivate that Spirit of Generosity in our children and youth, and toward that end we have been collecting money in a Children’s Offering during the Children’s Chapel. The total raised came to $55.04, much of it in very small coins, carefully counted out by the children themselves. In the May Chapel, the children met to decide where their offering would go. Four organizations were presented as possibilities: UUSC, GRuB, Out of the Woods, and the World Wildlife Fund. Posters for each organization were posted around the room, and the children used stickers as their votes and placed them on the poster they wanted to support.
The WWF was a landside winner for the first service, and had a narrower win during second service. However, the children at the second service came up with their own idea that seemed fairer to the other organizations. They proposed dividing the money evenly between the four, and they worked out the math themselves. The boys who first suggested this idea were obviously proud as they described it again to me after the chapel.
May the Spirit of Generosity be with us all,

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Been Reading - Twig

twig book

Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones, was a delightful find from someone's blog, which unfortunately I have forgotten and therefor cannot give a hat tip where it is due.

The book is now more than 60 years old, and it reads with a charming old-fashioned quality but is also so simple and universal a story that it still made sense to my modern child. A little girl, known as Twig, lives a simple and bare-bones life, with the small and barren backyard of her apartment building described as "her whole world". When she finds an old tomato can that has been ripped in a shape that looks just like a door, she puts it out in the yard next to the dandelion flower, and hopes that a fairy will come and make its home in it. Through the magic of "Elf", a young character escaped from a story, she herself is transformed into the right size to live in the tomato can.

The adventures from there are simple and sweet, but were still of interest to Carbon as we read it to him. Although the book is older, the author seemed to be writing from her own life and her own heart, and those aspects of childhood have not changed in all these years.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sharing the Love

Here is a tour of my favorite parts of the blogosphere, the posts and the people who have enriched my life recently.

Some posts have made my mouth water, and sent me into the kitchen to cook. Angry Chicken posted about a fruit dessert, while Salt and Chocolate contemplated healthier baking.

Not A Stepford Wife made me laugh when she posted about Buzzy Boys, and The Boys Almanac reminded me of the joy of camping with How to Camp Without a Tent.

There was a lot of inspiration to create, with The Crafty Crow showing Outdoor Playspaces, and a homemade Footie/Pitch Soccer Game, and Fingerpainted Silhouettes, while Angry Chicken made a Book About Colors.

I enjoyed a glimpse into a life different from mine, with Walk Slowly, Live Wildly showing off The Minnie Winne Renovations.

There was food for thought as a parent and a teacher: Camp Creek Blog asked about teaching grit, The Organic Sister writing about How To Shape a Child, and Laughing Stars musing about Motivation. And if I was doing a star unit with my kids, I would love the ideas The Crafty Crow showed in Starry, Starry Night.

Handmade Homeschool posted about her One Word, and inspired me (as usual) toward intentional living. Holistic Mama reminded me of simplicity with The Noise of Stuff and Emptiness.

This is why I love blogging, and reading blogs - all these wise and inspiring and thought-provoking people sharing such wonderful ideas.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

When is dark humor too dark?

Last week, as we drove from Kansas to Kentucky, the family listened to James and the Giant Peach. Jeremy Irons reads it, and he did a really great job. But there are the parts where James's aunts are killed by the giant peach rolling over them and making them flat as pancakes, and I had that little twinge where I really didn't want to hear my kids laughing about people getting killed, even if they were really nasty ladies.

I am a bit of a prude about this, and my husband and I argue about whether it's OK for the kids to see The Simpsons. I grew up during the heydey of the show, but my parents didn't like for us to watch it, because it was too dark. Don't even get me started on South Park.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors, and I'm currently reading Hocus Pocus. The book is darkly comic, like all of Vonnegut's work. One of the little blurbs (written in Playboy, of all places) on the back of the book sums it up nicely: "Vonnegut evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laughter that soothes our troubled reflections ... He's mad as hell and laughing all the way to the apocalypse."

Does dark humor soothe our troubled reflections? Is it easier to see the world in cynical terms, and just make fun of it? The jesters have long had a tradition of "speaking truth to power" by making fun of it, and the current work of people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert follows that worthy, and perhaps necessary, path.


