Monday, February 15, 2016

home to roost

Home to Roost

By Kay Ryan

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

* * *

"Imagine the difference it would have made to your life, 
had you been born into the house next door." 
- John O'Donohue (from Anam Cara)

A friend of mine named Joshua once told me a story that made a lasting impression on me. It was about cheese. Joshua is from South Carolina. His parents, who still live there, had some friends-- an older couple-- who made their own cheese and sold it within their small community. It was a particular kind of cheese, with a particular taste, because, of course, it was made in a particular spot, with particular cows, eating particular grass, and cultured by a particular kind of bacteria. One day, according to Joshua, some health authorities came in and imposed some regulations on this family and their homespun cheesemaking facility. They then had to follow a cleaning protocol prescribed by the governmental authorities (whether state or federal, I cannot recall). After complying, they found that the particular bacteria they had relied on for their cheese had been wiped out by their stringent cleaning. And that was that: the end of the road for this poor cheese. It was missed thereafter by Joshua's parents and those who had enjoyed it regularly. 

One time I made my own sourdough starter. This is relatively simple to do, as it only requires mixing flour and water, letting it sit for a day, stirring it, adding more flour and water the next day, stirring, and so on, for several days. Eventually, the mixture will get frothy and start to smell sour (not foul), and you know that it has caught wild yeast from the air, and that yeast has started to multiply and come alive. And this means, of course, that the sourdough bread I make in my kitchen would taste different than the sourdough bread you might make in your kitchen. Because the wild yeast floating through the air at my house would not be the same as the wild yeast floating through the air in your house one thousand miles away. (Did you know that there is wild yeast floating through your house?)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the tension that exists between particularity and sameness, uniqueness and standardization, local flavor and mass produced, soft-serve vanilla. The school where I work and also send my children is young and quite unique. It is urban, being in the middle of a city neighborhood, occupies a large, old, formerly vacant brick school building, and uses a curriculum that is a mash-up of many educational resources but is primarily guided by the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator. The words upstart and grassroots would both apply, as it began as a homeschooling co-op only six years ago. The two co-heads who began the school never expected that it would grow as quickly as it has. After only six years the student body now includes over 160 children and the board of trustees is guiding the school through an accreditation process. Every staff member is participating in this and going through reams of questions, assessing every aspect of our school's inner workings according to a very particular rubric.

The word "data" is suddenly being used quite a bit as our school realizes areas where it has, as of yet, no cache of data to speak of. And while part of me is excited that our school is undergoing this process, which will result in inevitable improvements and the correction of blind spots, another part of me is sorrowful and a little worried that the time of our school being below the radar is coming to an end. When not everything is sorted into neat categories, there is room for human brilliance and raw talent that also may have gone uncategorized and unrecognized until it was given a small-scale venue in which to prove itself. I have observed how in a shoe string operation, everyone has to work really hard to keep the things moving forward; they have to dig down and excavate all the raw talent that is within, knowing that it is wanted and needed. Official qualifications are not as important as jumping in and showing that you can do something with excellence and competence. One of the most ironic realities of our school is that the woman who wrote our curriculum (which I think is absolutely brilliant) although she is of course educated and has more than twenty years of teaching experience, is technically not a certified teacher. Meanwhile, without saying anything disparaging, certified teachers are rather common-- are they not?--while coming up with people who can craft an entire curriculum for preschool through sixth grade-- one that works really well, no less-- would result in a very short list. But as our school goes through certification, all of the teaching staff will have to submit to one or another path to certification.

I appreciate the value of standardization-- of taking something that works and duplicating it across a broad swathe. I shop at IKEA and Costco like a normal American and appreciate the principle of a bed frame and peanut butter cheaply priced because it can be produced and sold in massive quantities. It works, and everyone benefits. But I also fear standardization is a bit of a sweeping force that tends to flatten everything and everyone in its path, rendering the need for human quirkiness, brilliance, and resourcefulness moot. I think standardization is great when it is great. But the dark side of standardization is when people stop using their brains-- such as when people drive into the desert because their GPS told them to, or wipe out a local strain of cheese, which, for all anyone knows, might be the closest thing Appalachia ever had to Gruyere.

