I often mention how difficult I think my children are on this blog, and I’ve been realizing lately how little I talk on here about how amazing it is to get to be with them, and how the hard behaviors are all wrapped up with their genius as people. This is partly because I don’t want to expose them, partly because our real life is lived with the people we see and spend time with, and partly because when things are going well I don’t stop to analyze it as often. I was chatting with a mom the other week whose kindergarten-aged son is hating the curriculum she’s using and she can tell the lessons are going over his head. He’s not learning to read. Her two-year-old daughter can sometimes get the answers her son can’t. Her husband is anxious, she feels like a failure, he’s saying they’re going to put their son in school next year if he hasn’t learned to read by the end of the year. And I resonated so hard with all of that; every part of it.
I had several false starts with my oldest son where I could tell everything I was saying was going over his head. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t try, it was that he just didn’t understand. He wasn’t ready. All I could say at the time was that I could tell he wasn’t ready. I didn’t have any answers for how he would be made ready, or when he would be ready on his own, I just knew he wasn’t ready then. I also knew that putting him in school might produce what looked like progress in the short run, but may not result in actual reading comprehension in the long run. I knew my active little five-year-old boy would soon get very tired of sitting still in class and that he would most likely be labeled ADHD, and I just didn’t want that for him.
When he was seven and my second-born was almost six, we decided to put them in a hybrid school for a year. Two days in school, the rest of the time at home. We had done some extremely painstaking work together the previous semester when he’d turned seven, learning the alphabet, learning to sound out some words. It was rough. But he had something. We put him in first grade, knowing he’d be behind on reading but probably ahead in math. That program turned out to be more work for me, and I really didn’t like it at all (a whole different post) but he did gain confidence that year. There was value in him seeing what the other kids could do. His competitiveness made him rise to the occasion. All of his teachers told me at our first meeting that he had gained confidence and that he wanted very badly to please them.
I want to pause here and say that, while those things were helpful and needed tools for all of us for that time in our lives, I don’t see them as appropriate guiding forces for education. I didn’t want my son to do the work because he wanted to beat the other kids and please his teachers. I’m happy for him to have other outlets to exercise those strengths, but the delicate joys of story and logic need not be a proving ground for them. I want those to be a joy unto themselves, and if his unformed boy’s brain can only grasp a part of what we’re doing – if he only wants the bread rolls out of the feast I’m trying to lay before him – then so be it for now. If I can extend the metaphor, here’s the attitude we’ve adopted: you don’t have to eat everything on the table, but you do have to eat a few bites of the healthy stuff before you can have a treat.
When he was two and not yet saying many words, my husband was very concerned. I remember our wonderful family doctor (who had seven kids of his own) told us this guiding principle that has stuck with me: only be concerned if he loses words he has already gotten. As long has he’s moving forward, even if he’s going slowly, he’s doing fine.
That advice has gotten through some harrowing spots! Today, my son is reading at grade level and writing book reports; every day, in fact. Because I have to keep things dead simple to keep my sanity and to keep us moving forward, we do not use much curriculum. Most curriculum drives me nuts anyway. Here’s what he does more or less every day:
Reads a chapter in a third-grade chapter book, tells Daddy what it was about, and then writes a one-page book report. We use the spelling errors to make a spelling list, which he studies.
We use Math U See for math for all the kids, and I love it.
In their morning time with me, we read the daily office for Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, learn a hymn, and read books together. We’re studying American history, so we’ve read some historical fiction like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Johnny Tremain. We also read an art history book called Great Painters, Shakespeare stories for kids (and we’re starting to watch Henry V together), and various nature books.
All the kids are working their way through the Hooked On Phonics app on the iPad
The boys play the Prodigy math game on the iPad every day
Piano lessons once a week for each kid
There are innumerable other things they do to contribute to their education, with and without my help. This weekend, Wyatt (8) found two spiders while he was doing chores. He put them in jars with little habitats, looked them up in one of our field guides, and made a drawing of one of the spiders, including the approximate scale of the spider compared to him, the markings on its back, and the position of its legs. He read to find out what it eats. He had zero prompting from either of us. Gilead (10), is constantly building something, and Ginny and Wyatt are almost always drawing. Ginny (6) has basically taught herself to read, and reads all the time. We listen to an audiobook (right now, it’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) as much as possible, and I try to take them outside for a nature walk as much as I can. In the winter, it’s more like sledding or snowboarding for Gilead. We try to keep a big pile of library books handy on subjects they’ve chosen, which I find them perusing throughout the day. They ply the adults at our small church with questions on any given topic they are obsessed with at the moment: Aliens and Bigfoot have been especially prominent lately. They also have access to the Camera, Garage Band app, and a stop-motion animation app on the iPad. They’ve used all of these to make their own art.
This is not an exhaustive list of what we do at home, and it doesn’t even include our extras, like basketball, AWANA, and our homeschool co-op. I just wanted to illustrate that a) being “behind” on one subject and having trouble with it doesn’t spell disaster for the future, as long as you are moving forward, and b) you don’t necessarily need fancy (expensive) curriculum to make actual progress. When I write it all down like this, I realize how much my kids are getting, and how expediently we’re doing it. Henry does math and language arts with the boys while he’s working from home. They are usually done with everything by 1:00 p.m. and have time to pursue their own interests all afternoon. I clean, take care of the toddler, and workout around Ginny’s schooling needs. And it’s all done in a peaceful home atmosphere without the need to rush anywhere first thing in the morning, and without the external pressure to hit an arbitrary benchmark.
I recently finished listening to John Holt’s How Children Learn, the 50th anniversary edition. It was an Audible purchase I made on a whim, but I’m glad I did. Holt (not the reggae singer) was a disillusioned public school teacher who wrote a book previous to this called How Children Fail, which sparked a debate in the 1960’s. By the time he had released his second book, (this one) he was already expressing disappointment in how little had changed in the public school system after a promising upheaval.
I was so inspired by what he had to say, which mostly amounted to close observation of young children who have not yet been schooled, or who have had little schooling. It is literally a study in how children learn. I am eager to read How Children Fail to see how he approaches that subject. His insight is life changing, both as I reflect on my own education and what I know of my husband’s, and as I evaluate my preconceived notions of what my own children should be doing as I am homeschooling them. His insight into the type of research that was being done on children at the time (upon which many of our current practices and values are based) is pure gold.
My takeaway was that people mostly teach themselves anything they want to learn, and that they mostly do it in spite of what someone else is trying to teach them, unless the teaching is very pointed and practical for their needs at any given moment. Holt was dismayed at the increase in testing 30 years ago, despite his work as a teacher trying to help the system move the other way. I wonder what he would think now? His conviction is that all school mostly does is grind any spark of creativity out of kids, so that as adults they have stopped trying to learn anything. Unless they are very stubborn and exceptional people.
Don’t take my word for it. Definitely read him for yourself.
I think what he’s saying is true. What he writes resonates with what I’ve read of Charlotte Mason and with my own experience, especially in learning to teach my children.
Sometimes, like the other day when I went to get my hair cut, people are astonished when I tell them I have four children. “That’s so many kids! Oh my gosh.” My hairstylist wasn’t chiding, but she was genuinely taken aback.
I wonder what she would have said if I’d told her I wasn’t necessarily done.
It’s a hard pill for some of my family members who know it to swallow as well. My last pregnancy was very difficult, as was the treatment and induction at the hospital, and the recovery. If things had gone differently, I could have died. It was not a great situation.
I understand their concern. They treat me like the adult I am, and we’re not at odds about it. There’s a legitimate question that I ask too: where’s the line? How much danger do you allow yourself to be in for the sake of bearing another child? The answer to that question for you probably rests on what you believe about reality, as does mine.
