Photo Finishing

The photographer is standing on the trail far enough below me that in the shot I am small against the granite cliff and the waterfall is unseen to my right — my hair is caught in the spray and I am raising my hands to pull it away from my face. I am in cut offs.  I am not yet 27.  I am not smiling with a gaze made for a photographer the way one does, turning our heads to the light, the angle.  I am squinting and my nose is wrinkled and my head looks small and my legs look large but I am so in my body in that moment.  I am not manufacturing myself for the moment and it struck me enough to take it out of the shoebox and study it.  The camera’s eye misses the waterfall even — taken from the side to get the scrubby grass and the fractured rock.

I’ve fallen silent.  In a way my blog forced me to confront the fact that I’m still silent in a million different ways that matter the most to me.  I am silent about my childhood, my father’s death, my role in all of the various families that I inhabit.  There are so many things in my daily life that remain unsaid and so I, for years, said them here.  I mentioned it before that the task, of course,  was shifting the narrative —  that in telling about everyone else I didn’t have to turn that lens on myself, or, at least, not wholly on myself.

I started running again.  In fits and starts I get back on the treadmill and log three miles and then ask myself why it is that I never remember how it saves my life each time.

There are things I rarely do anymore.  I don’t listen to music.  I don’t watch anything filmed in  the mountains or the American West.  I don’t grieve for my father.

I don’t grieve for my father.

I spent my entire life grieving my father.  One of my earliest memories is of being in the apartment where I lived with my mother after she and my father separated.  I am in a room alone with a desk he’d given me the last time I saw him — the top opened I remember — it had a pegboard top and it smelled of pressed laminate wood — and my mother — what I remember really is my own rage and her coldness.  My father was gone and it was he I wanted.  He wasn’t truly gone yet — he was still alive and would come into town and I would stand next to him in the motel room and stare into the mirror as he shaved.  We would talk into an audio cassette.  He would sing.  Waltzing Matilda.  I, for my part, It’s a Grand Old Flag.

The February I had my transfer it was nearly on the 31st anniversary of my father’s murder.  I wrote about the moment I had pulling into my driveway when the winter sun was hitting the tops of the stalks of the prairie garden sticking out of the snow — and I felt my father’s blessing and I knew, I knew that Z was coming.  I can’t explain what it was to be lifted from beneath the heavy blanket of that lifelong grief.  It was as if the winter sun was streaming in — like a cathedral light.  Dad, I said aloud in the car.  I know you’re here.  You can go.  You can go.

And he did.

In my young life I did a few things because I thought doing them would bring me closer to my father.  That’s a lousy excuse for the kind of drinking I did for years but there you have it.  I remember being a Freshman in college and sitting in the backseat with a friend, a fellow Minnesotan — sweet and blond and young and stable — we were going to a Jane’s Addiction concert in Denver — and I remember the red tail-lights blurring past and the way my heart would race in anticipation of a night ‘partying’ — and she said to me, so sweetly, so frankly “you are a different person when you drink.”  She was right, of course.  I was.

The other thing I did to find my father was run.  I had a picture on my nightstand as a child.  It was in a cheap gold metal frame the size of a deck of cards.  The picture was a square photo — the kind you would pick up at the photomat booths in the parking lots — remember those? Photo finishing.  My first day of kindergarten.  It is faded to a red patina now.  I am in a white dress with blue stripes and a wide collar, my hair in braids.  My mother’s hair is pulled back in a tasteful ponytail — thick, small gold hoop earrings in her ears, a cream-colored blouse.  She is standing near me and a few steps behind is my father.  He is looking straight at the frame.  He has a red sweatband around his head — and is clearly in running gear.

“Your father would run along the highways in Illinois and the police would stop him” my mother would say “this was in the days when no one ran. ‘Whaddaya doing?’ the police would say.  ‘Running.’   — ‘From what?’ ” — and so goes the family joke.  My father ran marathons.

