Learning Goes Both Ways

February 28, 2017

A more tightly edited version of this column was originally published in the February 2017 issue of ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

 

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As soon as children begin verbal communication they learn to divide the world into categories. Things with wheels are automobiles. Things with four legs and wagging tails are dogs. Children’s books and programming focus on the importance of recognizing opposites. Things are hard or soft, hot and cold, big or little, open or closed.

 

Those of us who have spent a lot of time with children know that sometimes they have trouble recognizing our adult distinctions. The difference between an apple and a pear may obvious to us, but to a young child the differences are less apparent. Likewise, abstract concepts like big and small are very much situational distinctions and it takes a while for children to grasp that our way of naming things is highly contextual. In other words, what’s big in one situation is pretty small in another.

 

One of the greatest joys of working with children is watching them discover the things we forget. They love to find the moon and the sound of thunder fascinates them. We adults may not pay a bit of attention to the bird on the limb, but it gives them unspeakable joy to be able not only to see it but also to name it. They speak with pride when they can identify a dog, or a cat, or cow. They are learning to divide the world up into ideas and characters and categories and they can’t wait to show us.

 

I’m a mother of three young children and I work with toddlers for a living. It’s an honor to help them learn what makes red, red or how to name concepts like fast, funny, and happy. I teach them songs about opposites and I help them learn needed structure in the classroom. But while I’m helping them find the words for expressing the difference between, say, water and grass, they’re busily teaching me that sometimes we adults get a little too hemmed in by our divisions.

 

Children see commonalities in the most unexpected places. Give them a chance to dress themselves (without laughter or judgement from adults)  and they’ll go for a combination that defies any adult’s sense of fashion. If you ask them why they chose that particular get up they almost have an answer about why the plaid looks great with the flowers or why mismatched shoes are actually a good idea. We often laugh and write it off as they not understanding how color coordination works. Which is true, I guess. But what’s also going on is they’re making their own choices in a framework that hasn’t been socialized to see certain things as natural companions. Clothes are a simple example, but an important one. After all, if you’re two you have very little freedom to make choices. Clothing is usually one of the first places we see choices emerge.

 

They’ll combine foods in unorthodox ways; they’ll take a toy out of the package and have little use for “correct” way to use it. If you pay attention you begin realize that this experimentation is more than just cluelessness about the world. It’s the way they learn. It’s the way they become themselves. They are scientists, inventors, artists, storytellers. They have their own sense of what is beautiful, and if we think we have nothing to learn from their freedom and creativity then we’re the ones in need of some direction.

I learned long ago that sometimes we adults often treat children as receptacles for our pain. We have a lot of unresolved issues and heartache, regardless of who we are. So often I see adults down right obsessed with this notion that children are just waiting to get something over on us, even children who haven’t learned how to speak.  Children are seldom out to get us, at least not at this age. They’re just trying to figure out the world and see things we’ve long since forgotten.

We need to be there to show them these distinctions. We are their teachers. But as any good teacher knows, real learning always goes both ways.

I did not take this picture of a rock. Thanks Creative Commons.

I did not take this picture of a rock. Thanks Creative Commons.

A version of this originally appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

(Sorry for my messy writing on this one. The deadlines, I can not meet them. 🙂 )

I have always been someone who has at least two books going at once. Back before I had children, I’d often balance a novel with a non-fiction read, slipping in a few articles here and there for good measure. With three young children at home, these days I am more likely to have eight books going.

Not intentionally, of course. It’s just that uninterrupted reading time is basically non-existent. I never know exactly when I might happen upon a few quiet minutes, so I just leave the books scattered throughout the house. There are some on the coffee table, another three by the bed. I have a few in my office to read when I’m restarting my computer or downloading a large audio file for my radio job. I read these books in very small spurts: Three pages here, a half a page there. I’ve long since given up on novels, as they don’t really lend themselves to this kind of patchwork. But I’ve always been more of a non-fiction reader, so this suits me just fine.

I recognize this may seem horribly chaotic, and you might wonder how in the world I ever retain anything. I’ll be the first to admit that many things fall through the cracks. But all we can do is work with what we have, right? Strategy can never be about perfection.

