Archives

Making a Date With Beauty

“We have art in order not to die from the truth.” — Nietzsche

Afternoon Dreaming, Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

Afternoon Dreaming, Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

One of the things I love most about home schooling is that we have the flexibility to make art a priority. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as it should. The sad truth is that the day-to-day of life often gets in the way, leaving art and creativity to fall by the wayside. This isn’t to say that there are no moments of beauty in the minutiae of our days — there are many, not the least of which is being able to attend daily Mass. But more days than not pass with work and errands and housecleaning and core subjects and appointments and everything else which occupies the day of a busy family taking up time and crowding out space that might be spent drawing, building, making and listening to music, walking in the park, strolling through a museum, or taking in a dramatic performance at a local theater. Too long without a beauty break, leaves us feeling bereft, weighted, hungry for something simple and pure and a space to breathe it all in. (Read more . . . )

The Beauty Collective

Seven Beautiful Paintings by Bouguereau, by Stacy Trasancos Accepting Abundance

Mary, Motherhood, Womanhood, and Faith, by Susan TerbayCatholicMom.com

An Eye for Beauty, by Daniel McInerny High Concepts

Beauty As a Call, by Daniel McInerny High Concepts

The Power of Beauty, by “Sarah” Fumbling Toward Grace

Dolphin Tale’s Positive Portrayal of Homeschoolers, by Peggy Bowes The Integrated Catholic Life

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.

Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993

 

A Total Loss?

When I was a little girl, I suppose I enjoyed school. I have a lot of memories and none of them are particularly horrible, though there are some I’d rather forget. I don’t remember getting in trouble too often — mostly I was disciplined for being, as one teacher I dearly loved put it, “too loquacious,” which you can read as “talkative.”

Nothing was ever too terribly difficult — except for math, which was maddening and frightened me generally because I am very slow about some things and often need time to think and so could not keep up with the pace of learning new concepts. I liked reading ever so much more, because I had time to think and process. And if I didn’t quite get something right off, well, then I could go back and read it again,. And I could ponder things while I read and have the leisure to make connections and think about them and see things along a sort of continuum, I suppose. This was the same whether I was reading for history, or science, or just a book of literature. And then, unlike math where there was ever only one right answer, words could mean different things just by the way they were used or punctuated in a sentence, and a single word could evoke an entire picture or even a story in one’s mind that, for me, numbers and their sentence-like equations simply failed to do. I think after all I probably enjoyed school because it was so very word-based. I love words and language and was an accomplished speller and writer all through my elementary and high school years. It’s probably no surprise then that I became an English and writing teacher.

One thing I remember loving about school is the Read-a-thon. These were randomly infrequent occurrences during the glory days of the RIF literacy movement where we were given practically the entire day to read a book of our choice! Now, was it the entire day, or just a portion of it? Who knows! To any child under the age of 18, the school day in its entirety seems interminable and time is an illusion. For all I know, we were only given an hour after lunch — but in my mind, I remember being given hours to just sit quietly and read, in school! No tests, no math worksheets, so spelling book pages……just the bliss of getting lost in whatever book I happened to be in love with at the moment. I used to anticipate these days with great eagerness. Our teacher reminded us repeatedly beforehand not to forget to bring our books for the read-a-thon. I seem to remember we had to run the book by her first — it had to be a real book, not a magazine or a comic book, but something with a story that would demand our sustained attention over a period of time. Beyond that, whatever we chose was up to us. I remember being excited and thrilled. We were in school and we were reading all day and it was OK with the teacher. We were free. Amazing…..

Which brings me to today.

Skippy and I were both nursing a serious fatigue hang-over after an incredibly busy and active weekend. On top of that, I had to work this morning. Typically on days when I work, Skippy gets a schedule with all of the school work he can do independently and we both just work quietly on our own. Once I’m finished with my project, then he and I will spend the afternoon doing the things I need to “teach” him. But today didn’t quite work out like that. Both of us were wrangling with brain fog and drowsiness. He made a valiant attempt at his list, but then quickly moved to the two items that demanded the least amount of “effort” — his reading assignments. Before you knew it, we were in full read-a-thon mode. He was throughly engrossed in his books and just didn’t want to stop reading. When his timer went off after the first assignment (he reads each book 10-15 minutes a day), he came to me and said “My St. Thomas book is getting really good. I don’t want to stop reading. I wish I could have more time.” I thought for a minute and wondered, “Well, why not? Yes, he does have more work to do, but he’s really engaged…..what to do?” The teacher in me has two voices: the one who feels like I have a Big Brother Principal-Administrator constantly looking over my shoulder was running through the list and thinking how behind we’d be if I gave him more time; the other was thrilled that he had found such “friends” in his books and wanted nothing other to encourage that interest and give him the time he was asking for.