I was a child who ate her way to comfort.  My mother, a single parent, had no way to support me in any kind of extra-curricular activity — I can see that now — knowing what I know as a parent — the time it takes to nurture a sport, even a hobby — and the money.  I would have lessons in a few things until my grandmother’s money stopped coming and then whatever it was would be abandoned — ballet, horse-back riding… the one thing I always did was ski, but I wasn’t athletic as a child.  I couldn’t run and wasn’t inclined to.  No one was clamoring for me to be on any kickball team of theirs.  When I tried running in high school with two friends who had taken up track I would find myself — a quarter mile from my apartment — on the path along the city’s lake — doubled over with a side-stitch and out of breath.  I remember each hard won mile of that lake path. Each of its three miles.  It didn’t come until after college.  The relative ease.  Every time I run I remember.  Every time I run I am a fighter.

My father ran, I’m sure, to banish the demons for a little while.  I understand that now.  After a run something in my chest loosens.  I can see the late day winter light. After running my best friend’s illness, my mother, my isolation, my anxieties in motherhood and stepmotherhood, my fears about my own irrelevance in writing or beyond — all of it moves back for a moment to give me space to breathe in.

A few years ago a cousin sent me a video of old family movies transfered to DVD, a nice gesture as my mother appears nowhere in them —  it is a world belonging to my father’s first wife, my brothers, my cousins —  a life before our arrival or one where we simply aren’t visible.  In one of the last frames there is footage of the last marathon my father ran with his twin.  1976.  The camera pans to the skyline of Chicago, the runners streaming by on the sidewalk of all things — a man holding a mile marker sign — 13 miles — and my father and  his twin — same fast-paced, short stride, arms pumping, head slightly down and jutted forward — my father sees the camera-man before my uncle — and he raises his fists high in the air — pumps the air twice for victory and runs steadily past.  His dark hair is peppered with gray.  In the last frame you see the finish line.  You see my father and his brother — in stride — my father receding in the distance finally blending into the crowd.

On the treadmill yesterday I suddenly thought of my father.  I had no cause to — I don’t know why but I felt him there with me.  I felt this sudden swelling of loss and love.  I ran and in my head I heard him say “Keep going Tiger” — because he was the only one who called me that.  My uncle would call me kitten — and everyone else found something diminutive and cute to call me, but he… he called me tiger.

And I kept going.

It’s Harder Than You Think to Create A Title with A Gnome-Pun

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“How then is perfection to be sought? Wherein lies our hope? In education, and in nothing else.”  – Immanuel Kant from Lectures on Ethics

In the quiet space as Z. fell asleep against me, her breathing even, the weight of her arm flung across me, the light from the hallway slicing across the floor I had a memory.  I rarely have memories that predate my father’s death — impossible as they are to separate from the childhood spent steeped in my mother’s stories, or pouring over the photo albums with their plastic covers (my father was relentless in his photo documentation of his marriage to my mother, and to my early life); do I remember that moment in that pink almost mohair coat with the matching bonnet — if I reach my hand into my pocket do I pull out a small film canister filled with something, knocking it around with my chubby toddler fingers — do I remember that or is it something caught on film from one of those blustery Illinois days spent at the local park; pulled up on a stripped, unvarnished wooden high chair my mother had found at an old farm sale — a red and white-checkered apron that my mother had worn as a stewardess around my four year old waist — braids behind me in my white ringed t-shirt, smiling up into the camera as I helped my mother in the kitchen.  If I’m honest I don’t remember any of it — I lay awake as Z slept and could only think of the term orientation — I thought of my friend from graduate school who had written a chapter of her book  about migration and the homing mechanisms of birds and I wondered if this feeling was akin to that — it wasn’t a memory per se but a sense of embedded place — where I could sense where, as a child Z’s age, I was in relation to the door, the crack of light, the voices outside raised in anger and terror. The clink of ice in a glass. Thudding. Angry screaming.