Long before the kids ever came along, I’ve been rather enamored with this idea of reading seemingly disparate topics at the same time and seeing what kind of connections bubble up. It’s something I try too hard to cultivate. I don’t try to come up with perfection combination of topics or anything. Rather, I just let my curiosities lead the way and just wait and see what commonalities bubble up: Here are a few recent combinations:a book on poor people’s social movements and the spiritual life of children; a anthropological work on the Quapaw in Arkansas and Ta-henishi Coates new book Between the World and Me; Articles on the Young Patriots and Rufus Jones’s Essential Writings; a children’s book about the life of Muhammad Ali and a book about an autobiography of a white anti-racist woman called Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Sometimes I have time to jot down a few notes about the parallels in my journal. Usually though the themes just get sewn together without much commentary, only later to come out in some radio piece of magazine commentary. They seep into the groundwater of the collective building of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. And, hopefully, they influence the ways I interact with the world on a daily, mundane basis.

Every so often there are books that seem to never be bumped out or rotation. I’ll put them down only to find them reappear on kitchen table or in the hallway floor, deposited there by my daughter who seems to gravitate toward anything she knows I find meaningful (I recognize this is a short lived phenomenon. By sixteen she will likely be repulsed by the things I love). One is my Quaker Faith and Practice book. That one is always around. But there’s another that keeps showing up: Louise Erdrich’s collection of poems Original Fire: Selected and New Poems.

I’m not much of a poetry reader these days. Back in my early twenties I was an avid reader of poetry. But these days I crave things a little less distilled. But a few months ago—as I was heading out the door to go camping with the family—I saw the title on the self. I’d acquired it years ago, but I’d never spent any time with it. After reading it by the campfire one morning, I felt something shift. And I have be re-reading it ever since.

There is one set of poem in particular that I keep returning to. I find it to be crushing yet invigorating. Futile, but with a spark. The kind of spark you have to work for. And I think, maybe, that’s the one thing I’ve come to crave in reading.

 

“Asinnig” by Louise Erdrich

The Ojibwe word for stone, asin, is animate. Stones are alive. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. The universe began with a conversation between stones.

1

A thousand generations of you live and die

in the space of a single one of our thoughts

A complete thought is a mountain

We dont have very many ideas.

When the original fire which formed us

subsided,

we thought of you.

We allowed you to occur.

We are still deciding whether that was

wise.

2 Children

We have never denied you anything

you truly wanted

no matter how foolish

no matter hos destructive

but you never seem to learn.

That which you cry for,

this wish to be like us,

we have tried to give it to you

in small doses, like a medicine, every day

so you will not be frightened.

Still, when death comes

you weep,

you do not recognize it

as the immortality you crave.

“Stuck”

August 9, 2016

13517515_10153547953601010_5645646305855754992_oThis column originally appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

One of my daughter’s first words was “stuck.” She used it to mean “this thing won’t work” or “this block is too big for this box” or “I really want to climb up in this chair and I need your help.” It was particularly helpful for when she accidentally wedged herself between the couch and the wall or couldn’t get the lid off a container. For quite a while  it was the cornerstone of her five word vocabulary:  “Mama,” Dad-Dad,” “cup,” “this!” and “stuck.” You’d be surprised what you can say with so little.

In recent months her language has exploded. It’s varied and metaphoric. There’s “chooch” (a train or pretty much anything with wheels) “kits” (cats), “Else,” (dog, short for our dog, Elsie), “cake” (anything soft and sweet), “six” (any number or letter), “coat,” (a word that can mean both coat and cold). She’s tackling complete sentences, making it clear that she’s very proud of her independence: “I’m do it!” But as it so often goes with us humans, our brains and our bodies seem woefully out of sync.  One morning she was trying so desperately to communicate with me and I just couldn’t make out her request. She slumped over in my lap as if defeated. She paused for a moment, pointed to her mouth and said, “Is stuck.”

I broke out into laughter. Not because what she said was funny, (it was, of course), but because I was so very proud. She had taken her limited language and used it to communicate about the limits of her limited language. That’s brilliant. Not wanting for my laughter to be read as trivialization, I quickly shifted my tone and told her how astute her comment was. I told her how her frustration was a normal human feeling and that in finding a way to name it she had done something quite remarkable. I’m not sure she totally understood, but in any case we hugged and shared a moment. And then we went back to the lovingly labored work of trying to understand one another.

I remember when my twin sons first started doing something similar. I was equally enamored then, and wrote an essay about how they managed to turn the phrase “all done” into an all-purpose expression for all of their needs. Watching them learn how to communicate I quickly realized that one of my most sacred tasks as a caregiver was to provide space and protection for their natural human drive to be resourceful with language. My sons laid the ground work for me knowing to take my daughter’s desire to communicate so seriously — to know when to laugh and to know when to be sincere. Children crave communication, and they’re fearless with it. They’ll likely remain so if we value this fearlessness.