This post is already several days late and I fear that my dear friend Amber might be mildly annoyed with me for letting down my end of our recently struck bargain to get back into blogging. So I am going to post this even though it is one of those times when I thought I had a lot more to say about these ideas, and this post feels half-baked to me, even after lots of attempts to finish it. Thanks for bearing with me, Amber, and the two or three others out there who read my blog. And Happy President's Day, by the way. I made a triple batch of granola bars today and I'm about to make a triple batch of lentil soup as well. My kids have been entertaining themselves well all day without screens! Conclusion: President's Day is a much better holiday than Valentine's Day, which-- my husband and I both agree-- is typically an awful holiday. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

winter, warm and cool

I need to get back into the habit of taking photos with a more artistic eye, rather than just snapshots of my kids. For the winter theme this week, I gleaned photos from my archives over the past few years. But as I scoured my photo streams for wintery photos, I realized that what I have is a collection of cool and warm tones, and it made me think of how they perfectly reflect what winter is truly like here in the not-quite-north and not-quite-south.

I used to struggle with winter when we lived further north, but here I love winter. And if ever it gets miserably cold to the point that I am not loving it, it tends to relent and swing back into a mild spell. The opportunities to play in the snow always come, but like a polite guest, never stay too long to wear out their welcome. And jacket-only days happen reliably here and there. Also, it does not stay overcast, but the sun is out quite a bit. To me this is winter at its best.

The snowstorm.
And yet there are days when coats are not even necessary.

One day you might sled until your toes turn numb and brittle.

Another day is for stacking doomed pond ice in the sun.

A day for hiking through prairie--watch out for biting wind.

Scootering in the park-- not even a jacket. And the sun slants more pinkly and beautifully than in summer.

Adult-kid snowball fight. The cold won, I think. 

One time I suddenly noticed the days were lengthening-- the beginning of the end of winter.

Cypresses by a wintery pond-- chilly day but sunny, with warm tones all around.

Unseasonable bubble blowing--always worth a try.

* Visit I AM HOPE and Eine Hand voller Stunden to see more winter photos. *

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

new year, sharp song


by R. S. Thomas

I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

* * *

We had no snow in the days surrounding Christmas but rather torrential rain, followed by historically unprecedented flooding in nearby areas. Occasionally we have woken up to frost in the morning beginning in late fall. When the first frost arrived, it snapped our unsuspecting lawn into a perfect, rigid brown replica of its plump summer self. Since then it has withered and matted down, and morning frost has been semi-regular, with long stretches of milder weather. But only now, as I write this, is a slushy, wet snow finally making its appearance--yet not enough to stick and cover everything in white.

The darkish blue that I painted our living room three years ago has worn on me at long last and I find myself contemplating white indoors as well. Our blue living room seems cloying to me now, especially in the evening when it feels like a cobalt bottle that might be inhabited by a whimsical mouse family, about to trim their Christmas tree. No amount of lamplight seems to brighten this dark blue room at night. As for the rest of our house, the white trim and generic creamy tan has been marred and sullied by three years of kids' finger prints and knocking about. I abandoned the dream of a white Christmas but I am persisting in the dream of a whiter, brighter interior. Let the painting commence.

Meanwhile, I hear a voice coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the Apartment Therapy website saying that white walls are so Scandi, and I fear that my attraction to the idea springs from a too impressionable openness to images flipping perpetually off the griddle of Pinterest. I carry catalogs from Pottery Barn, along with the Athleta and Sundance nonsense, straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin, trying to resist being mindlessly swayed by advertising. But with advertising as ubiquitous as air and water I fear that the images seep into my system and spawn ideas in my head that present themselves as personal and original, but are not.