The comments and advice I get, as well as the soul-searching conversations I’ve had about homeschooling are in a similar vein. I am around plenty of other children, and I know mine are all extremely strong willed. They all act like first-borns, which shouldn’t surprise me since they have two pretty fiery first-borns as parents. God help them. They are – some more than others – utterly exhausting at times. There are some personality traits that are a cross to bear, some learning difficulties that have me stumped.
It’s hard, hard work being a mother. I can’t even tell you what it is to try to figure out their learning needs because I have so little with which to compare it. It’s more than hard. I have doubted myself and my choices for as long as I have been making them. Should we get him evaluated? Should we get put him in preschool? Should we put him in kindergarten? Should we this, should we that? Am I ruining his life by keeping him at home with me? Setting him up for failure whenever he joins the world?
When everyone around you is doing the same, different thing from what you believe to be right (Some of it, right for us. Some of it, I will admit, I think is just right, period), it can be confusing. And when the answer everyone seems to want to give you is to send him to school, to stop making such a big deal of it, to just admit you’re not a teacher and those are the only moms who are successful at homeschooling, it can feel crippling.
But I am stubborn and headstrong. It’s a thing I didn’t know about myself until lately. I’m proud of it, in this instance.
I remember so vividly the time in my friend Emily’s life when she had four small children, whom she was homeschooling. Brilliant Emily, with an Ivy League education, who could have made more money and had more prestige in her lifetime than I will ever see. She had chosen, instead, a life of bearing children (Emily has 8 of them now!), and she was in a health crisis. They were paying me to make dinner for them so she could have some space to focus on her health. It was such a sweet time for me, and Emily is a kindred spirit.
I remember her telling me how the people close to her were telling her to stop having children. They couldn’t understand why she would persist. You’re sick, they would say to her, you’re depressed. It’s obvious what you should do.
Here’s what I think it often amounts to, this good faith permission to give up: it’s a denial of suffering. It’s a denial of the truth that we all must suffer some things. We all die, we all suffer. It’s a denial of the good of suffering; that it produces patience, perseverance, character, hope.
And I think, ultimately, that kind of advice will backfire. What kind of language will it give you or your friends, what kind of symbolism, not to mention experience and fortitude for when you must suffer because you have no choice? And if you can’t even sit with someone who is suffering these relatively small discomforts for the sake of something bigger, how will you sit with someone who is suffering senselessly? What language will you have to give them? What symbols can you point them to to show them their suffering has meaning? How will you help them bear it?
Also, how could you possibly hope to stand for what you believe in yourself if it means you will suffer?
It’s not always so cut and dry, I realize. My friends who perhaps haven’t wanted to see me suffer through the process of homeschooling may not agree with my conclusions about education, and therefore think I am suffering unneccesarily. Or they are also afraid for my children because they think I may fail them. I wouldn’t fault them for that, it’s a mark of character. Or they could be simply tired of hearing me process the same fears over and over, or rightly see that I am complaining but don’t know how to tell me that’s really my problem.
Our culture is against most kinds of suffering. We’re all for suffering the lack of a personal life and sleep to pursue an exciting or important career. And certain factions are still all about physical suffering for the sake of a better body or a better race time. Winning, in other words, is still seen as a good reason to suffer in our culture. But for other things? No, we have therapy for that. We have drugs. We have schools and daycares and contraception. We have self acceptance.
Fewer and fewer people see suffering for the sake of bearing another child as anything but lunacy, except for in a few situations. Nobody thinks the mother who has four children already, and who is likely to be in danger if she gets pregnant again, is doing anything noble by having a 5th child. I am likely to suffer, if I do, both in body and in spirit from the knowledge that many people think I am crazy or don’t approve. My friends and family won’t stop loving me, but they may not understand. Even if this is so, I still count myself very lucky.
It’s similar with my decision to keep homeschooling, especially when my kids don’t hit the “right” benchmarks at the right times; when they compare unfavorably with my peers’ kids in the wrong ways. And on top of that I am tired, I am sometimes confused, we don’t have a second income, and I am overweight because I am neglecting myself. Making changes to any of those things while also caring for a baby (and other children) is nigh on impossible.
My friend Emily persisted. She does persist. And I’ll tell you this: because she allowed herself to suffer rather than use an easy out, she has a depth and a wealth to give to me and to the world. Her season of bearing and raising children is relatively short in the span of her life. But think of all she has learned how to give when that’s done! It has changed her, irrevocably, for the better. Not to mention, in this case, the many beautiful souls her suffering has brought into the world.
I think maybe we see someone suffering like that and think it’s going to break them. Maybe they’ll get divorced. Maybe they’ll get sick. It’s a real fear in this broken world. But maybe it’s because we have so little imagination for suffering – for what comes after. Yes, it does make some people brittle. It does lasting, terrible effects in some cases. I don’t think I have all the answers for suffering.
I guess I’m just saying that sometimes the most helpful thing is not advice or a solution. Sometimes, when you see someone suffering – even if it’s for something that makes no sense to you, and especially if it’s someone you love – the best thing you can do is allow them to suffer. Allow that they are suffering, and there’s no way through it but through it. When you want to give someone an out, it may be more for your sake than for theirs because it’s hard to watch someone suffer. It also takes humility.
I’ve seen in several places recently, a false and damaging idea repeated about what courage is and how it works. It goes something like this: there is some man or woman out in the world who, being placed in a sphere of influence or at an intersection with a group of people who disagree with him, holds an unpopular opinion and refuses to back down. The commentator upon this scene gives the opinion that this person ought to have shown courage by capitulating to the group, or that the group in fact showed courage by standing up for what’s right. Inevitably, the situation ends with nothing going the dissenter’s way. He has stood for what he believes to be true to no avail. In the opinion of the observer, truth and righteousness have prevailed and the dissenter deserves to be cast by the wayside, along with his unfortunate opinions. The courageous mob lives to fight the next battle.
If I had only encountered this idea in one place, I would have laughed it off, but I’ve seen it over and over in the last several months: this legend of the “courage” it takes to be on the winning side. It’s always about some current cultural battle: arguments over gay rights or white privilege, for example. Never mind how laughable it is that a pro gay rights or anti-racist agenda could conceivably be considered the underdog position in this country, just leave aside what the scene is about and focus on who is doing what in which place. Can you honestly tell me that one man, standing alone against a mob is exhibiting cowardice? Or that a mob, speaking the widely accepted cultural narrative for which they will receive no blowback whatsoever, is exhibiting courage?
No, friend. Disagree with the man if you will, but he is no coward. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did.
I was reminded of this the other day when this quote about Saruman came on as we were listening to the Two Towers:
“anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean.”
The hobbits are comparing Saruman and Gandalf, both wizards. Saruman has just lost his bid to try to capture the ring by sending a band of his orcs to kidnap two hobbits (whom he hopes are the hobbits with the ring, but alas, are not) and attacking the stronghold of Rohan with his enormous orc army. While Gandalf, after being sent back from the dead after his battle with the balrog under Moria, rides alone back and forth across the plains of Rohan to muster aid to Theoden, king of Rohan.
C.S. Lewis says this about courage in the Screwtape Letters:
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. ”
I’ve been thinking about this idea as I’ve been thinking about courage lately; that courage is “the form of every virtue.” In this climate, it takes courage to be truthful about what you believe, if those beliefs in any way deviate from what is currently acceptable. Why does it take courage? Because right now, if you disagree with the racial narrative, for instance, you see the violence being done to others who have disagreed. You are seeing people get attacked online, and be alienated from their friends and family members. You’ve probably heard about people losing their jobs or being forced into racial sensitivity training at their place of work. If you disagree, you are probably scared. Telling the truth about what you believe, even if it’s counter-cultural, has real-world consequences. Just ask Bret Weinstein.