As an adult — and as someone who gives some of my time to community work — I often think about how atrophied adult imaginations can be, my own included. We tend to think that the ways things have always been is the way they must remain.  Our sense of fearfulness around our limited language leaves us feeling as if we have few tools to build new ways of being. Put another way, sometimes we can scarcely talk about what it could like to build a more just and loving world, let alone get around to building it.

I often find myself in situations where we adults stumble around language as if to figure out some kind of magic formula for how to bring more justice into this world. We examine our ideas and find them inadequate. We look at our resources and deem them lacking. We hit the limits of our language and get angry. Sometimes we think if we can just find the right analysis we can finally bring about change. I don’t want to oversimplify things, but I do think we need to spend more time watching children learn language.

Kids come into this world knowing how to be resourceful and creative. They aren’t hung up on our boundaries. They can take a box and transform it into a rocket. They can look at their own hands and make them into cheetah paws (a favorite trick of my son’s). In my daughter’s case, they can take a five-word vocabulary and provide astute commentary on their five-word vocabulary. In other words, they work with what they have. Not because they believe they must remain within those limitations, but precisely so they can break out of them. After all, all you can ever do is start exactly where you are. If my toddler can convey vast ideas with a five-word vocabulary, surely we have such capacity within in our own.

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[A version of this piece was published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and later ran as a radio piece on Ozarks at Large on KUAF 91.3 FM Public Radio.]

My father recently gave me an envelope full of my mother’s old photos. Inside I discovered an image of a twelve-year-old me, reaching out to pet our recently born colt. I’m wearing wranglers, an embossed leather belt, and my long hair hangs down the length of my back. In the background sits heavily wooded Spring mountain; in the corner of the frame the neighbors clothes are hanging out to try. Surprisingly, I am wearing short sleeves, a rare occurrence, even in the warm months.

My short sleeves exposed large patches of psoriasis, a skin disease I’ve had for years. I was already going into remission by the time the photo was taken; The patches are relatively small and only cover a small portion of my arm. For years there were scales all down my leg and from my elbow to the middle of my forearm. I tried all kinds of cream, sat under sun lamps, applied a medicated tape I had to wear for days at a time, and eventually took cortisone shots, something that is considered too dangerous today. But the patches only grew. Bright red and scaly, they would peel and crack. I wasn’t supposed to pick at them, but I could never resist. Sometimes they hurt, itched and bled. But mostly the discomfort was emotional.

Miraculously, by the time I around 13–around the same time I was diagnosed with scoliosis and given a back brace—the psoriasis was almost gone. This may have been the result of the treatments or just good luck. The severity of auto-immune disease are known to come and go. By then I had learned a lot about how cruel people can be when your body doesn’t fit their expectations. I can still hear the voice of the young girl who refused to sit by me at the Dardanelle Rodeo. She called me gross and began to run away, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her along, telling her that if she touched me her arms would turn scabby and bloody, too. By the time I was fitted for that back brace I was a little tougher, a tiny bit braver. And I had learned to quickly recognize the people who asked questions about my body with a kind and accepting curiosity.

My mother was always taking photos of our family, something that drove me crazy back then. I usually made quite an effort to hide my arms from the camera. I even developed a pose for family shots where I’d fold my arms in toward my chest, an awkward look to say the least. For whatever reason, my guard was down that day. Or maybe I didn’t even realize she had the camera.

I still have occasional flareups with psoriasis, but mostly it’s turned into psoriatic arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects adults who had severe psoriasis as children. It does cause me some discomfort, but thankfully I am able to keep it under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And it’s not a visible disease like my psoriasis, unless you count the subtle ways it’s reshaping a few of my fingers. Every so often when I play guitar my fingers swell and turn red. I sometimes wonder if I will have my hands will eventually curl in the way my grandfather’s did, a man greatly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis

Nearly twenty-six years later, I’m a distinctly different person then the timid girl in the photo. My mother is dead; those boxes of photos are where I have to go to hear her stories. I’ve traveled, I’ve started a family, I’ve faced more fears that I care to count, and I’ve come back home in more ways than one. And now I look at my arms reaching out to that colt and I think those patches look beautiful. The red is fiery and shiny. The white, pale skin around the red fades into my summer tan. I don’t have any regrets over the sadness and shame I used to feel, nor do I feel like I wasted my time worrying. I learned a lot about myself in those moments. And I certainly don’t regret what I learned about people and the limits of acceptance. All of us are so affected by mainstreams ideas of beauty. It takes bravery to reject this mask.
After staring at the photo for sometime, I decided to share it with my sons. I told them about the psoriasis, the cruelty of some of my peers, and the kindness of others. I told them how my mother almost never sounded sound fierce except when she made it clear to me that I was never, ever to be cruel to anyone, to shame or make fun of them. She had no tolerance for human cruelty–whether I was receiving it or dishing it out.