I’ve been scrambling for the right words for the next post — but time here is at a premium as Z has stopped napping and so there is no time for writing except at the expense of something else in my life.  I mulled over how I wanted to write the post about my continuing journey finding a school for Z — and I settled on the only way I know how — which is to tell you our story, from my perspective, providing sources and links as best I can throughout so that you might, if interested, seek out the information for yourself.

I always would have considered myself a seeker; I was rootless as a child, never grounded in any sense of larger community or faith — though I hungered for that.  It was I who, at 12, after nearly flunking out of the local public seventh grade, begged my mother to transfer me.  I wanted the elite prep school but instead was happy enough with the small Catholic elementary school that had 25 students in the entire grade. There was something in the dogma that appealed to me — in the ritual and in, what I felt as the core belief, the power of love and redemption.  I met some unusual nuns.  Nuns who took me to peace rallies and got arrested in non-violent demonstrations.  Nuns who told me to take communion if I wanted to — whether or not I had the papers or the formal education to do so “do you believe” they asked, and I did. My brothers came out when I was twelve — and that added a significant wrinkle to my relationship with the Catholic church.  I was a budding feminist, and by the time I minored in Women’s Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder — I had all but fallen away completely.  Boulder was, and remains, a center for Buddhist thought/scholarship — and though I never formally studied then — I always felt the draw. I came out of a very holistic, ecological approach to living — which seems so mainstream now –but twenty years ago was still looked upon as a kind of hippie-fringe movement.  It was in this frame of mind — about whole living, addressing the whole-self (mind, body, spirit) that I first learned about Waldorf Education.

I had been living in Missoula and I remember seeing a beautiful mandala-like art installation near the city’s farmer’s market and when I asked I was astonished to find out that it was made by children.  It must have been, I realize now, a “Waldorf-inspired” school — but that was the moment I first heard of Waldorf.  The person mentioned that it had an ‘arts-based’ curriculum — that stressed the whole-child — and I remember thinking it sounded perfect for the life I imagined for a child — that someday child because it would be that year, the year I was 27, that I would realize that what I wanted more than anything wasn’t a book deal, or to travel out of a backpack throughout the mountains of the world, but rather to have a family — I didn’t know that it would be more than ten years before I would be able to have that child — but I remembered. I remembered the name of the school.

I would come across it again later — I was at a writing conference in Santa Fe in 2005. G and I were together and I was teaching at a community college. I met a woman a few years younger than me — and I am trying now, in retrospect, to put my finger on what seemed so extraordinary about her — and I think that what it was, besides her physical beauty, was her infectious magical thinking — it went beyond the idea of interconnectedness –and it wasn’t an attribute that, at the time, I would’ve thought to connect to her schooling — but I remember her story — that she’d come out of a Waldorf school in Oregon — and here it was again — Waldorf — and here was this creative, free-spirit of a young woman.

At home, my brother’s partner at the time had cousins lived in the same city where we live and they were sending their children to the school here.  I remember him saying that the eldest son asked his parents to send him somewhere else “it’s great I can knit mom, but I want to study physics” is the phrase I remember.  That was the extent of people I knew affiliated with the schools — if it came up in conversation someone might say “Oh, right…arts-based, — don’t they believe in gnomes and fairies…” and I would take that as metaphor — and that this was a place that held on to magic and fairy tales for a little bit longer than other schools — but what, I thought, was the harm of that?  In a world moving at light-speed — it seemed, well, idyllic.