Another example, nearer to my heart at the moment, is how much courage it takes sometimes to hope. We arrived in Birmingham on Thursday afternoon to the news that our dear friend Chris Scherf got a diagnosis for the cancer that has ravaged his body in a shockingly short period of time. He’s had it for a long time, according to his doctors, but it only took weeks for it to start shutting down his organs after he found out about it. Once it was advanced enough to cause pain, it was too advanced to cure.
With the diagnosis came a great sense of hope; a crushing, unbearable hope. In fact, earlier in the day, word had come from MD Anderson hospital in Houston that they had looked at Chris’s sample and couldn’t make a diagnosis. They were basically giving up. They had a few more stains to look at but didn’t expect it to reveal anything new. The choice had been between a catch-all chemo or hospice.
A few hours later, Chris’s oncologist came rushing into his room and almost shouted the news: Follicular Dendritic Cell Sarcoma. And they had the chemo drugs to administer the next day.
No one knows what will happen to Chris’s body on chemo. He’s weakened, frail, in pain all the time. It’s hard for him to eat. It’s easy to look at that and tell yourself it won’t work. It’s easier in this moment to abandon hope for his recovery because when you hope, you allow yourself to think about the good things he might have again and the good things he might be for the people who have depended on him. I hardly need to elucidate those for you. He’s young, he has a beautiful wife and four small children. He’s beloved by many, and wise, and gentle, and selfless. We want him to live. We petition God for his life from moment to moment.
It makes the grief that much harder to bear if hope gets taken away. It’s easier not to hope. It takes courage to look that hope in the face, and to bear the potential pain of it. It takes courage to be more human rather than less – to look loss in the face and own your intentions, your mistakes, your bad feelings, and the truth of things – and hope for good anyway.
What Christians are doing is looking not only at this life, but beyond it. We believe that death has already been defeated. Did you know that in the account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it says that people rose from the dead after Christ’s resurrection? I love that image. Some true thing was happening that couldn’t be contained, though it’s meant to come in its fullness later, after time. Life was bursting out from his resurrected body and it would not be denied. A higher reality than what we can see was showing through the cracks of this dark world.
I love Tolkien’s stories because they are full of people who have courage. Sometimes all it takes is for one man to stand against whatever is coming, knowing it could mean destruction, to give everyone around him the courage to keep going. I’m not saying Christ was doing something metaphorical. I believe He is God, and that He is alive. I believe He was ushering a higher reality into the darkness of our present world. But whatever else it was, his death took courage and all courageous deeds mirror and complete His.
Our dear friends are exhibiting great courage right now. They are staring suffering and death in the face and believing it will not end them. In fact, they are – like my favorite Tolkien characters – unchanged in their personalities, humility and humor as they endure this suffering and fear. I don’t want to suffer, but when I do, I hope to face it like this.
It’s late October, 2020. A nail biter of an election looms. We’ve been boxed out of the public sector for months, unable to go to many of our favorite places because of COVID restrictions. Many of our rights have been taken away for months on end. Our churches are closed or tightly restricted. People who formerly got along are fighting. There is violence all over the country. There’s an ideological war going on constantly. The days are getting darker.
This week, one of our best friends is in the hospital, with cancer, and his body is shutting down. He’s actually, with his wife, the legal guardian of our children in our will should we both die – a relic from when we had only one child and lived in the same state that we have yet to rectify. He’s far away, lost in a stupor of pain, unable to text or speak on the phone. Turning over in bed is painful for him. We can hold onto him only through our prayers, in our shared connection with Christ, and through his wife my dear friend Sarah.
Four years ago at this time we were facing another contentious election. Another best friend – the godfather of our children – was in the hospital, with a cancer diagnosis that left little hope of his survival. The last time he “liked” an instagram photo of mine was on Halloween. He died on Thanksgiving Day 2016. It feels eerily, horribly familiar. While Chris’s cancer isn’t the same as Ray’s, and we expect and hope for healing and a long life so Chris can father his children, some days are very dark indeed.
I know you all feel it right now, even if no one you love is dying. It’s a dark time indeed. Personally, I don’t think any big problems will be solved with this election. I hope some of them will, but I’m afraid of what the alternate reality holds. I’ve never lived through such a scary or helpless-feeling period of time. I know it’s the same for everyone else.
This time last year I found out about this podcast – Amon Sul – from a fellow Tolkien nerd. He said, “it’s Orthodox priests talking about Tolkien” and I had never heard a lovelier sentence come out of anyone’s mouth. While it isn’t strictly Orthodox priests (Father Andrew has guests from the Orthodox church, academia, and even the military on the show), it’s seriously some of the most beautiful theological, symbological, and literary talk available in the world. Every episode is like: ‘’Ah! the green smell! It is better than much sleep.”
In one of the most recent episodes, Dr. Lisa Coutras does a deep dive into the story of Turin Turambar, which, if you have read the Silmarillion, you know is a very dark story. It is a story Dr. Coutras says she finds beautiful, which is odd, but the reason is so moving. She loves the story because it’s a profound example of what she loves – and what I love – about Tolkien, and that is his sense of hope in the face of great darkness and impossible odds.
In fact, after hearing that episode I started thinking about how on Henry’s and my first date, (Thai food in Glen Ellyn followed by a flute recital at Wheaton), I quoted to him a line I had read that day from the Silmarillion whilst eating lunch in my car on my break at the “I Sold it On eBay” store. And he cried.
I don’t remember the story, and I can’t find it now, but I remember this line, “beyond all hope.” It’s so piercing you want to read it again and again. It’s the reason I read LOTR every year. Hope is the virtue uniting every one of Tolkien’s stories. Real hope. Hope in deepest darkness. Hope in the face of certain torture and death. Hope written by a man who lost his whole generation in the trenches of WWI; who was spared (I think, so he could help save a people yet unborn [me]) because he got sick and couldn’t fight. Mighty and mysterious is the hand that preserved JRR Tolkien and formed him into such a sword. Did he know he was a man like the heroes of his stories? Hope, that sees somehow beyond all hope. That somehow, we will come out into the light of day.
Hope is elemental. There’s nothing similar to, but more pure than hope. You can’t reason your way to hope, nor prove to someone why you should hope. Sometimes you must choose to hope, as Aragorn does repeatedly in the face of impossible odds. Sometimes, hope is bestowed for a moment, as when Sam sees a star in the middle of Mordor and remembers that there is something beyond him and untouched by his troubles, and he is at peace.
Henry cried on our first date because he was a mere 2 years into his long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and had already given up on getting answers. The quote reminded him that he could hope, and that hope was not wrong. I think sometimes we need permission to hope for the good things we want for the world and for our lives – health, wholeness, freedom from pain, children, friends, marriage, peace. Henry has not yet been healed of his illness (although he got a red-headed wife as a result of that date). He’s finally getting treatment that’s starting to help, but even if he wasn’t, hope never dies. In fact, that’s what sets us apart from the “heathen kings.” We hope.
We hope for healing of many things in this world: cancer, stupid elections, broken relationships. And we hope for the day when the battle will be over, when all wrongs will be righted, all pain made meaningful, every tear wiped away. We hope in the face of darkness, beyond all hope.
To homeschool or not to homeschool? In years past, a stray encouragement on Facebook to parents who were thinking about it but not sure they could do it may have elicited little response. But because we’re having a moment right now, and it’s politically correct to say we should shove ALL kids in front of a screen all day to somehow protect the “rights” of SOME unfortunate kids who have no choice, it’s now highly contentious. Hasn’t everyone been saying for years that it’s a broken system for many kids? Has throwing my tax dollars at it changed anything in several generations? Haven’t we all been nail-biting over school shootings and bullying for a decade? I don’t get it, because all I want is to be encouraging to those few people out there who are trying something new.
