Notes from the past two weeks

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Detail from Ken Krimstein’s graphic biography of Hannah Arendt.

📚 Today I reached 121 books read this year. Twenty-six of those are non-fiction works, which means I am only four books from my goal of thirty.

Speaking of non-fiction… from Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom (Ken Ilgunas):

p. 74
It never failed: When I’d gaze at the stars and the aurora, I’d see my problems for what they were. I always told myself that I’d been under the control of other forces: parents, school, work. And I’d convinced myself that my debt was to blame for everything as if I had nothing to do with contracting the debt in the first place). I hated my job even though I worked for a wonderful company. And I told myself that, because of the debt, I couldn’t travel, couldn’t go back to school, and now couldn’t even leave my room.

Part of me liked being in debt. Part of me even wanted to stay in debt, to keep going on random and expensive three-week trips to places like Ecuador so I could spend my hard-earned dollars on halfhearted adventures, instead of staying focused on what should have remained my true goal: busting out of the great American debtors’ prison, steadily chipping away at its walls with each paycheck.

Part of me like being in that position of submission, tied up in leather, willfully cowering beneath a ruthless whip-wielding Sallie Mae. Life is simpler when we feel controlled. When we tell ourselves that we are controlled, we can shift the responsibility of freeing ourselves onto that which controls us. When we do that, we don’t have to bear the responsibility for our own unhappiness or shoulder the burden of self-ownership. We don’t have to do anything. And nothing will ever change.

Also on the subject of non-fiction… I loved Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt. What a fabulous introduction to the philosopher’s life and work! Good customer service story: My copy of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Elisabeth Young-Bruehl), ordered not long after I finished The Three Escapes, arrived with a bent cover and chipped pages. Hoping for a modest discount, I wrote to customer service, and Amazon refunded the entire cost of the book.

🎭 Since my last post, I’ve seen two plays — Nell Gwynn at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (meh) and Mansfield Park at Northlight (misguided, at best) — and one opera — Il trovatore at the Lyric (fabulous; review here).

☕️ On Thursday I was sick enough to call out from work for the first time. After dragging my tired, sniffling self in on Friday, though, I began a nine-day break, arriving home just a few hours before my younger daughter, who is here for Thanksgiving. (My husband and older daughter begin break on Wednesday.)

🍂 Autumn visited for about three days. Not kidding. A few of my neighbors were unable to finish leaf removal before the first snowfall. It snowed again this past Thursday. We were lucky: During a break in my fever last Sunday, we cleared many of the last leaves; and on Monday, in a scarf, earmuffs, and warm coat, I did the last mow of the season.

 

We live in a library.

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“A house that’s full of books makes a different kind of people.”
(Inheritors by Susan Glaspell)

Elsewhere, I posted a link to the October 10 article “Growing up in a house full of books is major boost to literacy and numeracy, study finds” (The Guardian), to which my daughter replied, “That’s good to know,” a wry observation from a young woman who grew up in a library.

In the comments, someone asked if I am able to keep all of the books, or if I face “tough decisions.” I have not kept all of the books, but that did not involve tough decisions; after all, not every book is a keeper. We sold or donated more than a quarter of the library before our last move and nearly that much again when our home education adventure concluded; and my rate of acquisition since then has not yet outpaced the shelving space with which we outfitted the forever home.

The space is finite, though, something my husband and daughters, who often help me shelve and shift, regularly remind me.

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Recent acquisitions.

American Sign Language

0CCA6B49-EC67-45D9-AFB2-D0AB23A495BBAbout a third of the students in the first aid and CPR course we completed over the summer were, as my older daughter and I are, employed by schools. The instructor remarked that, like the certification we earned that afternoon, basic ASL skills are also a terrific asset to educators, both in emergency situations and in the classroom. Naturally, then, when the local college posted a fall course schedule that included a four-semester sequence of ASL classes, it seemed like one of those serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity moments, and we enrolled.

The required text for the class is A Basic Course in American Sign Language; I picked up the optional workbook and DVDs from the series, too. Knowing that we appreciate having several delivery options when we study, my younger daughter, who began learning ASL from a college friend last year, recommended Sign School (which her friend played a large role in developing) and the American Sign Language Dictionary app.

While my daughters use their skills regularly, the older in her work and the younger to communicate with her friend, my husband (who also decided to take the class) and I don’t have an immediate need for ASL. Both of us have been teaching fingerspelling, however: he to his colleagues and I to my students. I have also taught my students several signs, including AWESOME, SURPRISED, and INTERESTING.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the fact that, even now, we are still engaged in a version of the family-centered learning project is so motivating. Bonus: My study group lives with me or is only a FaceTime call away!