The had a lot of questions about my arms, and wanted to see the subtle scars near my elbow. The were particularly intrigued by the my telling of the repeated needle pricks from the cortisone shots and how my mother called me brave as I sat still during the whole procedure.

I owe a lot to that girl in the photo. I can see a latent fierceness there, and all these years later I might be starting to uncover it. While I do remember how sad I was back then, I don’t want to go back to console my fears or take away those patches. I want to bring that young girl with me into the present, show her how to channel her anger and would-be shame into a different way of being—to bring those experiences into everything I am and pass them down through the coming generations.

iceflower sain

Photo by Johnny Carol Sain for ABOUT the River Valley

This column was first published in the December 2015 issue of  ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

“I don’t want to be afraid of my children growing up.”

I kept turning the phrase over in my mind as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep.  My 17-month-old daughter was sound asleep beside me. I ached a little bit when I thought of how tiny she once was, back in those early days when she used to fit in the curve of my arm. Now she seems to take up half the bed. How many ways are there to say, “she’s growing up so fast?” Isn’t that all parents ever seem to say?

My first children were twins. When I found out I was pregnant with a singleton I looked forward to nursing one baby at a time, holding her in stillness, getting to spend one-on-one time rather than running back and forth between putting out fires. After she was born, I marveled at how easy it was to hold and feed her and sank into the satisfaction of being able to meet her needs as they arose rather than asking her to wait in line behind another sibling. When nap time came I would put her in the carrier and hold her close to my chest, swaying back and forth until she fell asleep slobbering on my shirt. It was all so tender, holding one baby at a time. If you’ve had children you know how it goes. I blinked and then she was crawling. Now she walks along beside me, her tiny little hand wraps easily around my ring and pinky fingers. She points out cats and birds and likes to hide things under pillows and then pull them out exclaiming, “dere is!”

It rained all day today, and the early, dark evenings make it clear winter is here. Things will slow down a little, or at least the early dusk would have us think so. Holidays will give us extra time together with family and perhaps a snow day or two will keep us all inside on the couch. But nothing ever really slows down when you have young children at home. Even in winter.

I don’t think I’ll give birth to any more children, which makes my daughter the baby of the family. Presumably she’s the one I’ll find hardest to let go. I recently discovered something called RIE parenting. The RIE stands for “Resources for Infant Educators.” Titles for concepts of parenting usually get on my nerves, and this title is no exception. I mean, parenting isn’t a theory. It’s a moment to moment ever-evolving state of being. That said, we need words and phrases to help us name ideas and concepts, and those phrases give us the tools to turn these ideas and concepts over in our minds. We can’t challenge our misconceptions if we can’t name alternatives. Such is my frustration with the gap between language and experience, I guess.

Anyway, here is the basic tenant of RIE, as quoted from author Janet Lansbury: “We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.”  Even the youngest babies are seen as active players in their own lives. There is an inherent trust there, a willingness to see the complete and whole person way before their little legs can stand.

I’m not writing this to expose all the ways of this school of thought, but you can find plenty of resources online, especially via founder Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury, the woman behind the Elevating Childcare site.  (Be sure and follow Lansbury’s facebook page here).  The more I read the more I realized this was the kind of parenting I’ve been attempting to practice. I just didn’t know it had a name. Part of why I’d latched on to this idea was that I am hyperaware that any attempts to hem my children in would likely only backfire. I’m not one of those parents who can’t wait for the kids to get grown. While I do enjoy time to myself, I don’t find my greatest enjoyment in my time away from them. I love my life with my children. It’s life-affirming, and it’s the most beautiful, difficult, challenging, eye-opening experience I have ever known. But I don’t want to be someone who needs my children to be children. I want my children to be themselves. And everyday they are becoming more and more of who they are.

I remember as a child feeling excitement as I grew older, that budding independence like sparks everywhere. If I am so lucky, my children will feel that too, and I want to find ways to be there for them. Not be there broken-hearted, begrudgingly weeping for the good old days. I want to be there at that very moment in that very moment with the people they are in that very moment. I know this will take some work.

There is a whole world of pressures out there that tell us to lean into a feeling of guilt as our children grow up. We recoil from the pain of it all. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of this is just about fear. And if I’ve learned anything about fear it’s that once you name it, it dissipates, a least a tiny bit.