I was homeschooled for eight years. I had an amazing Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. W. Then my first grade year was marked by almost daily bullying by a male teacher who disliked me. I think he was tired and I made life more difficult for him by finishing my work early and asking a lot of questions and having my own strong opinions. I remember him sending me to the sink in our room by myself to wash out his dirty microwavable soup cups. When I gashed my finger on the edge of one of the cans, I could feel the waves of guilt rolling off of him as he walked me down to the nurse’s office. He probably couldn’t even pinpoint why he disliked me.
In second grade, I hung out with Annette – who knew how to read an analogue watch and had estimated the length of the track around the playground. She set a goal for us to run a mile every day by portioning out a certain number of laps around it to each recess period. I also played kissy-kissy with the boys. Mrs. Sebasty read us James And The Giant Peach. I could not wait until that time each day. I was also given a LOT of busy-work to do – mostly alphebetizing words – when I inevitably finished my work before many of the other kids. Annette was always bent over her own busy work as well; most likely quadratic equations.
When I went back to public school as a junior in high school, my experience there was similar. My health class teacher turned the speed on my treadmill up as high as it would go when he visited my P.E. class one day, which caused me to fall and scrape my knees. They oozed and wouldn’t heal for months until I debrided them myself in the bathtub. I nievely parroted “whore corps” (a popular slur for the color guard) to the band teacher – having heard it from the little brother of one of its members – in a move that would have me moping around his office for days trying to work up the nerve to apologize. His daughter was in color guard. My crowning achievement was mis-repeating a joke my friend Lindsey told in our honors English small group of four. The one Jewish kid was arguing about the Bible passage we were reading (he had been told not to argue theology, but to discuss literature). She had said, “get this Jewish kid out of here,” and we had all laughed – him included. I quipped to the whole class when the teacher repeated this instruction: “Yeah! Get This Jew Out Of Here!”
I will never live it down.
The overwhelming memory of my time in school is one of dehumanization. I was already prone to anxiety and depression, but the constant repetition of my days at school, being herded like cattle from one place to another in a windowless building with thousands of other depressed kids made it much worse. I made it through despite the system, and because I already had a lot going for me. I could sing, which put me in the top choir automatically and gave me an instant group of friends. And I was a good student. I quickly learned to dumb down my vocabulary and my heightened sense of morality so I could have friends. I was still the girl who got apologized to when someone else got drunk at a choir party, but what are you gonna do?
My 8 years of being homeschooled was far from idyllic. My mom was struggling with an undiagnosed chronic illness that kept her from sleeping or eating well and left her in pain much of the time. She got down to 80 lbs at one point. My dad was moving us around and traveling half of every month sometimes, just to get that next raise and keep the family afloat financially. They felt morally obligated to educate us themselves, despite the toll it took. It would have been far easier for her not to do it all while still paying into the public education system we weren’t using. I was lonely sometimes. We have some gaps in our education. And when they put us all back in school the same year, it needed to happen for the sanity of our family.
I’ve known I wanted to get married and have a family for a long time. Since I was a little girl. Most of my other desires have been subservient to that one. It’s not morally better than someone else’s choice, it’s just what it is. For a long time, I didn’t think I would homeschool my kids. In my 20s and early 30s I harped on all the negatives I associated with homeschooling and how I didn’t think I was cut out to be a teacher. Then I actually had children.
It’s hard to describe what I mean when I say that, because what I knew the moment I gave birth to my first child defies description. Maybe I’ll try to write more about it someday. From that first moment, through their early childhood when I was drowning, until this day, I have had the sense that there was no going back. Until you hold that baby you’ve just pushed out of your own body, you don’t realize what a weighty thing you are doing. You don’t realize it in pregnancy, even. All my ideas of who I planned to become and how I was going to conduct motherhood got dismantled in that moment. A new person has just entered the world through you, and he’s a real person, not an idea. And then you give up your sleep and your body and your autonomy to keep that person alive. To me, it was crazy that I would send him away from me for 6,7,8 hours a day to be shepherded by government employees a mere 5 years later. So I could do what?
When you spend that much time with your child, so much so that you know what they want before they can say it with words, it changes you. You want the best for him. I don’t know. I guess I was just confident enough to insist that I was the best thing I could give my child. Who else on earth would be willing to give him more than I was?
Here’s what I did get “in homeschool:” stories. Stories, stories and more stories. My mom read The Chronicles of Narnia to us and my life changed forever. My imagination exploded. My memories of that time are filled with running around outside in the woods and in our backyard exploring. Getting muddy. Inventing stupid new games. Playing Indians. Playing dress-up. I read so many books. I was reading all the time. I was also writing, without anyone prompting me to write a word. I was drawing, and painting, and sewing. I would bake a cake in the afternoon from scratch, just because. My mom didn’t pull out the pristine baking set, don a flowery apron and gather us lovingly around to let us all “help” her bake. She didn’t have to. I knew how to read and I was interested, so I did it. I also microwaved an aluminum pan for like 5 minutes and then grabbed the handle. I did get burned, but I’m still baffled that the microwave survived it.
I learned to play the piano and take care of horses. I sang in church choir and learned to play the guitar. I wrote a song or two. Those years, despite being sometimes lonely and sometimes sad and angsty, were filled with room to breathe. There was quiet and order in our house, and there was enough to do and to think about without a lot of lessons or homework. Even if I didn’t get the perfect education (what constitutes the perfect education?), I did get those priceless gifts. Not to mention, the gift of parents who stayed married and who lived according to a creed they believed outranked themselves.
I ended up being one of 12 valedictorians at my public high school. It’s silly, and I shouldn’t have been there because I wasn’t getting A’s in calculus like the other kids, but that’s just to illustrate that I kept up pretty well when I went back. I also had plenty of friends, just so you know. And then I went on to get into a very competitive college (their most competitive program, in the most competitive slot if you want to know) and aaaaaaalmost pulled off a Cum Laude (damn C in Philosophy 101. Boy problems). I wasn’t actually trying for any certain grade either.
But you know what I would really be proud of, if I had done it? Starting my own successful business. We have come to have all these marks of success that are laid out on well-tended paths, and those are fine. It’s hard to become a doctor or a lawyer in many ways. But it takes guts to be different. It takes a lot of stamina to keep doing something people don’t understand and won’t support you in. It’s hard to stand out and flap in the breeze, not knowing if you’ll actually achieve what you’re trying to achieve; but that you believe you should be doing because it’s what you were made for.
My mom was doing something remarkable, and I know she blames herself for the bad parts of it. I don’t think she realizes how profoundly her choice to homeschool me has shaped the way I think about the world. When I say we can be innovators I don’t mean that every family has to homeschool. It’s not feasible for my neighbor – a single mom of 5 kids who works nights as a nurse’s aid – to homeschool her kids. I know they’re unavoidably alone most of the day right now for school, and I feel for them. Some of them, the younger ones, come over to play with my kids almost every day and I’m so thankful for that.
What I mean is what I quoted in a previous post: “Genius is as ordinary as dirt.” Homeschooling is one way of getting out of the way of the genius that’s inside every human child, and/or helping it to come out. I remain firmly convinced that even such simple changes as more free play and more time outside and in nature can work wonders for kids who are having a hard time academically or emotionally. I spent enough time in and then out of school to know that most of it is busy work. No offense to the great teachers out there, but a lot of the time I spent in school was social time, or filling-up-time time. What if (just as one example) kids could interact with nature in a meaningful and personal way every day, rather than spend so much time inside and bored? And what if some of those same kids could be left with enough time outside of formal study to think about and pursue their own ideas? It’s the “accidents” of the school systems that have given us our most celebrated geniuses like Einstein. What if we are missing out on a hundred such geniuses who could have helped solve our environmental crises because we’re insisting this broken system is the only system?
