Reading notes

IMG_3133Since my last bookish post, I’ve moved my daughters back to university; received two offers so delightful that I rethought my ideas about “retirement” and accepted one; survived a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning; and finished the following books:

The Followers (Rebecca Wait; 2015. Fiction.)
Hamlet (William Shakespeare; 1602. Drama.)
The Grip of It (Jac Jemc; 2017. Fiction.)
Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare; 1604. Drama.)
The Marriage Pact (Michelle Richmond; 2017. Fiction.)
Fierce Kingdom (Gin Phillips; 2017. Fiction.)
Fun Home (Alison Bechdel; 2006. Graphic memoir.)
Othello (William Shakespeare; 1603. Drama.)

If you liked last summer’s The Girls (Emma Cline), and I did, you may appreciate The Followers, a difficult story told well. The Grip of It offers a literary twist on the haunted house genre. The Marriage Pact passed an amiable summer afternoon despite its pedestrian prose and improbable plotting. Fierce Kingdom, however, managed something special. This beautifully written and almost recklessly fast-paced thriller is destined for big-screen treatment. For the commonplace book:

p. 17
In a year he will be in kindergarten and these days of superheroes will fade and be replaced by something she can’t guess, and then at some point the zoo itself will be replaced and life will have gone on and this boy holding her hand will have turned into someone else entirely.

p. 160
She does not know when she started imagining the end of things. It’s possible that turning forty triggered it or that Lincoln triggered it from the moment he began changing from a baby into a boy and she realized how he was going to vanish, over and over again, until finally he was grown and gone, and it’s possible she has such dark thoughts precisely because there is nothing she wants more than for life to stay exactly as it is, never changing, and maybe she loves it all the more because she knows it can’t last.

p. 165
You are supposed to be more forgiving of your parents, aren’t you, after you have children yourself? After you understand what parenting really means?

The Bechdel memoir (an exquisite, smart book I devoured and pressed on all who would listen when it was first published more than a decade ago) was a reread: We will see the Victory Gardens production later this month.

The plays, all rereads, represent some of my Shakespeare in a Year progress. (Yes, I had planned to substitute a Hamlet-inspired novel, but my daughters and I ended up revisiting the play before they finished moving back to university. Still, The Dead Fathers Club (Matthew Haig), a book that has been on my shelves since 2006 may (finally!) end up on this year’s list.) I have also reached Sonnet 111 and pushed Sir Thomas More down the list a bit.

Yesterday marked the beginning of Week 11 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks, but the book remains so compelling that I have already finished the reading for Weeks 12 and 13.

From Book Three, Part Two, Chapter 10:

He had managed people for a long time, and knew that the chief way to make them obey is to show no suspicion that they can possibly disobey.

And now I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

p. 8
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of story that can be spoken.

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.