So this winter I’m going to do what I always try to do: spend as much time as possible with family. But on those days when everything feels like it’s moving so fast and I feel that punch in the gut when I see how big my youngest is, I’m not going to guilt myself into fearing the passing years. I know growing up is a gift of enormous measure.  And I refuse to feel guilty or fearful of the very nature of growth. Even in the most still, silent moments we’re growing. All of us. And that is one of the most beautiful things we humans can know.

They didn't make it.

They didn’t make it.

This column was originally published in the October issues of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.

______________

This past week we moved to a larger house. This is the fifth move we’ve made since we started gardening about a decade ago. We’ve gardened in the Ozarks, in western Kentucky, and in both large and small towns near the Arkansas River. We tell ourselves our next move — the one where we build a house in the country by the creek at the foot of the mountain — will be the last time we box up our belongings and set out for larger spaces. We’ll see.

Moving boxes is tedious and sometimes backbreaking. Moving a garden is a process of letting go. You have to weigh the risks of removing each plant versus leaving it behind. The day after we’d moved our belongings over to our new house I sat in my front yard with spade in hand running through my options: Should I move this rosemary? Would digging it up kill the roots? What about this foxglove? Will the next people who live here care for the plant? If not maybe I should just dig it up and take my chances?

Some decisions were easy to make. I quickly dug into the roots of the yarrow. It’s easy to move, hardy and always defies the odds. The echinacea, too. The lavender is a bit more delicate, but I decided it was worth the risk. As expected, the milkweed and marigolds have made the move just fine. But I think I killed the mums.

My favorite thing about Chrysanthemums is their ubiquity. By October they’re in full bloom, lining the garden beds with deep shades of red, orange, and burgundy. They’re simple, colorful, and — despite my own recent experience — terribly easy to care for. When temperatures are dropping and leaves are falling from the trees, mums help close out the flower garden.

These particular mums were at least four-years-old, a bright orange variety that matched the pumpkins. In theory they should have lasted several more years, but I’ve been gardening long enough to know that sometimes plants just die. I haven’t been gardening long enough to always know exactly why this happens. In this case, I probably didn’t get enough of the root. Of course, you can never garden long enough to know all the whys. Gardening is just like that. Sometimes things die. Sometimes they live despite the harshest of odds. This is why gardening is both a release from and an immersion into life itself.

Since the mums bit the dust I’ve started thinking back on all the mums in my life. My husband and I were married on a cold November day over a decade ago, and we filled the Civilian Conservation Corps building where we said our vows with mums of all shades. We gave most of the plants away, but took a few home and planted them around the alley near the house we rented from Marcia, our wonderfully eccentric, cat-loving landlord. When we moved to Kentucky we took the brightest red mum with us and left it there when we moved two years later. I like to imagine it’s still adding color to that little yellow house on High Street.

My mother always loved mums. She loved autumn in general. As the air begins to change I find myself daydreaming about how we used to pick out a pattern for a Halloween costume, the smell of soup on the stove as I walked through the front door, or her front porch filled with hay bales and kitschy seasonal decorations. She died during an October. The mums that were given to us for her funeral I planted in my own garden the month after she died. When we moved to Little Rock I started fresh with several new varieties, most of which are still safely in the ground awaiting a new renter. They’ll be blooming just in time to welcome in the new folks. Except that orange one, of course; it’s a goner.

After we get settled in at this new place I think I’ll probably go pick a few new mums from a local grower. I can’t imagine a fall garden without them. I’ll let my sons pick out the colors, and I’m sure my toddling daughter will want to help dig up a place for flowers or eat some of the dirt while I’m busy digging the hole. I think when it’s time to move again — you know, to our dream home with nearby creek and water catchment system and six dogs and three goats and a donkey and mule running around in the yard — maybe I’ll just leave the new mums here. I’ll buy some from a Yell County grower for the new place. I kind of like the idea of leaving a trail of fall flowers across the state.

tiny creatures bookThis column was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

As a child, I never did very well in science classes. I passed the classes with decent grades but something always felt so out of reach, so disconnected. Now that I’m well into my thirties I find myself craving a more solid foundation in biology, botany, even physics. I’m discovering that my children are the best science teachers around.

At five-years-old, they’re enamored with the way anything and everything works. They’re fascinated with the idea that numbers can have no end and that things appear smaller the further they are away. They’re curious about how water freezes and how it boils. They want to know all about the body parts of a grasshopper and how ants poop. They ask questions about meteors and stars and the sun and the moon. Finding a spider or praying mantis in the garden shuts down all other activities. They make inventions and suggest hypotheses, their curious minds lighting a spark in my own. Together we explore.