When I encourage parents who have thought about homeschooling to do it, and tell them it’s not as hard as you think it is, I am trying to “be the change,” and all that. I’m telling you from the mere first steps past the other side that you CAN do it – whether it’s homeschooling your own kids or forming a small school for your neighborhood, or helping an inner-city mom who has just HAD IT to take back the power. (I know someone who is doing this, and I am beyond amazed by the few Black mamas I know out there who are going against what all of their friends and families are doing to homeschool their children. That’s true pioneering and it’s fearsome to behold.)
I’m here to tell whoever wants to hear it that it’s worth it. Once you’ve done something hard and scary and lived through the self-doubt and the criticism and you’ve prevailed (sometimes all that means is not giving up), you feel powerful. You feel more human. You feel like you can do what you were made to do. That’s the thing I want more parents and more kids to experience. Yes, you can get a better education through homeschooling than in public school. You can also get a worse one (just saying). But the best thing about it, in my opinion, is the thing it will teach you and your kids when you do it:
You can change your life. You can create new things. You have the power to work hard and be diligent and all sorts of opportunities will open to you. There are countless examples of this throughout history. You can innovate. You can think for yourself. There is genius inside of you, and you are not like anyone else. And yes, the world needs you. It needs the fullness of all you can be.
*homeschool is not magic, but it can be pretty remarkable.
I am frightened and lonely. I hate to post things like this for fear that my dear friends will take it as an indictment of them, but I have been lonely for most of my life. The longing for home has at times felt gloriously fulfilled, like on my wedding day, but those times are rare.
We have lived in Michigan for almost 6 years, and despite my bright hopes for our future in Detroit before we moved at the end of 2014, we have neither lived in the city of Detroit nor ever felt at home anywhere around it.
That’s not to say that I don’t love Michigan. It’s very beautiful. We have found good friends here everywhere we’ve gone – even some best friends. But we have found Michigan to be a desert, or a land in the grip of a spiritual famine. And I have been no rainmaker. Living here has not been the triumphant procession I imagined. It has been a proving ground for my soul. Almost every group we’ve tried to attach ourselves to, regardless of how great the people are, has seemed closed to us. People have their own families and plans. For long, long stretches of time there was no one who would show up to a party if I threw one. We still ache for our kids, who don’t have a group of friends. We routinely ask God what we are doing wrong or not seeing. This seems to be the best answer we’re going to get.
There is as much famine behind and before us as there is right here. There’s no going back to old communities that have changed, and no promise it would be different if we went somewhere new. We have no family nearby, and my parents and sister live overseas. We lost a best friend and our children’s godfather to cancer in 2016, and just found out this Summer that another best friend has cancer. Both too far away for us to share their burden in any meaningful way. All around us it seems are lies and violence, and the fabric of a just and tolerant society is fraying beyond repair. Sometimes, despite my better judgment, I look into the future and fear for my children, for what kind of life they will have. I want to have hope, but I can’t manufacture it. I can only cling to the hope I know.
The Widow And The Uncomfortable Miracle
I stumbled across this half-finished post the other day. I wrote it when I was pregnant with Cora (#4) – one of the darkest times of our sojourn here. It feels as true now as it did then. How terrifying it feels to be a woman sometimes! How vulnerable you feel when you have small children totally dependent on you. Especially when you are carrying or nursing an infant. Especially when the world feels so scary and there is no comfort nearby.
I often think about this woman, the widow at Zeraphath. I feel like I know the utter hopelessness she feels, even though I don’t, not really. I picture her with her small son, at the mercy of the men around her. I can imagine the ancient world during a famine. It’s terrifying. I picture her as down and out long before the famine hit. Or newly widowed and scared out of her mind. She’s just a day away from one violent man deciding she was his to do what he wanted with, unable to physically protect her son. And then, as famine set in, the new fear that nothing mattered anymore anyway. They were going to die and there was nothing she could do.
For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “the jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”
And then came the prophet Elijah. Another man, telling her what to do. What could this man do to her that would matter? But he must’ve been different, this wild man out of the wilderness. Did the woman know that the Lord had commanded her to feed Elijah, as God told him? She doesn’t seem to know it, but she calls him the Lord Elijah’s God. And she believes him when he says to feed him, that the Lord would not let the flour and oil run out. That, or it really doesn’t matter that much if it doesn’t work, so she might as well do what he says. Was it faith, or just exhaustion that compelled her?
She’s come to mind again today as all the darkness is closing in and I feel like I can’t breathe. Where was that faith I had a few months ago? I can’t find it at all. Right now, I feel like if I have to live here another minute I’m going to go crazy. For whatever reason, though I’m not physically starving, I feel like that widow about to make my last meal and starve to death with my kids.
Not that a little flour cake is much to live on, either. It’s starvation fare – it’ll barely keep you alive. There was no abundance promised, just that little bit of flour and oil until the Lord sent rain upon the earth. And if this is a promise to me – that the flour and the oil will not run out until the rain comes – what do I take to be the flour and oil? Just the barely-enough energy and money to keep going through each day? No frills, no extras, no friends or community, no intimacy? No abundance or eating my fill?
But she did it. It was the only thing standing between her and starvation. She had the word from the prophet and the evidence in her face every day. She prepared those little cakes for herself and Elijah and her household for many days. That was it.
And it was a miracle.
Is this the miracle we’re supposed to look for? Is this all the faith I am to have left? Not that God is going to do big things for me, and through me? Just that I may keep on feeding myself and my household a meager, miraculous bread? And the promise of rain? No mention of when, or for how long we will have to subsist. Just that rain does come eventually.
I so want big, miraculous things to happen, and I want to be the instrument of those things. I don’t know about you, but we could use a Euchatastrophe* right now. But we have learned how to subsist when we could not thrive. I have learned to accept the miracle of a little bit of what I need, right when I think I am going to starve, and the promise that, sooner or later, rain is coming.
*”I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.“
It’s September 2017. Birmingham Alabama, Iron City music hall. My first Hanson show. I am wearing a loose dress, birkenstocks, and a BACKPACK. I haven’t been able to eat my dinner. I have to pee, but I am not leaving my spot because I don’t want to miss their entrance. I am about to be in the same room with three men I purposely avoided for 20 years and I’m about as filled-up with feelings as it is possible to be.
For anyone who hasn’t read the whole post from 2015, here’s the short version: in 1997 I learned about Isaac (16), Taylor(14), and Zac(11) on VH1 while babysitting. I was 15. I instantly developed a devastating private obsession with them – and a heavy-duty crush on Taylor – that made me wonder if I was actually going crazy. Sometime in 98 or 99, I threw away their first album, “Middle Of Nowhere,” when I couldn’t take it anymore. I made it seem like I did it because everyone in youth group was throwing away their Nine Inch Nails albums and such. The truth was much more embarrassing. For almost 20 years, I was not able to see a picture of them without getting back that old crazy feeling.
But in 2015 I’d had enough. We had just moved to Michigan, I’d had my third baby two weeks after moving in an emergency situation that left me bone weary and fearing I would no longer be able to have children. We’d left our community of 15 years and come to a place where we knew no one. We had few friends. My weight was the highest and my confidence the lowest it’s ever been. There was nothing left to lose. So I got out the old YouTube and I starting searching.
Not A One-Hit Wonder
For the uninitiated, it may appear that Hanson was a one-hit wonder. If you’re old enough, you may remember the ubiquity of “Mmmbop” in 1997. This was before the internet. For a month, I spent every night in my parents room listening to the “top 9 at 9” on U93 South Bend on their clock radio because I knew “Mmmbop” would be the number one song, but I didn’t want anyone to know I was listening to it. That song will always give me a visceral recall of dusk and crickets and loneliness.