I am reflecting on what the year of 2015 has contained, even while I cannot believe it is over. It has been a sort of nose-to-the-grindstone year, as years go, and I cannot help but wonder, as I reflect on growing older, if this is just the reality of adulthood and parenthood finally sinking in. Life is work, routine, consistency, endurance, and loyalty--the willingness to eschew comfort whenever necessary, which is often. Some evenings I must give up a normal bedtime for cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, and making lunches for the next day. And that is no excuse for not flossing my teeth. Maybe this is the secret that all seasoned, functional adults eventually learn. As my loyal and antiquated dad always said, drawing from his cache of platitudes from a rural Georgia upbringing-- you've gotta keep on keeping on.

2015 was an in-your-face type of year with the emergence of in-your-face public personalities like Donald Trump and in-your-face issues of racism, shootings, terrorism, refugees, and gun control. As we were driving back home from Thanksgiving through the now brownish world of approaching winter, we drove into Nashville and past a series of billboards for a gun store. However, instead of projecting a woodsy, camouflage, army surplus motif as one might expect, these advertisements were graphically spiffy and relatively slick, even vaguely sexy. One of them pictured a woman's leather handbag with a gun peeking out of a zippered pocket. The caption read: "The ultimate accessory." Caught off guard by this smug mash-up of guns and fashion between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I felt an initial wave of disgust followed by a numb rigidity, like our lawn caught by the first frost. For such a billboard to exist I must be sharing the highway (gee, the traffic is terrific!) with mad people.

When I am not feeling totally bewildered by American culture reaching new lows, I have a nagging concern that I might not be adequately bewildered. Maybe things I perceive as healthy-enough might be sick, and the things I perceive as normal-enough might be perverse. If the color I decide to paint my house has been unconsciously pre-determined by a design team of twenty-nine year-olds at Urban Outfitters, anything is possible. To thaw myself, to grasp at some clarity in my cloudy thinking, I sometimes take refuge in literature. In my mind I am crouching behind our pitifully crinkled paperback copy of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. I sound the alarm: "We've become a dis-Utopian society of amoral sub-humanoids as predicted by shrewd novelists of the twentieth century!" But I am told that in Pottery Barn, no one can hear you scream.

Sometime during my teenage years I remember hearing a sermon in church about the parable in which Christ compares the kingdom of Heaven to a tree that birds come and nest in. I had always thought of birds as de facto good-- and of course trees are good as well. So the image of birds in trees seemed entirely nice. But this preacher overturned that. The tree was good but the birds were bad--invasive--like buzzards perhaps. The tree represented the church, and the buzzards took shelter there. I remember later puzzling over the parable of the leaven in the lump. Was the leaven good or was it bad? Because it seemed important to know, given its power. A bad apple can ruin the bunch; a little leaven can leaven the lump. It would appear that even a little of something--whether a welcome force of leavening or the unwelcome one of corruption--can spread and multiply, conquering and converting the substance of everything in its path.

In mid-December I pulled out a coat that I had not worn for a year and discovered it had a little plastic bottle of holy water from last January's Theophany service. My first grader seized upon the bottle because for some reason she loves those little plastic bottles of holy water. She immediately ran around the house and started taking gleeful sips. My first impulse was to stop her--that water was nearly a year old--let the houseplants have it! But my husband just said, "It's holy water." I decided to let it go, to let concrete faith win the day over abstract doubt. I work at the school that my daughters attend. One day, a few days later, from a third story window at the school, I happened to see my daughter dancing around on the pavement at recess below. Unknown to me, she had brought the bottle of holy water to school and was now pulling it out of her pocket, showing it off to her classmates. Her school friends, I have reason to believe, have not the faintest notion of such a thing as holy water, and were probably totally bemused by this spectacle. Que sera sera.

Theophany just came and went again-- the celebration of Christ's baptism. It is beautiful, and somehow makes sense, following Christmas. However, its water-centric theme coming uncannily in January always makes me shiver a little. In the hymns we sing about how Jesus, dipping into the stream for baptism, sanctified the water he touched, and that water flowed out and sanctified all the water in the world. Molecules blessing molecules; leaven leavening the lump. At church we received more of those little bottles of holy water, like party favors from a wedding. This year I will try not to let them just sit around gathering dust, forgotten in jacket pockets, caught somewhere between the too-special and the negligible. Maybe finding a way to put them to good use will be my idiosyncratic New Year's resolution.