As a young child my mom always took me to the Dardanelle library, making sure I made it to story time and took part in all the summer reading programs. She taught me about inter-library loaning and always encouraged —or at the very least, tolerated — my short-lived reading obsession with everything from horses to pirates to historical fiction. She believed in the fundamental power of childhood reading. Even when she was confused by or disapproved of my topics of interest, she always encouraged me to learn more. Because of this curiosity she honored in me, I can honestly say that as an adult I don’t ever get bored. Should I ever happen upon some free time (hahahaha), there is always a book waiting. I consider this inoculation against boredom one of her greatest gifts to me.

This summer my sons are taking part in the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program, and we’ve been plowing through the hardcovers left and right. We’ve read picture books about Frog and Toad and the twins Ling and Ting and the Good Dog Carl series and pretty much anything we can find written by Mo Williams (be sure and check out City Dog, County Frog, even if you are 68-years-old and there are no kids around. It’s a book for the ages). We read books to their little sister about bushing teeth and the importance of going to sleep. But more often than not we read science books.

I love our time reading together, and not just because I get to watch their excited faces or hear their joyful exclamations or any of those other clichés everyone always says about kids and books and discovery. I love it because I am learning so much.  So far this summer I’ve learned how to make a wormery for compost, everything I could ever need to know about the life cycles of bees, dragonflies and grasshoppers, and how people go to the bathroom in a space ship. I’ve learned about the secret life of microbes and the details of pollination and the hibernation habits of bears and how owls make pellets. I have learned how wind makes weather and how microbes multiply.  Just this morning I learned about Antarctica.

I’m taken aback by the spark of hope and creativity I am finding in a 20 page book on how sea salt is made. And I’m throughly impressed with all the information that can be packed into a large font publication on bulbs and roots. Thanks to the generosity of several dear friends who sent us boxes of math-focused books, we’ve even started reading about fractions and basic math, and I am finding that maybe I have more of a math brain that I originally thought. Children’s books leave so much up to the imagination, and maybe that’s what I was missing all those years in science classes.

After all, when you have less than 20 pages, there is no time to wallow in the minutia of a subject. The authors get straight to the heart of the matter in simple and straight forward sentences. I keep thinking of the well-worn but useful quote from Einstein:  “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”So hats off to children’s book authors. Anyone who thinks there just simple little books is missing out on what might be the most important thing we can ever come to know.

Below is a list of just a few of our favorites, all checked out from the Arkansas public library system. What are you reading this summer? Visit me online at http://www.boileddownjuice.com or http://www.tendingthebittersweets.wordpress.com and tell me about your favorite kids books this summer.

What Are Bulbs and Roots?
by Molly Aloian

World of Insects series – What is Pollination?
by Bobbie Kalman

Underground
by Denise Fleming (a book about ants)

The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

How Does Weather Change?
by Jennifer Boothroyd

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Every being deserves an obituary. Here is ours to Patchen. 

Our sweet Patchen dog passed away sometime early Saturday morning March 7, 2015.

We adopted from the Fayetteville Animal Shelter in 2003 when she was between 5 and 7 years old. I’d adopted Elsie in 2002, and she changed my life. I was so inspired by my life with a rescue dog that I started volunteering at the shelter in the hopes of helping other dogs find forever homes. While doing volunteer work at the shelter I met Patchen and her cage mate Luna. Patchen seemed timid, quiet, and distant. Bryan decided she was the dog for us and he adopted her in October of 2003. Our landlord, Marcia, adopted her cage mate, Luna.

Bryan adopted Patchen shortly before we were married in November of the same year. He named her in honor of the author and artist, Kenneth Patchen. For a short time Patchen lived with Marcia before settling into our house with Elsie and Chat (Orwell and Buddy James would come later). Not much is known about Patchen’s life before the shelter. She was listed as an owner relinquish and we know she was terribly skinny and a little distrusting of people. Soon after coming home, however, she put on weight, grew A LOT of wiry hair, and became the most people-loving dog around. It took a while for her to bond with Elsie, but once they were close they became inseparable.

We took Elsie and Patchen to dog training classes where they both excelled. Recognizing that Patchen had a uniquely calm and loving temperament, in 2004 I started training Patchen to become a therapy dog. We trained for many months and she passed her test with flying colors. She was certified through Therapy Dog International and we volunteered at the Fayetteville Nursing Home where Patchen loved to go visit with the residents and sit calmly to be petted. Around the same time period I started serving as an assistant in dog training classes at Canine Connection and both Elsie and Patchen worked as what is often referred to as “demo dogs” where they helped to show other dogs and their owners basic commands.