I still don't like it when my kids laugh cynically. There is time to be cynical later, my loves. Can't you just be sweet and innocent for now?

Time for real learning

making their own comic books

"Perhaps our pressure on our children to grow, to learn, and to achieve is a reflection of our own way of being, as we hurry ourselves from task to task, from job to home, and through each moment, absorbed in our thoughts and anxieties, reacting rather than responding, acting from fear rather than love. Allowing our children the freedom to develop their own interests, to respond authentically to opportunities, and to grow and learn at their own pace is nothing less than refusing to indulge our fears and anxieties about the future and instead taking a courageous stand on behalf of love. The rhythm of the authentic, soul-based, inner-grounded life is slow and unworried. In it, we step outside of time, outside of the panicked cravings to achieve, to overcome, and to win, and outside of the desire to control ourselves and others. Here there is time for real learning."

from Guerilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Open Source Theology

I recently had the amazing experience of attending a week-long Religious Educators Leadership School. With 17 other religious educators and 5 inspiring faculty, we spent a week exploring our personality types, group dynamics, systems thinking, conflict management, leadership styles, UU History, and theology.

It was all pretty cool stuff, and all of it was well-presented by faculty that were each passionate and inspiring, but one thing that stood out for me was a particular process we engaged in for theological reflection. This process is called Open Source Theology, using the software term for things like wikipedia which allow virtually anyone to collaborate on the writing of something. This can be done, and is done, on the internet as part of the cyberchurch phenomenon. A quick googling of "open source theology" will turn up a few sites where you can see it in action.

But we did it as a group exercise, and it was very powerful done that way. A group of nine sat down with a question or topic that was given to us. My group had the question "what is faith?". Ground rules were to focus on the commonalities between ideas and opinions and not engage in in-fighting. Then we had a step-by-step process:
1. Silently reflect for five minutes on the topic.
2. Next, silently write for five minutes your own statement in answer to the question.
3. Each theologian is now invited to read their statement. The group task is to listen with an ear to the common ground and new perspective that could be explored further.
4. After everyone has read their statement, then go around the circle giving each person a chance to say what they heard in common among the statements, and write those commonalities down on newsprint.
5. Take at least a minute to silently read over the list of commonalities.
6. Next, go over each statement on the newsprint and give participants a chance to say how that speaks truth to them, holding disagreement until later.
7. Now discuss if there are any points that need clarification, and add that if there is consensus to do so.
8. If there are point of disagreement still, those may now be expressed on the newsprint in a different color ink.

At that point you would turn your notes over to a subcommittee of two who would be charged with writing it up as a statement of belief for your group, while noting the points of difference if there are some.

What was really powerful about the process was the feeling of ideas expanding as all the participants collaborated. We were not able to completely avoid debating points of disagreement, but we tried to stick with the process and I think it was important to do that. By focusing on what we hold in common, it felt like we were digging toward some sort of Truth, with a capital T. Of course, I realize that it would have been different with a different group, and that it was only Truth for that group of nine people sitting there at that particular time. But still, it was deeply meaningful to several of us and gave us a sense of grasped meaning that we could take away with us.

I very much hope to do something like this at my church this year.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why I am writing this blog

This is a new blog, for a new focus in my life. I've been writing a blog focused on homeschooling for the last four years, but now I have a new focus in my life. I am the Director of Religious Education for a Unitarian Universalist church, and also still the homeschooling mom of two children. I am engaged in my own personal journey and spiritual practice, while also trying to support and facilitate the spiritual journeys of people of all ages.

My life has changed in the last year, and I am changing as well. It felt like it was time for my blog to change too. The new title is inspired by the book Curriculum of Love by Morgan Simone Daleo, but it is also a reflection of my own realization that the ultimate center of value for my life is love, and I want to live in a state of "radical loving kindness". The subtitle of the blog raises up the values that a wise minister recently listed to me as the core of my religious tradition. From Unitarianism I have freedom, reason, and tolerance, and from Universalism I have faith, hope, and love. That list is my goal as I work with children - a tall order to be sure.

If you read my other blog, The Learning Umbrella, I hope you'll switch over to this one. I still intend to post about children's books, my domestic life as an organic/simple/green momma, and homeschooling my kids. But I'll also be posting about my work as a religious educator and my own spiritual practice(s).