Meanwhile, like everyone else around the New Year, I cannot resist thinking about exercise and healthy eating, and, like the mindless hoards, have contributed my quota of clicks to the click-bait articles about refined sugar and the like. I found a 5k to sign up for; I bought some long sleeve activewear tops on clearance at Target. I think it is safe to say that I am in no danger of becoming too idiosyncratic or counter cultural in 2016.

So, look for me in 2016, against my better judgment, occasionally dabbling in the We Love to Hate Donald Trump Club, which, I fear, might position me too close to the sphere of his destructive energy. What if loving and hating Donal Trump is all of one piece-- somehow part and parcel of the same sick fascination? (I appreciated reading this insightful cultural critique exploring the phenomenon of his popularity--recommended reading.)

It would be far safer to live on a pillar in the middle of the desert, like St. Symeon the Stylite, or eat honey and locusts, wearing animal skins, like John the Baptist. But since that is not going to happen any time soon for me, I will continue traveling the broad road of Pinterest inspired home decor, Target clearance racks, Apartment Therapy diy tutorials, and whatever the hell people want to ping me with on Facebook, all to the accompaniment of presidential election noise. The buzzards will be heavy on the branches; the snow's whiteness will be beautiful (but morally ambiguous). The jaws of King Herod will remain open, like alligators in the lagoon over which we might someday dangle. But still Christ is born. The robin's sharp song will sound out above our cacophonous moments. And the little bit of leaven will keep working its way through the lump. The water--blessed and blessing--will continue its outward flow into all the world.

{For more Poetry Wednesday visit I AM HOPE. Amber and I plan to blog regularly again on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, with Poetry Wednesday coming first, followed by a photography post. This month's theme is Winter.}

Thursday, August 13, 2015

ignominy, the way forward

Dear Reader,

Today I am starting a new blog. From 2004 to 2014 I kept a blog called flakedoves, which was begun at the time when blogging was an experiment that many tried and abandoned. The name came from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, The Starlight Night. Because I picked the name at random and blogged without a plan or ambition, I later came to think that it was a title that, by accident, served my blogging experiment fairly perfectly. Things sent floating at farmyard scares, that is. I call it an experiment because obviously I too abandoned it like a defunct satellite floating in space, or maybe those floating feathers. 

Only now I want to lasso it close to me again, apparently, because here I am providing you with a link. I wish I could say that this new blog will be different--beginning with an organized strategy, some sense of design, or an impressive splash-making-unveiling-sort-of-thing. But that would not be genuine, and those are the very hurdles that would ensure I go to my grave without ever blogging again. And several of my most trusted friends tell me I need to keep blogging. And it's true that when I write blog posts in my head, which I do, it is really a shame not to have a venue for them. 

So here I begin again, with the only difference being that I am being boldly experimental and studiously random and instead of timidly and awkwardly so as I was in 2004. I will do the same thing I did before, with the sole distinction being that this time I can actually describe to you and to myself what I am doing. The shyness is still there and will never go away, but my 2015 self has acquired the tools necessary to compensate. Here I am, boldly addressing my reader as "reader" and "you." Big time stuff.

Yes, I could have kept on blogging indefinitely at flakedoves, but somehow the freshness--a fresh start--coupled with the aesthetic boringness--the total whiteness of the webpage, the clean slateness--feels somehow necessary. This seems to be my way forward, always: the return to ignominy, so to speak. I am not talking about personal ignominy, mind you, but a specific kind of blogging ignominy, which provides for me a white room where I can go and think, where I can write not-too-easily-consummable prose, and where I can collect readers at a pace of about two per year. Because (at least partly): little-to-no-advertising. 

"The day's dearest wish" is, appropriately or not, also a line from a Hopkins poem which lodged in my head for a long time until I trusted it like a rope that you yank on before climbing. If "flakedoves" could hold my weight for as long as it did then I'm not too worried. 




This first post is dedicated to my friends Amber, Evelina, Manuela, and Veronika.