It felt idyllic when I first arrived with Z — at 18 months — the youngest age cut-off for the mother/child class.  She, I remember, wandered off  into the field with the other children as the mother’s sat in the circle.  I remember being overcome by the teacher when she teared up, talking about Steiner’s belief that the child comes into its chosen family — because Z’s birth was hard-won and at the moment, looking into the teacher’s eyes as she met each of our eyes — and she spoke of the mission of love that the Waldorf school brought to the education of children — how could I not fall in love?  Yes, there was talk of Steiner.  There were hand-outs about child-development but most of the time the mother’s spoke more about what was going on in their personal day-to-day lives than we spoke of the articles.  I remember thinking that some of the articles seemed difficult to grasp — difficult in the sense of being impenetrable — as if there were a key, a rosetta stone –that I was missing.  I’m an academic at heart and so my go-to sources are scholarly ones — peer-reviewed from Universities of record — that sort of thing.  I still liked what I was reading.  I liked the underscoring of the sense of rhythm for a child’s day — I marveled at women who would even think of de-mechanizing their household work in an attempt to allow their children to enter their tasks — I think I made a joke at one point about how my grandmother would be appalled to think about my giving up a dishwasher — these were hard-fought tools for feminism — not to be mired in the daily-ever-loving-drudgery of housework.  There were a few things that I found odd.  One day the teacher asked me to start carrying Z on the other side of my body.

She explained then something about Steiner and balance or something.  I thanked her.  I was struggling with the school’s stance in terms of media — I admired it but found it impossible. I was an early reader and I began to look at the picture books in the classroom — the ones without any words at all — and began to ask myself why it was that Steiner education eschewed reading until 7.  Our teacher really focused mostly on guiding with silence, as she put it — and not posing so many questions to our children — an exercise I found useful but excruciatingly hard — as I was always engaging Z — every way that I was approaching her was awakening her —

One of the things that brought me to the school was searching for a place that Z felt comfortable — and the beautiful space itself — with its timber-framed buildings and its surrounding prairie gardens, its long sunlit wooden hallways lined with boots — its coatrooms and pegs for coats — its teachers engaged in singing and filling basins of water for the children to wash their dishes after snack.  So beautiful.  For Z, a child who never warmed to the loud, brightly-lit community rooms at local music classes — or to the public library — seemed at ease enough there… and yet.  I was troubled.  I would catch the teachers faces in repose  — not just our teachers — but the teachers I saw on the grounds — with their hats on and the little ones following them around like ducklings — and their sternness seemed at odds with the physical surroundings in a way I couldn’t place — for a place that was created in such a joyful image — it seemed that there was something at work beneath that I wasn’t quite understanding.

I had, our first year there, done some internet research.  I think the first website I came across was PLANS but then I immediately found this — which seemed a direct rebuttal.  I still was in love with the school — I had made some connections, especially that first year — and then my best friend’s cancer diagnosis took a turn –and I remember being distraught as I went to class with Z– and when I mentioned something to the teacher she talked about Steiner and manifesting illness.  It was at that moment that I felt the biggest disconnect.  We continued the rest of the year there.  I always felt that Z was looked upon as a child that wasn’t engaging as she should — not as carefree and involved because I was not parenting her well enough according to the principles of Steiner, principles I didn’t even clearly understand at that point. I remember our teacher even called me at home — because she had, she said, thought all night about an interaction that Z and I had had — and she wanted to share an insight with me.  At the time I was both taken aback, but intrigued — if that makes sense.  The commitment to Z that prompted the call — and yet the feeling that, beneath it all, this was something to be fixed.  I remember that moment so clearly.  It was February after Z had spent her first time in the snow up at our cabin.  We had come back to the cities — and there was snow — she wasn’t talking clearly yet — most of the time I understood exactly what she was saying — but we were outside with the children as the mother’s began to gather in their circle of folding chairs — and Z was picking up the snow, or trying, and getting more and more agitated — and as I knelt by her, trying to understand her, soothing her — coming up with various alternative phrases — I could see our teacher standing over my shoulder — the look I’d come to be familiar with — where she seemed about to speak, but kept it to herself, hands gently folded.