Bookish

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Recent acquisitions.

Last night I finished reading Book 51 of the year, Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do. Because I’m about halfway through The Perfect Mother (Aimee Molloy), a meh recent novel, and Janesville, an excellent non-fiction work, I expect to meet the goal of Robin’s 52 Books in 52 Weeks by Thursday.

On the topic of non-fiction, I’m well positioned to meet one of my own reading goals: to read thirty-six non-fiction tiles in 2018. I’ve read seventeen, so far. In fact, here are my commonplace book entries for the sixteenth, Sarah Perry’s haunting memoir about her mother’s murder, After the Eclipse:

p. 136
As far back as I could remember, reading had been a perfect escape, an alternate universe where none of the problems were mine. When I was upset at home or school, I could always pull out a book, or know that one was waiting for me in the next quiet moment. In first grade, encouraged by my teacher, I began writing stories, and this was even better; I could create whatever escape I wanted, include whatever characters I wanted to spend time with. Writing gave me power.

p. 159
Sometimes, the scary thing about suicide was that it seemed inevitable, the only logical end to everything that had happened.

p. 250
Violence outpaced lab funding everywhere.

Our family book club is tackling The Aeneid this summer. We’ve already listened to the three introductory lectures in Elizabeth Vandiver’s course on the work and have decided to read one of The Aeneid’s twelve books each week, complemented by the appropriate lecture(s). The Girls Rule! Book Club has also tentatively scheduled Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert) and The Art of War (Sun Tzu), which may prove a bit ambitious with their commitments, but we’ll see.

The library’s reading program commences later this week, and frankly? My group enjoys some slightly lighter fare in the summer, too, so my assembled a pile of fiction includes Sometimes I Lie (Alice Feeney) and Red Clocks (Leni Zumas) — perfect, I think, for reading lakeside in the early morning between birdwatching and chillaxing.

New books and other great stuff

4B46B611-55A9-4628-B19D-3B26A2BE1DE1This week provides a bit of a breather between two fairly momentous events: my older daughter’s college graduation and my younger daughter’s departure for an internship at [insert name of U.S. national laboratory here]. Soon, everything will change again, but in this brief, not-quite-yet space, we have been assembling our Girls Rule! summer book club list (more about that soon), shopping for career wear (theirs), swapping work stories, planning the next few weekends of theater and museum adventures, walking, working in the yards, and simply enjoying one another’s company.

My school year concludes soon, which should translate into a bit more time to post about some of the terrific books I’ve read and plays I’ve seen this year. And I have plenty to say about adult music-learning and -making, too. Until then, pics of recent acquisitions must do.

Autumn break by the numbers

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The Foo Dog Garden at Allerton Park. It was 56 degrees when we arrived.
Hello, autumn? Please come back.

9
Days together.

1,100-plus
Miles driven in those nine days.

2
Films seen: Lola rennt (1998) and Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004).

2
Plays seen: The Book of Will at Northlight and Hard Times at Lookingglass.

2
Geocaches found, the first of which represented 8 of 15 in the challenge on which we are working and the second of which marked the nineteenth find since beginning this pursuit. (Yes, we are doing this quite slowly.)

3
Parks visited.

0
Games played. We worked on a puzzle, instead.

1,000
Pieces in the puzzle.

1
Zoo visited — our holiday tradition.

9
Chapters in our latest podcast obsession, Accused. We finished eight of those chapters while on break.

7.75
Books finished. I will finish the final one hundred pages of The Road to Jonestown (Jeff Guinness) today.

5.25
Hours slept last night. I sleep better when they’re home. Sigh.

From the archives

The following was originally written more than a decade ago in response to a post on a homeschooling board; it was then reshaped and published to my old site. The original poster asked about managing her child’s attitude toward schoolwork. She was having difficulty finishing lessons each week and felt they were falling behind. This repost (with minor edits) is provided at A.K.’s request.

