My Perfect ‘Little p’

Lake Harriet Community School

If you’re someone who’s followed this blog, you know that ‘little p’ refers to one of those small purposes that each of us carries out daily, purposes that make families run smoother, make people feel loved, and spread kindness. Things like volunteering at a book sale to raise money for scholarships, preparing and serving lunch at church after a funeral, and making sure family members have a good day. These are not grand purposes, but incrementally, they make life better.

A common ‘little p’ is volunteering. Although it’s almost a cliché to say that when we volunteer, we get more than we give, I have to indulge that cliché when I talk about tutoring, my ‘little p.’ I definitely get more than I give.

I have the perfect tutoring gig—four mornings a week at a nearby school in Minneapolis where my son is the principal, Lake Harriet Community School. It’s a small school, grades 3-5, and a highly successful school—a Minneapolis Public School that ranks 4th in the state. It’s also over a hundred years old, with shiny wood floors, heavy oak doors, windows, and woodwork, and tired classrooms, even though they’ve been kept up well. Like many districts, currently, it has children who were in primary school during the COVID shutdowns, and some are not ready for grade level work (we are avoiding calling them “behind.”). One way schools are addressing the needs of these children is through tutoring. That’s one reason I’m tutoring, specifically in math. The gift to me is that I AM NEEDED.

I tutor three small groups and then I help in a classroom. I’m on my feet for three hours, and on my toes mentally, even though it’s basic mathematics—in my day we called it arithmetic. Mathematics is not being taught the way you and I learned it or the way I taught thirty years ago. Now arrays are used to teach multiplication; children learn properties like commutative and identity; and algebraic thinking is introduced in first grade, etc. Clearly I must stretch mentally and find ways to teach new ways of doing arithmetic. That’s my second gift—keeping my brain challenged.

Then there are the obvious benefits, tutoring gets me out of bed and cleaned up early in the day; it gets me moving in natural ways rather than going to a gym; and my favorite, tutoring gives a purpose to my days.

Like other things we do in our mostly small lives, tutoring, at first, felt insignificant. I initially labeled it a feel-good way to spend some of my time in retirement. (By now you know I’m a hopeless cynic). I mean, how much difference can 2-4 hours a week make in a child’s mathematical growth? But to be an educator—which I am—is to believe fervently in small steps, small miracles of understanding. So, cynicism notwithstanding, a part of me believes what I do matters. I’m a caring adult in these children’s school experience who believes in them and supports them.

Yesterday, the impart of tutoring was resoundingly brought home to me. It occurred in the 4th grade class where my role is to hang out and help as needed. I’m the right hand “woman” to the teacher, who is especially creative and commanding when she teaches. She often starts the class period with a video that gives an example of kindness. Here’s a link to the video she showed yesterday. I urge you to watch it before you read further.

Please Enjoy before You Read On!

After viewing the video, the teacher asked students what was going on, what was the video about. Why were some residents in the nursing home tearing up? It took some time for these ten-year-olds to stop focusing on the gifts and to think about what was really going on for the residents. But they got there. As one little girl put it, “She showed that she cared about them.” That led to a discussion about loneliness. I’m not sure that all the children understood, but it was one of those small steps of learning.

For the remainder of the class we studied what to do with a remainder in division. That was fun and equally challenging. In my car on the way home, I reflected on the class in the context of the video. And suddenly I felt it, the biggest reason I tutor—I feel like I belong! I belong to this one classroom, to the other teachers I support with small groups, and in this small school. Best of all, I belong in a world that I care for because I know what individual children need.  I am doing my part to make this place and their lives better in small, incremental ways. 

If you want to find out more about Ruby, here’s her website:

https://3wishesproject.org/who-we-are/

And the Learning Continues

In June I signed up for rosemaling summer school at Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, IA. The 5-day course didn’t start for several weeks, so I had time to daydream about how wonderful it would be. I’d paint for eight hours, starting at 9am Sunday morning and until 5pm the following Thursday. Even better, we’d be painting in the Os style, which I wanted to learn because it’s the style from the area where my ancestors lived in Norway.  Anticipating the fun reminded me of teaching summer school as an elementary school teacher. One summer we made balsa wood model airplanes. Another year we made kites—it’s not easy to make a kite that will actually fly—we had lots of crashes before we perfected a design. Best of all, I got to make things with kids who liked to make things. Now, here I was, looking forward to making something with adults who liked to make things—and there’d be a road trip, too.