After a second hit single, “Where’s The Love,” that year, and another single from their second record – released in 1999 – “This Time Around,” (which I don’t remember ever hearing on the radio), they disappeared from public view other than an odd press release in People magazine or an appearance on TV, as far as I knew. I still thought about them often enough, wondering what they were doing. It wasn’t quite the frenzy of prayer I subjected myself to around 97, trying to stave off insanity, but of course if Taylor came to mind I had to pray like my sanity depended on it. I will never forget where I was (foot doctor’s office on Summer break from college) when I caught the tiny thumbnail announcement on the back of a “People” that Taylor had gotten married to a girl named Natalie Bryant. I had known it was coming sooner or later; I’d just assumed I would have more time!! He was only 19. (I have come to have such respect for the Hanson wives, by the way, what little we get to know of them. Natalie is an inspiration in her own right).
One friend told me they were still touring and writing new music and that his friend had just seen them at the House Of Blues in Chicago. My sister knew a girl who had written a research paper about their experience in the music industry. They were traveling around to colleges with this documentary they’d made called “Strong Enough To Break.”
Hanson Deep Dive
Can I just pause here and say that, if for no other reason (but there are PLENTY), the brothers Hanson are worth investigating because they are total outliers. If you can open your mind to this – and I think you should – they are an embodiment of the idea that, as John Taylor Gatto says,
“…genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”
They come from a family of 7 kids, they were homeschooled, they started playing together as a band when they were 11, 9, and 6 and they stuck with it for 5 years (which, for a kid is like eternity). They did some very ballsy things like cornering a music executive at South By Southwest to ask if they could sing for him. I always think, who is this mysterious Mrs. Hanson and can I meet her someday? For the three of them to have this vision, she had to have it too.
They started their own website in the late 90’s – an actual ISP – which they kept when music executives told them they didn’t need it. It proved to be – as with many technological advances they either helped pioneer or adopted early – one of the ways they kept their career afloat when the music industry turned against them.
When their record label got bought by another company, and that company refused to promote their second album very well and told them their careers were over, they took their earnings and started their own record label. I don’t have all the details about this by heart, but when they finally ended up putting out their third album, “Underneath” (five years and hundreds of songs later), it was something like the highest selling independent record that year. They’ve built several businesses, events, and non-profit organizations, and continued writing and doing live shows all over the world at a breakneck pace.
That’s all peripheral, though. Their real genius is in songwriting. You might know them from Mmmbop (which they wrote as little children I might add), but the rest of their work speaks for itself. And there is a TON of it. In my opinion, you should give it a listen and let it speak to you.
Back To My First Concert
So anyway, in 2017, I sort of expect that when they hit the stage it’ll be like when I did the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Which was, probably when I was 13, at a homeschool skating party in LaPorte, Indiana. Shelley Foster had been chatting with this new boy; a good-looking, self-possessed kid a bit older than me who had shown up at our monthly event where no new boys ever came. I truly must have been goaded at her or I must have responded to an inner dare because I ordinarily would never have openly approached a cute teenaged boy without an intermediary. It’s the only time I can remember having done so.
I was ill.
Like, seriously. I felt like I was going to throw up.
(Funny aside here. One of the things I did in preparation for the Hanson show in 2017 was to buy the official Hanson biography from 1997 on eBay. One of the best parts of this book is when Taylor is describing how it is sometimes difficult to talk to the girls who come to their shows because they’re screaming so much you can’t ask them any questions. I still laugh out loud at the image of Taylor kindly trying to talk to a girl who is literally screaming in his face.)
At that homeschool skating party, I experienced – in the midst of my terror – a wild exhilaration for having mustered my courage. Oh my gosh. Teenaged boys…amiright? Only to be dashed back to earth to find out it was his younger brother being homeschooled and did I want to meet him? But still. I did it.
And now, here I am at Iron City, and not much has changed except one husband, 3 children, 20 years and 50 lbs., waiting to feel annihilated. And then suddenly they’re there onstage, and the crowd is roaring, and I just…I don’t know. I forget myself. In a good way. I know right away I should’ve done it years ago. There isn’t a single nanosecond from the time they walk onstage until they belt out the last notes of “Rockin’ Robin” acapella that I’m not enthralled. I sing, clap, jump and pump my fist in the air, and I have NEVER been that kind of person.
Words cannot describe the light, sparkling character of that show. It was like a wide open sky, a big effervescent bubble of joy expanding upward and out into the night, pulling my heart right along with it. It was a “swift sunrise over a far green country.” For two hours, I got to put myself aside while they took over and it was the truest rest I’ve had in a very long time.
Walking Into Embarassment
I guess this is the thing loving Hanson, and yes even having a crush on Taylor, has done for me: I have been invited to walk into embarrassment and find I could survive it. It continues to be the perfect foil to my envy-stricken self. Was it ever “cool” to be a die-hard Hanson fan? Not the way I do it (come on…a BACKPACK?). I was never a screamer, or a stalker, but all the rest of it that’s true of their other fans is true of me too. Was it ever “cool” to be one of the screaming girl horde? On the contrary, I couldn’t even look at a Hanson poster much less put one on my wall in my embarrassment. How cool is it now, when I’m almost 40? Zero. Negative cool.
Here’s the thing about embarrassment that I just learned: it can be the cover for evil. I just read this book “People Of The Lie, The Hope For Healing Human Evil,” by M. Scott Peck. According to Peck, the foundation for a healthy psyche is summed up in this quotation of St. Therese of Lisieux: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.” I would expand that definition to say “for other people” as well. According to Peck, the opposite is also true. What evil does is hide from the world, and from itself. It can’t bear the light of truth or reason.
I found it helpful to read his observations on evil, because it’s not something you can easily pinpoint in yourself or in someone else. Most evil isn’t flashy, it’s mundane and boring. You know how when you’re around some people you feel easily confused about why they are so off-putting because nothing about them seems like it should bother you? You have an aversion to them, but you are convinced that everything is your problem? Or when you’re unable to reconcile in a fight with another person because they just can’t or won’t see things from your point of view, and if they would just understand you they’d realize you didn’t do anything wrong?
Yeah, that’s evil. I know, because I just did it yesterday to Henry. In the car. On the way to church.
Flannery O’Connor, puts this idea in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” So often, we cling to the appearance of “being good,” to acting good and being good at things, because we can’t bear to see ourselves as we really are. We go to God or to church or to social justice, etc. (or all of the above) because we are trying to get as far away from our own badness as we can. It’s often the true misfits of this world who understand this first. Hence, the beatitudes.
I had never really thought about what it meant that I was too embarrassed to be the screaming girl or to admit that I had a crush on Taylor. But I think I finally got something right because of the light and life that has come into my life when I decided to be mortified. I could have gone on the way I was, trying to ignore him, and them, but I miraculously didn’t. Maybe it’s never going to feel “good.” Being willing to be displeasing to myself, and to see reality the way it is is a necessary part of becoming more human. Sometimes a hard-won triumph feels kind of shitty.
This thing with Hanson isn’t the thing that has ruled my life (contrary to how I make it sound), but it has become kind of a catalyst. Once I went back to that point where I had refused to be embarrassed and admitted I was just like those “other” girls who were totally obsessed with this guy, I realized I had some grieving to do, which was in itself also embarrassing. But it was like cleaning out a bunch of rooms that were stuffed with junk. I still do grieve over it sometimes: that time in my life, the things I’ll never have, the person I didn’t become, circumstances beyond my control. But that one little turning – that facing the truth that Taylor is a real person and I wanted his attention but would never have it, and pressing through the embarrassment to admit it to myself (and now the internet) – has made all the difference. The more firmly I keep it turned, the more light I let into those rooms.