Z never warmed to the school.  She never really played with the other children — and the free open space with the silks and the blocks and the cradles with the faceless dolls — none of it appealed to her much.  She liked the animals in the barn — and might take them out… she would help me with a craft but ultimately it was her lack of engagement that signaled to me that this was not the place for her — as much as I loved it — and I did — as much as I adored the teacher (and for all my reservations…I had come to really not only like her — but feel as if she cared about, was invested in me.) It was the end of this session this year that I mentioned to our teacher that I was looking into other preschool options — just to see — and that I was looking into Montessori.  I thought, as I looked, that I might as well give a search on the internet one more try.  And that was how I came to a fuller picture of Waldorf/Steiner education.  I ultimately found Alicia’s blog The Ethereal Kiosk by googling Anthroposophy Without Waldorf — and this is what I found.

I dug further and I read this essay by a Gregoire Perra — he is currently being sued, I believe, by French Anthroposophists.

Alicia has a wonderful recent post that links to another very astute critic Andy Lewis.  In the UK they have been seeking public funding for Steiner schools and so the debate has been much more in the open than here in the US — I have learned so much from that ongoing discussion. Here’s a link to Andy Lewis’ blog post which says it far better than I could.  He also has a post I would suggest called What Every Parent Should Know about Waldorf-Steiner schools.

I had this response when challenged by a proponent of the schools in the comment section of Alicia’s blog as to why I was surprised about the aims of the school:

  1. “Setting that general problem aside, its probably fair to assume that most parents have access to google and the same resources you have had access to.”

    It is impossible to know. What I do want to state here is that it wasn’t as if this was an easily drawn conclusion — nor was the information readily accessible. Not only have I been using the internet for scholarly research for as long as its been around…but I have been blogging in a community of women for over five years now and consider myself to be fairly comfortable with the medium — and STILL I had to dig. It was complicated by, if the suggestions raised in this forum have any merit, the fact that there was a very vocal component responding to the critics that may have gone so far as to create online aliases posing as other mothers on forums — the strange thing for me — being a lifelong academic whose primary study is that of language/literature — that syntax is almost like a thumbprint — for those paying attention it’s the equivalent of a verbal tic. Yes that’s just my supposition, or “intuition”. All of this to say — it wasn’t easy sussing out what I felt to be a whole picture of Waldorf/Steiner in order to make my own personal decision concerning my daughter’s education. A simple solution to this would be for the Waldorf Schools to be completely transparent about their connections to anthroposophy. As a parent I might certainly “take what I want and leave the rest” but if the entire pedagogy is shaped by the beliefs of Steiner and arises out of the impulses of an anthroposophical worldview — what does it matter if I, as a parent — not in the school everyday — wish to leave some parts out? There is no leaving behind the shaping of a child’s worldview in a particular way — that would be happening should I choose to educate my child in a Waldorf school — but in presenting it as a peripheral part of the education when it is clearly central — seems misleading to me. I can, you are correct, only speak for myself.

    “Its a logical error to assume that because people don’t see things the same way you do that they don’t know what you know. They may just disagree with the conclusions you have drawn because their experiences and their assessment of things comes from a different place.”

    Although I was musing about American parents as a whole (as I see more and more discussion and interest arising in Waldorf education) the musing was prompted by my personal experience with the women I do know who have chosen Waldorf — women I know well enough to have had fairly deep conversations about pedagogy and parents who, I might add — seem to know very little about the PEDAGOGICAL direction of the school — drawn, as they are to the idea that they have found a kind of holistic, natural haven … a kind of oasis in their modern lives (and here I am quoting directly from mothers I have known.) I’ll point out the article from the Montana paper that I included earlier — as well as this one from the NYT:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Where is the larger discussion and transparency? This isn’t simply a school that eschews media — this is a place where an anthroposophical soil is tilled– and I have no issue with the existence of the schools, don’t misunderstand me, but to seek a larger enrollment without being clear about the mission of its pedagogy is unconscionable — my son attends a parochial school and we are clear that his education is being filtered through a Catholic lens — we were able to weigh what that meant, if we still were inclined to send him there, question where the philosophy of the school might differ from our own… in short we were able to be informed. That is all I’m suggesting that the Waldorf schools do.