Patchen also patiently served as the doggy matron of the house while Bryan and I fostered multiple dogs for the Fayetteville Animal Shelter, helping to acclimate the dogs and prepare them for suitable homes. She shared her home with Alice, Eddie, Annabelle, Yarrow, and Fred, all of whom went on to permanent homes. She also helped my late mother’s dog learn how to be near other dogs. She got to travel to many places for a dog—all around Arkansas and Kentucky, to Missouri and Oklahoma.

She also was adept at singing, giving high-fives (tens, actually,) and held only one grudge in her life against our recently passed elderly cat, Chat.

In 2009 when George and Elijah were born she took on the role of protecting new family members. She grew to love the boys, especially when she realized just how much food they dropped from their plates. In recent months she realized that our youngest child, Pearly, could also drop food from her chair, thus making Patchen’s last days particularly exciting.

In December of 2013 Patchen was diagnosed with cancer and heart disease. We were told she probably only had a few weeks or months left to live. Yet Patchen carried on a year and a half beyond that diagnosis, tail wagging and always looking for a treat. In the last year she slowed down quite a bit, but she never lost her love for treats and the opportunity to greet visitors at the door. Every now and again she still enjoyed a short walk or trip to the park. She especially loved visits from Auntie Rachel Townsend and our friend Alex Handfinger, both of whom kept her when we had to go out of town.

Patchen loved food (all food, all the time), chasing squirrels, sitting calmly to be petted, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed sniffing things, and every person she ever met anywhere at anytime. We are certain she never saw herself as a dog but rather a family matriarch in charge of providing love, oversight, and vacuuming up after the messy children whom she looked after. In her last days her favorite things to do included sitting on the porch to smell the air, sitting on the couch to sleep the afternoon away, and sitting under the kitchen table to be rubbed by our feet and wait for someone to slip her some cheese.

Her last day was wonderfully uneventful. We had no idea it was her last. She spent the day home with myself and the three children. I remember her excitedly sitting near Pearly as she ate dropped pieces of a baked potato. It had just been a few days before that Pearly had learned to sit at the table, something Patchen was visibly excited about. She had a nice full dinner Friday evening, including potato and cheese from Pearly’s plate, sat on the couch with the boys, hung out with Bryan for lots of love, and died peacefully sometime in the early Saturday morning hours. She passed away in her sleep at one of her favorite spots at the foot of our bed. She was around 17 or 18 years old.

We love you, Mrs. Patchen. Goodbye, girl. We will remember you forever. You were, and always will be, a therapy dog to us all.

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

This pice was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

We were somewhere between Conway and Maumelle when my son asked, “ Where does outer space lead to?” It was around 8:30 at night and there were few cars on the interstate. Out the windows empty fields stretched in either direction and thousands of stars filled the sky. Our other two children had already drifted off to sleep. As per usual, our middle child (only a minute younger than his twin brother) was fighting sleep by asking the deep, existential questions.

We had spent the previous few days in Yell County and were headed back to Little Rock. Stars were on the brain. The night before—far away from the light and noise of the city—we’d looked up at fuzzy clouds of stars overhead, trying to pick out some of the constellations we’d been reading about in an old book I’d found about space. My sons are often taken aback by what they perceive to be more stars hanging over Dardanelle. My husband and I explained how the same stars are also overhead at our home in Little Rock; we just lose sight of them in the glow of so many streetlights. I felt dizzy that night looking up into the deep expanse. I remembered how, as a child, I used to love to take a flashlight and shine it up into the sky, baffled that the light never found something upon which to land.

As we drove toward home we talked about the solar system and the theories of an expansive universe. We talked about rocket ships and gravity and orbits and, per request, we talked about ideas of heaven and the mysteries of life after death. I dug deep into my brain to try and pull up what I could remember from that astronomy class so many years ago. I think I can speak for both my husband and myself when I say that it was one of those moments when you realize how inadequate your understanding really is. In the end our answers came down to that frequent parental confession: “I don’t know.”

20150101_112021As my children grow older and ask increasingly complex questions, I find myself saying that phrase a lot. But I am usually able to follow it up with, “let’s look it up!” But this time I had the pleasure of explaining that even those who study space don’t know exactly what lies beyond. With the universe always expanding the beyond is still being created. We let the silence and the weight of the question hang in the car, a “beautiful mystery” as we like to call it in our home. I’ve always encouraged my sons to find hope in the unknown. After all, even with our advanced scientific exploration (something for which I also teach them to have great respect), there our limits to our understanding. I’ve always operated under the conviction that a reciprocal relationship with God can’t be built upon an evasion of mystery. It wasn’t long after that he drifted off to sleep and my husband and I turned our adult conversations toward more earthly topics like world affairs and plans for the following day.