You’ll never believe this, but it was Tolkien who helped me understand what was happening to me in this passage from The Fellowship Of The Ring. When the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien – the realm of the Elf-Queen Galadriel – Gimli the dwarf has had an experience of beauty that left him grief-stricken. He’s seen Galadriel and Lothlorien and he’ll never be the same.
“Gimli wept openly.
“I have looked the last upon that which was fairest,’ he said to Legolas his companion. “Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.” He put his hand to his breast.
“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!”
“Nay!” said Legolas. “Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Gloin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlorien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.”
“Maybe,” said Gimli; “and I think you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires…”
What Happened After
Facing my fear and grief freed me to really see Taylor (and Isaac, and Zac) – not just idolize him – and to hear their music and be changed by it. There was work being done that I wasn’t doing at that concert. I only brought myself there, and that was hard enough. I never expected any kind of resolution. I expected to feel something like indifference or arrogance, I’m ashamed to admit. You know how you can tell when someone is performing disdainfully? It’s not a nice feeling. I expected to feel something like that, but it was the opposite. It was all generosity and humility and joy. I don’t know how they do it. It’s probably about who they are as people. I started out admiring them as boys and nothing I’ve ever heard them say or heard about them doing has changed that. My admiration for them has only grown.
We crazy, female Hanson fans say it all the time: their music has gotten me through some very low points. It is uniquely inspiring. And I really mean that. I don’t get inspired that way or feel that kind of optimism easily. They are relentlessly kind, and humble. They are relentless, period. They embody the best things about manhood. They are a force for good that I would have missed; that I did miss for a long time. I wouldn’t be able to say this about many other public figures. They should be as big as U2, and we wish for their sake that they were, but it doesn’t truly matter. They are always working, always hoping for the best, always grateful for what they have, always trying to impart hope and joy and meaning to those who are listening.
In these dark days, I can imagine what a difficult job that must be and I’m even more grateful.
When you become a fanclub member, you get access to all kinds of cool stuff. They do a lot for their fans. One of the things they do is throw a big party to celebrate “Hanson Day” in Tulsa (May 6th was declared Hanson Day by Oklahoma’s then-governor Frank Keating), and you can only get tickets if you are a member. I have never been, but it’s full of special workshops, game nights, concerts and more. I was watching some footage of a big announcement on Hanson Day a few months ago. They were announcing more tours (since canceled because of COVID) and more studio albums. It’s been several years since their last studio album, “Anthem.” (don’t let that fool you. They’re constantly writing new songs). The new album, scheduled for release in 2021 (if 2021 even happens), is called “Against The World.” I was struck by something Taylor said during that announcement.
(I know none of you care, but I know I’m harping on Taylor a lot. I just need ya’ll to know that I think they’re all amazing and talented. And I love them all like the big brothers I never had. They all say and write and sing things that inspire me and give me hope.)
Here’s what he said: “it’s not just us *pointing to himself and his brothers* against the world, it’s us *pointing to himself and the audience* against the world.” I thought, how beautiful is that? He could be saying the first thing and we would all accept it. But he’s taking his talent, beauty, and power and throwing in his lot with us – arguably misfits. He’s saying he’s on our side and he’s sticking with us. If that’s not an emulation of Christ, I don’t know what is.
I’m just so grateful.
Here are the lyrics to a new Hanson song that was written and released this Spring/Summer on their Members only EP “Continental Breakfast In Bed,” (which is currently sitting on top of my Bose). I wanted to share it because it perfectly expresses how I feel in the world right now. How so many of us feel. You can hear some of it on their YouTube channel, but I think you should just become a member so you can own it, and see what you’re missing.
It’s called “All I Know.”
I hear my shoulders beg for rest
I can feel my beating heart pounding inside my chest
and I fear the future, so I hold it tight
turn my ear to listen, but I can’t hear a word tonight
So I try
and fail to get there
and I’m sure
that the end is coming soon
But with all I know
all I know
is not enough
I have kept my secrets
but I’ve told few lies
anyone can see the man that hides behind these eyes
Like an unknown question in an unseen light
too many reasons
hang over me tonight
But I try
and I fail to get there
and I’m sure
that the end will find me soon
with all I know
all I know
is not enough
It’s not enough
I’ve had enough
I’m tired of this kind of living
It’s not enough
something is bound to give in soon
I’ve had enough
I’m tired of this kind of living
‘Cause all I know is not enough
I’m done with living
in the past
where anything I’ve done that’s good I doubt will ever last
well, I’ve earned my reasons, anyone can tell
but I’d be gladly parted of them for a chance to finish well
I have a problem. I’ve had it my whole life. It’s that I find men to be compelling and beautiful. Of course, not all men at all times. Not most men most times, truth be told. But when I’m going to get all choked up by something; when I’m going to feel that heart-growing-two-sizes-too-big feeling it’s going to be about some man.
I know, it sounds ridiculous. Especially in the current state of things out there. Men…beautiful? I can’t help it. I know it sounds like I’m off in a corner with my fingers in my ears. Trust me, I’m very aware of what everyone is saying about “toxic masculinity.” It’s just not that interesting to me because, for all that men end up being the ones to do some horrifying shit, they are also extremely glorious when they are doing what they are made to do. I see it. I feel it in my bones.
I am curious to know what makes Woman so great, if anything. It has to be more than the girl power mantra. I honestly don’t see myself changing the world. I’m having a hard time just losing the baby weight. Also, women at the apex still want to be mothers, and motherhood is just down and dirty work. If men and women are basically the same, and women are as good as men at everything, and if all we want is to compete with men, then why would Lady Gaga want to have a baby? What’s in it for her? She’s already at the top.
On the flipside, why then would I ever feel like I needed something more than just being a wife and mother? There are certain circles where I’ve felt pressured not to have dreams of becoming anything myself (with whatever is left of my life force). Why would I have cried when I was little over not having a penis (true story. Thank God I was born in the 80’s), but have grown up to love being a woman? I wouldn’t trade it. Why would I revisit this theme so often in life, even though I am proud of bearing four children and I am proud of what I do? I regularly cry over not having the drive of a man. I am envious of certain men to this day, and I wish I could get over it. Maybe that’s the torture inherent in being a woman. Maybe the sadness of clearly seeing but not being able to possess whatever it is about men is an essential thing about womanhood. Or maybe it’s a curse and it’s meant to be undone someday.
As I’ve said, I don’t find much that’s useful in our culture about this question. But I have found Tolkien. And Tolkien, though he doesn’t write very many women, writes women profoundly. I listen to LOTR every year starting in September, and in recent years I’ve been more and more moved by his description of Goldberry. Goldberry is the wife of Tom Bombadil, Master of the wild woods on the borders of the Shire, where the hobbits live. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam get rescued by Tom several times in the early part of the first book and this passage is just after their first rescue as they come through the dark woods to the house of Tom and Goldberry (emphasis mine):
“Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them:
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil adn the River-daughter!
And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.
the four Hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking. They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.
In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool. ‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folks that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf queen clad in living flowers. But before they could say anything, she sprang lightly up and over the lily bulbs, and ran laughing towards them; and as she ran her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.
‘Come dear folk!’ She said, taking Frodo by the hand. ‘Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the river.’ Then lightly she passed them and closing the door she turned her back to it, with her white arms spread out across it. ‘Let us shut out the night!’ She said. ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree shadows and deep water, and untamed things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil.’
The hobbits looked at her in wonder; and she looked at each of them and smiled. ‘Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange. ‘Fair Lady goldberry!’ He said again. ‘Now the joy that was hidden in the songs we heard is made plain to me.
O slender as a willow wand! O clearer than clear water!
O maid by the living pool! Fair river-daughter!
O spring time and summertime, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves laughter!’
Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprised to hear himself saying such things. But Goldberry laughed.