It all begins with me.
Most of the time when things “break bad” here (and they do; not often, but they do), it’s more about me than about anyone else. When the work is taking forever to complete, when the quality is less than expected, when enthusiasm has waned, etc., I don’t need to look much further than the example I’ve been setting. Have I been on-task? Have I been doing my job(s) with attention to detail? Have I conveyed my love of the subject and of the family-centered learning project? Or have I been dealing with our accountant in a series of longwinded telephone calls? Spending twenty extra minutes on the treadmill? Checking email or blogging? Planning activities for next week, month, or year when we haven’t completed the activities for this week, month, or year? (Actually, I gave up that last bit during year one of this adventure. One of the first hard lessons I learned about home education is that my time is best spent not on elaborate lesson plans (no matter how ingenious, inventive, or inspiring to other hs-ing mothers), thumbing through catalogues, drafting curriculum wishlists, or bouncing from one resource to another but on the simple task of focusing on the moment we’re in. It has saved me years of angst and wasted time, talent, and treasure, that lesson has.)

Don’t misunderstand. I think that it’s important that we parent-educators tend to our needs, but I also think it’s critical that we do it on our own time. (For me, that’s in the wee, small hours of the morn’ or the late evening hours after they head to bed or, sometimes, during the day on “free” days (one benefit of year-round studies).) When I forget this self-mandate (e.g., when I take a call during lesson time or blog while the kids are laboring over math sheets), I send the following mixed message: Leading the family-centered learning project is my first and most important job — except when I want to do something else. Make that mistake too many times, and it’s really no wonder when the youngest dallies over a sheet she previously needed only thirty minutes to complete for three, four times longer than that; no wonder that they’re feeling recalcitrant, unmotivated; no wonder our interactions are laced with discontent.

Lest you or someone else click away in anger, note that this is not a criticism of any sort. I don’t know how you approach your work. You asked how to reach your child’s heart, though; I can only tell you how I reach my own children’s hearts and minds:

With as much consistency as possible, I model the behavior and standards I want the kids to maintain.

And I’ve been doing that since we began this adventure.

By necessity, this means I haven’t adopted then abandoned multiple approaches to parenting or learning. It means that I decided on a fairly certain course early on, a course chosen to match my personality and goals well.

And I’ve stuck with it.

There is an unmistakable rhythm to our days, a dance of daily routines and rituals that guide this family’s life, and everyone sways to the silent music

…because it has been playing since they they arrived.

Sure, there’s spontaneity. And fun. Lots of it. Surprise. Humor. Laughter. But that’s the harmony. The melody is one of clearly stated goals and plenty of examples of how to achieve them.

We parent-educators love to point out that the benefit of homeschooling is that we can tailor the curriculum and our approach to our students’ needs. I suspect, however, that there is a point at which this becomes too much of a good thing. Clearly, when an elementary school student fails to understand that his or her job is to play and learn and study and grow (and to do so without a big fuss), he or she needs less “heart talk” and more “stern talk” — mixed with a healthy dose of the teacher modeling the same level of commitment to task.

What is “stern talk”? It might look something like this: Quite simply, education is the law here; as in, parents must provide their children with an education. If my child isn’t learning (barring some sort of organic issue), we are not complying with the law. If I am doing my part (check), that leaves you, the child. You must do your part. In this house, that means that the following activities must be completed on a daily (weekly, monthly, annual) basis. Until we’re in compliance, we will skip the following activities: [insert favorite programs, extracurriculars here].

I’m going to circle back to my original premise: It all begins with the parent-educator. Anger and sadness are one response to a recalcitrant student. Humor is another approach. But, in the end, unwavering purposefulness may be the best choice, and that’s hard to achieve if we haven’t done the hard work of laying out our own courses. As I said, this is not a criticism but an observation based on my teaching and parenting experiences: Things work best when I work best.

Post-eclipse

IMG_2499Before pouring my first mug of coffee this morning, I caught a glimpse of a female ruby-throated hummingbird visiting the hanging plants in the front yard. I had time to whisper, “Hummingbird!” twice, to alert my daughters, before she darted away. Ordinarily, the hummingbirds are attracted to the plant pictured above. It hangs near a window in the back of the house and appeals to many backyard visitors, including spicebush swallowtail butterflies.

Did you watch?
My youngest fashioned pinhole projectors from recyclables, and we safely viewed the phenomena between lunch and shopping. Yesterday’s errand list filled a page, but we didn’t want to miss the event. I had purchased glasses for all of us from Celestron but, erring on the side of (extreme) caution, we contented ourselves with “science in a cereal box.” Pretty cool.

Not so cool? How (very, very) swiftly the last fifteen weeks passed: My daughters are preparing for their return to university, and I am wondering how my heart can feel as if it is both bursting with proud excitement and breaking into ten thousand shards.