There are a lot decisions I’ve made as a parent that I later question. And I’m thankful each day for the opportunity for a do-over from the day before. But our bedtime rituals aren’t in that list. Over the years I’ve learned that connecting with children around bedtime is one of the more magical parts of the day. As they drift toward sleep they lose their shields, employing their growing vocabularies to ask questions that would baffle even the elderly. I’ve always seen this to be such an act of bravery on their part. As humans, being able to lay down in the night, in the stillness of our bodies, and look into that which we don’t understand isn’t for the weak of heart. As a parent I try to give space to this process and stick around whenever they want me near. My gut feelings is that encouraging this contemplation will likely serve my kids well as they grow into adults attempting to navigate a world filled with injustice and complexity. I welcome the chance to tell my children there is so much I don’t understand. Most importantly I feel these moments are one of the many ways in which they’ll learn to develop a relationship with things they can not see.

20141110_204857Oh don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every bedtime is a peaceful, mystical exploration of life’s greatest questions. In their fatigue sometimes they’re extra grumpy and fight about how their brother’s foot bumped against their foot or how they want the pajamas their brother picked out first. Sometimes they fight sleep by requesting yet another glass of water or arguing with their brother about who the blanket belongs to. In other words, it’s not all magic and mystery. I don’t think these are specifically childhood traits but rather human ones. After all, how often do we adults find ourselves thinking, even talking about, the importance of human connection and the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity only to get sidetracked into speculating on the worth of another human’s heart just because they spoke to us with a tone we didn’t like. It’s not as if kids have secured the market on being petty. In the end we’re humans with human brains and human bodies. We get sidetracked. But sometimes, whether we’re 50 or five, we manage to cut through it all and reach toward something beyond ourselves. There is something about the darkness that encourages this reach. I want my children to feel unafraid in that balance.

A few more miles down the interstate, nearing the lights of the city, it occurred to me that I’d been so busy trying to answer my sons questions that I hadn’t offered him the chance to explore his own thoughts on the matter. When we got back into town and he began to wake back up I asked what he thought. “Where do you think it leads to?” The moment had passed, he was groggy, and he didn’t really have much to say on the matter. But I’m glad I asked. I know he’ll file the question away, knowing that there is room in this world, and in this family, for his own ruminations. He’ll sit with them as goes about his days and they’ll likely resurface some evening when he’s staring at the stars, or the ceiling of his room, making his way toward rest. I look forward to learning from his ever-evolving answers.

Why I write about caregiving and community.

Why I write about caregiving and community. Photo by Rachel Townsend.

When I first started writing stuff about grief and parenting and gardening such, I had very distinct lines of delineation. My public, published pieces for the Boiled Down Juice and the regional publications kind enough to run my words were always about cultural studies and intergenerational work and justice and such. And they were all told at a distance.

On the other hand, this space right here was all about babies and mammas and plants. My babies and mama and plants.  For a short time I wrote a parenting related column for a local magazine and housed that here. But basically what you find here are rambles of the personal sort.

Well, lately I have found that my Seed and the Story column and my column for ABOUT the RIver Valley sometimes touch on parenting and plants in an increasingly personal way that can make me feel uncomfortable. I’m losing a sense of these strict lines I used to have.

Sometimes I can’t figure out if something I’ve just written is more of the personal variety or more of the distanced, public kind. I think about it for a while and then someone yells “Mama!!!” and I get distracted.

From the piece "Runny Dry."

From the piece “Runny Dry.”

Sometimes I want to step in and stop this overlap. Go back to my clear-cut lines. Quit talking about the personal and the public in one breath. But I’m a busy mom, and I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that I’m going to write what seems to make the most sense to me, even if I can’t figure out where to put it  and the lines are all blurry. Such is honesty, I suppose.

So, with that thought in mind, here are links to some recent pieces that I’ve run on the Boiled Down Juice and regional publications. I keep writing about care giving and what it means to come together as caregivers. It seems honest to me, so I guess I’ll keep doing it.

Here are some recent pieces.

As always, you can keep up with my contributions to the Boiled Down Juice here. You can learn more about our McElroy House work here. 

“Kabtt–Zinn and the Importance of Caregiving and Intergenerational Connections” 

“Running Dry: A Creek Discovery”

“Something for the Kids: Simple Salt Dough” 

“Ella’s Song: The Importance of Coming Together as Caregivers” 

“Prayer Shawls and Homemade Quilts”