Finally, it was time to go. I set out Saturday afternoon, so I’d be ready for the 9am start on Sunday. The drive to Decorah had all the elements of a scenic midwestern countryside—rolling hills, tidy fields of corn, idyllic farms with enormous barns, clusters of contented cows grazing, and a highway lined with prairie flowers in full bloom. The beautiful drive heightened my anticipation. An entire week of painting my own beauty awaited me!

Sunday morning at last. I walked up the three flights of the Vesterheim Folk School and into the classroom with a mix of excitement and some trepidation. After choosing my spot and pulling out my supplies, I looked around the room.

Then I saw it, the plate we’d be making. It stood on a counter in the front of the room, and it was HUGE, nothing like what I’d imagined from the course description. Okay, I’d read that the plate was 18 inches, but my mind had glossed over that part. I was picturing a plate like one of my original rosemaling attempts—more like 8 inches.  Still, I mostly admired the plate, not fully comprehending what its size meant…

The BIG one and My first ever plate

After introducing ourselves, our instructor said “today we will learn to make Os flowers”. She proposed eight hours of practicing. I took another look at the plate and started to wonder whether it was wise to spend a day practicing, but I had no idea how to make an Os flower, so I listened to her instructions and started to practice.

And thus began the first lesson of the week. Up until this class, I’d followed designs from our local teacher, Shirley Evenstad, an internationally known rosemaler, although I had to learn many skills to do that. But here was a new teacher, asking me to design and paint my own flowers. I felt frustrated and uncertain, and as I watched others plunge in and design flowers, I wondered whether I belonged in the class. But, I’d paid a sizeable tuition, and I didn’t want to go home, so I gave it a try.

It was fun! I could design my own flowers, and I liked them. I’d taken a new step in my learning by working independently. However, by the end of the day, I was exhausted—I’d never painted for more than a few hours, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get through the week. As I left, I looked again at the beautiful sample plate. Having just spent seven hours making four flowers, I didn’t see how I’d finish that plate in the remaining four days.

The next day I asked the instructor if I could make a smaller plate. She said, “Oh no, you will easily finish.” Huh! By the end of day two, I still had not started on the plate as I was practicing the big scrolls that anchor the design. As class ended, I begged her again to let me make something smaller. Once again, she dismissed my concerns. Where was Shirley when I needed her?

Well, of course I didn’t come close to finishing. I managed only to make the scrolls and one large flower at the top. I was angry and frustrated. I wanted to take my anger out by blaming the teacher for not letting me switch, but in truth, I was crabby because I was face-to-face with my limitations.

In craft circles there are always jokes about UFO’s—unfinished objects. As the class wrapped up, everyone was joking about not wanting another UFO! So it wasn’t just me. No one finished, but our instructor seemed unconcerned. As a former teacher, I judged that she was learning something, too. It was too much to do in five days, although she did not admit this.

Or maybe she was just less worried about UFOs than I was.  At home, I put the plate on our hutch, and I started calling it my albatross. I don’t want UFO’s of any sort in my life. I don’t like quitting, but I had no idea how I’d finish such a huge plate.

The following Wednesday, when I met my local rosemaling friends, I told them that I was carrying the plate around like an albatross—it got a laugh, but no suggestions.  But a few days later my daughter saw the plate and said, “I want that for my office. Don’t quit, keep going!” I carried my plate to my local group the following week and the intrepid Shirley said, “You can take it a flower at a time, and you’ll have it for your daughter’s next birthday!”

Thinking back, two observations come to mind: “Beginner’s Mind” and resilience. Beginner’s mind is dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. I believe I started out with that—Os was new and I was willing to learn, though initially I’d been uncertain about flowers and scrolls. Resilience, however, took some time to develop. I was angry that the class had not fulfilled my eager anticipations—a finished plate to take home. The support of others, however, helped me see that I can turn my UFO from an albatross into a beautiful plate. That’s what I’m now doing, one flower at a time.

As of September 26th

A Way Back

Marylyn, Laurel, and Karen (me)

My younger sister, Laurie, or Laurel as she preferred to be called, died in January, seven months ago, age 76. I think about her almost every day. I think mostly about loss, because our loss started when we were about high school age when we started to grow apart. As a close friend put it to me, “You two were like oil and vinegar.” I have a mix of memories from our childhood; many are happy. My mind has a way of shelving the not so happy memories in the back so I can pull out the happy ones in the front.