‘Welcome!’ She said.’ I had not heard that folk of the Shire were so sweet-tongued. But I see you are an Elf-friend; the light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it. This is a merry meeting! Sit now, and wait for the Master of the House! He will not be long. He is tending your tired Beasts.’
The Hobbit sat down gladly on low rush-seated chairs, while Goldberry busied herself about the table; and their eyes followed her, for the slender grace of her movement filled them with quiet delight. From somewhere behind the house came the sound of singing. Every now and again they caught, among many a derry doll and a merry doll and the ring a ding dillo the repeated words:
old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
‘Fair lady!’ Said Frodo again after a while. ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadill ?’
‘He is,’ said goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the master of wood, water, and hill.’
‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’
‘No indeed!’ She answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belonging each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest. waiting in the water. leaping on the hilltops under light and Shadow. he has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’
A door opened and in came Tom Bombadil. He had now no hat and his thick brown hair was crowned with Autumn Leaves. He laughed, and going to Goldberry took her hand.
‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ He said, bowing to the hobbits. ‘Here’s my Goldberry clothed all in silver green with flowers in her girdle! Is the table Laden? I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered. Is that enough for us? Is the supper ready?’
The way Tolkien writes about women is intriguing. I have always loved Eowyn’s story, since I saw the trilogy of movies in college, although the girl power message was lost on me then. There’s a lot I resonate with in Eowyn’s story. I even named my daughter after her. She has a high destiny, for one, and she’s broody and full of despair, which I love. I can completely relate to the feeling of loving someone from afar whose love you are not destined to have, no matter what great thing you do.
I honestly don’t know how Tolkien gets to the heart of it. It’s true as he writes it; women do want to be useful, we want to be able to fight like a man. We want glory, and we want the admiration of admirable men. Is that so much to ask?! From one angle, the story of womanhood is a story of feeling thwarted and of learning to be content with what you are given. I don’t know, maybe that’s just the story of mankind.
Two other less attractive angles on womanhood from Tolkien:
Eoreth – the woman from Minas Tirith – who can’t stop talking. Her self-importance about the small part she plays in the war is insufferable and lifelike. She’s funny, and also cringy.
Then there’s Shelob – the giant spider-she-monster who lives in caves on the outskirts of Mordor and whose only delight is in feeding on flesh: orc flesh mostly, but man, elf and hobbit when she can get it. After she stings Frodo, Sam wounds her and drives her away with his Elvish blade when she attempts to use her body to squash him. Shelob is the spawn of Ungoliant, one of the oldest followers of Melkor – the original rebel against the maker of Middle Earth. What Ungoliant wants is to consume all of creation. Her hunger is never satisfied. Either Tolkien’s imagination of this is a revelation, or he had experience that informed it. Whatever it was, I find it in myself. Apart from the healing work of Jesus, I am not sure if anything would ever be enough for me.
In fact, I was once given this vision in prayer: my mouth had become a black hole, sucking in everything I saw. Wherever I turned my head, everything in front of me was sucked into my gaping maw. In my distress, I wondered what could ever turn it off. Was I destined to only suck everything up? The answer came when Jesus appeared, turned me to himself, and kissed me on the lips and when He did, my mouth turned into a normal mouth.
But I digress. I don’t need to search far for my pitfalls. I see the folly of Eoreth in myself, and I know that but for God’s grace I would be a Shelob. I feel keenly the longing of Eowyn, and I hope that in the last hour of despair I would act with honor and strength as she does. I feel the sad sweetness of relenting to a lower destiny as Eowyn does when she falls in love with Faramir. Some of Eowyn’s story shows what glories womanhood holds.
But Goldberry and Tom Bombadil are something else.
I can’t even say that I want to be Goldberry, but there’s something about her that calls to me. There’s something about the picture they create together that feels like home. For one thing, Goldberry is waiting. That seems to be one of her things. Goldberry is not Tom Bombadil. Goldberry is not master. The charms of Goldberry are almost entirely hidden, unless happened-upon by lost, frightened and weary travelers. For the most part, her beauty is lavished upon Tom Bombadil, and him only. And yet, it’s silly to think of Tom Bombadil tromping around and singing in the old forest only to come home to a cold hearth. Gathering lilies was his most important business, not rescuing wanderers.
Is this the final magic of me? Of Woman? In some sense, in a very large sense, there would be no Man without Woman. The men I admire wouldn’t do what they do without the women in their lives. One of the few places we have in this sad realm (where men don’t have much opportunity for swordplay) where I have often beheld the glory of Man is in a performance of some kind. It was after a rock concert that I realized something:
Receiving isn’t passive.
That room and that performance was magical as much because of me as because of the performers. Without me, what would it be? A performance is as much of a dance as anything else. The performers bring expertise, talent, and will, but without open hearts the message is lost. Without someone to receive it, is there really a message?
The picture of Goldberry isn’t glorious because of what she does. Although the practical part of me knows how much work it would take to have a lovely supper ready, be slender as a willow wand, [ancient and new as spring] have downy mattresses and white woolen blankets ready for guests in spotless rooms and be tending lilies in pots all winter. Her glory is in what she IS.
“Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.”
My whole being gets pulled into the longing for man, the beauty of man. I want to be joined to it, somehow. And, in some moments I think the answer must be to be like it, to work hard, to be visible. It’s so hard not to want to be visible. Not to want to put all my hopes for wholeness into the idea of recognition and power. Men seem to be able to get it so easily. And I have been told my whole life that I should want it above all things. But I find myself torn, and the path I have chosen means I am hidden. I find myself doing work that no one will ever see, and which may not show forth fruit for decades, if it ever does.
When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be famous. I still want to make something beautiful that makes an impact on the world. Me, myself, not just through my body. In the past, in my bitterness I have thought, “anyone can get knocked up.” I have some talents, and some will to succeed. It often feels like I am letting it all atrophy. I had a friend ask me recently if I ever regret that I never did more with my voice. The answer is yes. Of course I do. But if I had done that, what other thing would I now regret? Men can have a career and a family. Women often can’t, or they find that the split is too great and they don’t want to. I honestly don’t know what the answer is.
But the more I go about life, the more I think this:
In the end, anything worthwhile you do, you do as an instrument. Inspiration is ultimately revelation. It comes from outside of you. All you can do is be faithful to the vision you have been given. I do have a quibble with the difference between pregnancy and giving birth and writing a poem, or a song. One is decidedly more enjoyable for the doer. But in the end, they are both creative acts and they both require submission and sacrifice. Who am I to insist that I will only be this kind of instrument and not the other, or to say that I should have been given this kind of creative work to do and not the other? Who am I to say that I can see its fruition? What fruition there is lies beyond the edge of time.
I will never forget the moment my photography 101 prof asked us to say if we thought the camera was male or female. I’m sure none of us had given it one thought. As student after student gave their opinion that the camera is male for this or that reason – most of which boiled down to the shape of the thing – I got more and more sure they were wrong. I ended up giving what Greg later said was the most heartfelt? passionate? decisive? (maniacal?) response he’d ever heard. All I know is I was, and am, sure of the answer.
The camera is female, and here’s why:
The camera doesn’t spit anything out, and it doesn’t give the raw material for anything. It takes light and time into itself, which is to say it takes in mystery. One, holy moment in time takes shape in the dark secret of the camera’s body and is delivered to the world as a work of art.
No sooner do I say this, than I find it’s what I’m doing, what I’ve always been doing. I’m not on stage, I’m down in the dark looking at the man on the stage in love and compassion, giving his work meaning. I won’t be that spider; I won’t gobble up the world. I was made to take it in, to understand what I am seeing with love and compassion, and to hold it inside myself. I am there to make a home. Do you see what I’m saying? Sister, do you know what it is you’re doing?
You are giving the world meaning. Without you, there would be no world.