I gave him the time……

By the time we dropped off my project and came home for lunch, he was more than half-way through the novel he had started for his literature reading and was sharing plot points and character descriptions excitedly with me while we drove in the car. I told him he could have a “reading day” if he finished his spelling, grammar, and piano after lunch. I was prepared to let the rest of his “core subjects” go for the day if he would be reading.

So was the day a total loss? Viewed through the eyes of the current assessment-driven education culture, my son didn’t “produce” a single thing today, didn’t offer up a quantitative test score that could be used to measure him against other kids in the district or the state, didn’t write anything that could be used to assess his understanding of any given time period in history or any particular character in said period. And as a teacher, I well know those things are important — but there is a time and a place for them, and today was neither the time nor the place for that kind of work.

Today while reading my son learned: what it means to be a virtuous man who stands up for what he believes in, even when someone in power tries to make him do otherwise; the importance of faith and family in one’s life; what it means to listen carefully in order to discern God’s will for each person; and what it costs to stand up for what you believe in. In addition, he learned a lot about pre-Reformation England, Parliament, and King Henry VIII — all this from reading a historical novel about St. Thomas More. Today while reading, my son also learned: about the behaviors and traits of various types of owls; that sometimes even the closest members of one’s own family don’t tell the truth; that sometimes one has to leave everything one knows and loves to find out that truth; that history can be “changed” when facts are misrepresented or are missing entirely and that these errors have an impact on succeeding generations; that each individual is given a gift and something that makes them uniquely themselves and that they have a choice not only as to how to use that gift but whether to use it at all — all this from reading book 7 in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series.  Today while reading my son also learned new vocabulary, the importance of character, pacing and organization within a story, and how to devote sustained, concentrated attention to the task at hand. He challenged his memory and practiced storytelling, paraphrasing, and inference by narrating back to me the events of the books he was reading (an often better tool for assessment than the standard uninspired book report kids are required to churn out). And let’s not forget the connections he has made between both of these books and the medieval period in British history that we are studying — because of events in the St. Thomas book the occur between the king and Parliament, he better understands the way early England was governed; and because of the way the owl communities are formed in Ga’Hoole, he has a better understanding of the early craftsmen’s guilds in Europe. Not bad for a day that didn’t include the regular school “formula.”

In these fast-paced, technologically frenzied days, there is something to be said for “learning” how to slow down, pay attention, and get lost in whatever book you happen to love at the moment.

Beauty Break — First Rose

Before the day had barely begun, my son asked if we would be taking a “beauty break” today. The “beauty break” is something he and I have started doing lately — its nothing more than a pleasant break from the daily grind to take in the beauty of nature around us. We take a moment to wander outside just to see what the natural world is up to.  Spring is in full swing in our backyard, so there is always something to see — bees in the lavender, new buds and blossoms in the unlikeliest places, intoxicating scent wafting from the orange tree, giant horned caterpillars we’ve never seen before, swallowtails in the bougainvillea. 

But today I was unwell.  And though I am ashamed to say it, his request to take a beauty break, which normally would have filled me with enthusiasm, merely left me cold, uninspired, indifferent. I was too fogged and ill to care about beauty or anything else, much less make the effort to go and seek it out. But as a parent, sometimes you just have to suck it up and go, whether you feel like it or not. Because your kid is bouncing off the walls, smiling with enthusiasm and eagerness and you know that this will be one of those weird things he remembers when he’s your age — he’ll remember how you used to take “beauty breaks” together. And somewhere inside you know those “beauty breaks” will make him a better, kinder, gentler, more grateful man. So I rousted myself and we took a break. And were rewarded by a completely free gift — the first tea rose.

Not three months ago, this thing was stripped buck naked of all its leaves and cut back within a foot of the soil. As if relieved at being shorn, it immediately began sprouting until it was full and lush with shiny leaves and a riot of walnut sized buds. The bloom is gorgeous and deeply fragrant and reminded me that I had done nothing to deserve such a beautiful gift. I felt grateful. Blessed. Happy. Like all of this had been arranged just for me.

Watching the transformation of the barren thorny stubs of my rose bush into sharp, shiny green leaves and tightly wound buds of what were now unfurling into luscious, silky layers of petals is a message of hope. Lots of things in life may look and feel wasted, soulless, and dead. But there is always hope in the promise of new life, rebirth, and transformation.  There is hope in the promise of change, of starting fresh, in a child’s enthusiasm, in the free gift of beauty right in front of us. This is something I forget more often than not. Taking regular “beauty breaks” seems like a good antidote. Bees help , too!