          Over the last 30 years, I barely saw Laurel. But I never labeled us as “estranged” until her death, when I started reflecting on our non-relationship. The dictionary defines estrangement as having lost former closeness and affection: in a state of alienation from a previous close or familial relationship. That about sums it up, although it doesn’t capture the mix of sadness and shame I felt after Laurie’s death, when I realized it was too late to heal our rift.

          Joshua Coleman, in the Atlantic, noted that families used to center around mutual obligation and interdependence to assure everyone’s survival, and those values shaped our identities. But we no longer rely on each other for survival, so forming an identity has taken a more individualistic turn. Whereas identity used to be grounded in religion, class, and community, “personal growth and happiness” are now more important for figuring out who we are. We have the autonomy to carve out identities separate from our families.

My two sisters and I, the Evans sisters, growing up in the late 40’s and early 50’s, started out relying on each other. We needed to have each other’s back. Our father was an alcoholic given to angry bursts, and after our mother divorced him, she married another alcoholic with a similar meanness. He became the stepfather who raised us. We had to look after each other.

          That all changed in high school, about the time when adolescents seek their own identity. Marylyn, our oldest sister, four years older than I and 6 years older than Laurie went off to college at the U of Wisconsin in Madison—she escaped the family dysfunction. Laurie and I were left in high school, but we ran with different crowds. Meanwhile, our mother and stepfather struggled with financial and marital problems, so we fended for ourselves. Laurie hung with outsiders, characterized as “wild.” I took the school-centered path. That’s when our estrangement started.

          Finding one’s way out of an alcoholic family is fraught with problems, as evidenced by the fact that AA has spun off AlAnon with12 step groups focused on supporting family members. From the first, Laurie was the target of our stepfather’s erratic discipline. The research on estrangement says that one sibling often believes they were treated worse than others. Those who are targeted often become “grievance collectors,” and as I look back, I see how our stepfather’s unrelenting criticism of Laurie made it hard for her to find her own path in life. Marylyn became a librarian, and I became an educator. Laurie was an experimenter and a searcher.

          A searcher! Something I never saw when Laurie and I were busy being oil and water. Again, turning to studies about estrangement, one of the things that fosters it is mobility. We move around in this society. Since we don’t rely on one another, we’re free to move on. It’s like a Catch 22—moving around gets us out of dysfunction but it also robs us of opportunities to confront and grow from our differences. Marylyn moved to Florida, and Laurie moved to Detroit and then to Texas. I stayed in the Twin Cities and raised my children. Had I been able to connect with Laurie, I might have learned that Laurie and I weren’t so different after all—I consider myself a searcher in many aspects of life. My searching was and is less experimental than Laurie’s but it’s there.

          Eventually Laurie found a passion, rescuing homeless animals. She raised two fine children on her own until she met and married a guy from Detroit who made them his family. I couldn’t ask for more for Laurie given her difficult start. Unfortunately, I saw all this from a distance, busy with my own life.

Laurel with her beloved pets

I always told myself—and believed it—that Laurie and I would someday sit down, hash it all out, the little slights and differences that we both nursed. We’d laugh about it and go forward. But the truth is we didn’t. I’m writing this because in reading about estrangement, I know how prevalent it is. Some 25% of families have some level of estrangement—that’s not trivial. I’m also writing this to urge anyone who feels even the slightest estrangement with a family member or friend—Find a way back!

          This spring, after Laurel’s death, a dear friend died, a friend with whom I’d had a period of estrangement for which I could find no cause. He stopped talking to me, no matter how many times tried to open a dialogue. When the pandemic hit, I missed him more than ever. I folded 1000 origami cranes, stringing them together (which is the difficult part), put them in a box, and deposited them in his driveway. The crane is a powerful peace symbol, one that my friend had introduced me to. Upon finding my gift, he called me, and we healed our friendship.

          With Laurie, I could find no way back, but I didn’t look hard either. I didn’t travel to Texas for a sustained visit. Instead, I mailed cards for her birthday and Christmas and other important occasions. I didn’t sit down nightly folding six cranes for nearly a year. I waited for something to happen so we’d get together. And it did, only it was a death and funeral. Realistically, it would have taken both of us to heal the estrangement, but one person needed to open the door. Now that Laurel—she’ll always be Laurie to me—is gone, I’ve lost that possibility. But the memories I have of growing up together remind me that love can persist, even when we feel separated. Reconnection lives in that love.

Pause?