    I still think its a valid question.

    ***

    I have been promising for some time to write about this.  I am still struggling a little — more with what I believed it to be and the loss of it.  Ultimately, I took her to a local montessori and she lit up with interest — buzzed around the room.  I sat in and observed a classroom of 23 preschoolers who were engaged in tasks with very little teacher involvement — it was miraculous –and night and day from our experience at her other school.  It was just as another commenter on one of the critic sites put it — that upon leaving the school it was as if they had been dreaming – and they rubbed their eyes and the veil of fog lifted — and there the buzzing world was — in front of them all along.

    The new school is five days a week –and pretty rigid in its following of the Maria Montessori method — since I don’t think she’s ready for five days a week I hope that she’ll start there in the fall — and until then?  We’re setting up our own rhythm here.

    ***

    I think what I’ve been most bothered by is my own desire and almost willingness to have jumped wholeheartedly into this community.  I remember when I was a college freshman there was a lot of public service information regarding cults (though whether or not this qualifies, I understand, is a subject of much debate) a few of which were quite active in the Denver/Boulder area.  I remember the discussion about how the people who were vulnerable were those who were a bit adrift — maybe a little disconnected from family and friends — seeking a larger, deeper connection.  To be welcomed into the bosom of a community — isn’t that what we seek when we enter communities of faith? The loss of this, or the recognition that my own worldview doesn’t dovetail with the larger community — does make me reflect on just what it is that I am seeking –not just for myself, but for my family too.

What It’s Like Here

Remember this photo post? I think I did it in the new year last year. If anyone would like to join in a photo post showing us a little bit of your world — just let me know in the comments and I’ll post a link in an update (I’ve never figured out the linky thing).

I have a few posts brewing: one about the new year and balance — and writing. I have to let something loosen; I spend a lot of time feeling like I am not mothering well enough, not keeping a “good” house, not connecting enough with friends or my spouse, not, essentially living the life I want to inhabit — so I’m trying to give some serious thought to what I am capable of changing.

My husband has pleaded with me not to write the next post in the queue — which should be entitled “Why Did No One Mention My Daughter’s Dream School was Esoteric Spritual Mid-Wifery” or something to the effect — there’s a whole host of reasons, long and complicated, why I haven’t written about it earlier — it’s going to take a bit more time because there is a very vocal community online that counters any criticism one might have for Waldorf education and before I throw myself into the fray I want to really build a strong post. While you wait for that one I’d ask you to ask yourself what your own impressions are of Steiner/Waldorf (if any at all). Hold on to your comments for the post though — I sense it might cause a dust-up — not with regulars on this blog but with proponents of it. I’m heartbroken really — and I needed some time to sit with the information that I learned and how I felt about what was and wasn’t transmitted to me as a prospective/involved parent (we were there for a for a year and a half.)

I’ve planned on writing about running, about the fascinating topic of why I’m going GF … I guess if I write enough about what I plan to write that I might actually write a post — even though in order to do it Z is staring at the children’s channel while pouring cheerios onto the seat of the stationary bike.

Anyway… What It’s Like Here 2013

Join us?

Jjiraffe (the writer behind the Faces of ALI series and the woman I can call, seriously, my fashion guru) at Too Many Fish To Fry

Elizabeth –brilliant author of Project Progeny — working on her dissertation in cultural anthropology  — settling now in Bogota after time in Albania.

Rex — I met Rex through Eden — and we’ve caught glimpses of one another’s world through both our blogs and Instagram — and, if I ever get my act together, she’s promised to be my pen-pal –the old-fashioned way. I see in her world and life so much I recognize — wholly different, but somehow entirely familliar … it is indeed a miraculous world sometimes… and there is the miracle of connection… if you are paying attention.  You have to read her blog — and visit her world at A Sculptured Life