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Several weeks ago, I attended a contemplative writing session with Reverend Karen Hering, whose skill at eliciting new thinking always amazes me.  That evening, however, I  found myself befuddled by her first question:  When have you paused? . 


It took me several minutes to think of any time when I have paused in a memorable way.  During most of my life, I embraced the ideal of being busy, being of concrete use to other people, and, above all, being productive in a way that could be counted.  Like many (most?) women, I found it hard to say no, which meant that both at work and in my personal life, I was often overloaded, constantly prioritizing which obligation would get the most attention at any given moment. 

Vincenzo Campi, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c.1580

I

I reveled in the research suggesting that multi-tasking is a female superpower…. 

In other words, there were few pauses.  As I scrolled through my past life, my first hit responding to Karen Hering’s question was the last month of my first pregnancy:  It was a torrid August in Massachusetts, and I was not working, largely immobile, and waited on by my husband.  However, it was less a pause than a period of intense anticipation.

A few days later,  I smacked my head and remembered that, as an academic, I had regular long sabbaticals, whose purpose is, in theory, a time for renewal and reflection, to live fully in the ideal of the Torah:  “…in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard “ (Leviticus (25:4-5).  But in the modern university, that ideal is as far from reality as the typical observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest.  Instead, when I  filed my sabbatical plans with the university, they included writing, data collection, and a projection of the usual output of publications, research proposals, and  new course syllabi. 

It is obvious that the usual American vacation – one or two weeks, crowded with delightful activities – may provide novel adventures but hardly qualifies as a pause….

The expectation that we should be doing something useful barely shifts when we retire, as we are urged make and then to work down our “bucket list” of experiences that we have been putting off.  And don’t forget the podcasts and books urging us to find a new purpose that will keep us sufficiently busy that we don’t sink into a Laz-e-Boy with a TV remote and a glass of wine.  But there are equally pervasive expectations that we should build yoga and meditation into our schedules.  Pausing has become a big business, especially for we retirees, who are also urged to remember that aging is expected to bring sagacity and spiritual growth

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

But these mixed cultural messages beg the real question that has nagged me since my disquieting evening with Karen Hering:  Why pause?  And, in my case, how to recognize “pause opportunities” rather than additional programmed obligations?

I thought about my recent efforts to do anything that might lead to meditating.  Long ago I read a book about different forms of meditation – I can’t remember much except that it gave permission to apply the label to almost any practice that clears out incessant to-do messages.  It remains my goal rather than a scheduled event most days, and when I decide to take a break, I try something.  Most of the time I successfully reduce my creeping anxiety about the to-do list, but I am also occasionally startled by an insight or a feeling that emerges not out of thinking, but out of emptiness.  I am willing to call those insights accumulating wisdom, even if I can’t easily name them.

Then there is the unanticipated stop-in-your-tracks that occurs as I practice reading slowly,  a skill that atrophied during the years of skimming piles of student papers with red pen in hand.  When I encounter an unexpectedly beautiful sentence, or a poem that just appears when I pick up a book, I sometimes feel my heart beating faster.

And there’s the  benefit of having a young child in my life who has  not digested the ideal of productivity.  To walk around the block with a four-year-old can take an hour, because it is in her nature to pause.  New flowers (or weeds) blooming (“What is that one called?  Smell it!”),  A bug eating a leaf (“it’s so blue!”).  Yards with intriguing ornaments, whether kitschy or real art, that are always worth re-examining.  When I feel today’s time ticking away, I remember how quickly four-year-olds turn in to teenagers and adjust my adult cadence to her desire to observe intently, with no real purpose in mind. 

— Jimsonweed, Bandelier National Monument

Sometimes I think that my granddaughter is channeling Georgia O’Keefe:

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.

So, if pausing is a value that I am starting to savor, what knot does it unravel other than being, for a moment, less engaged with busy-ness?  Yannis Ritsos suggests that these encounters with the intangible may be fundamental to my evolving consciousness:

I hide behind simple things so you will find me….

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.

As I read this, I am aware that it is not big planned or anticipated pauses that give me the greatest joy, but the small ones that knock on my door—and then ask me to change. Ordinary time is suspended in wonder and, as Ritsos claims, becomes an opening to the “thin places” where I am able to experience life beyond that which I can touch.  When I meet a sense of communion with a granddaughter or friend, a feeling, a nascent idea, or a burgeoning of love, perhaps I am simply experiencing a flow that cannot be programmed.  The real problem solved is the (re)cognition that much of what I value most at this stage in my life is not planned, but experienced – often as a pause.