Lost in thought?

Tonight I should be joining a zoom discussion of Zena Hitz’s lovely new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I’m not–or I will only be in and out, as I flit from chores to bedtime rituals and back again. Not that I couldn’t just put the TV on and check out of the household evening routine. After all, that’s what the kids are doing now, as I write. I am not going to draw up a chair with a glass of wine for a chat about the intellectual life with a load of fellow academics because we are the proverbial choir. I’d rather save my evening away for a discussion of such a book with other mums and people who work with primary school children.

Why? Because–and I don’t think the author would disagree with me here–the problem that reaches its apex at universities begins before the first year of school. It wasn’t surprising to find that my ethics students looked puzzled when I asked them whether they had come to the university because it was the only way to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. (A few gave me a knowing look, and smirked. But they didn’t raise their hands, either.) It wasn’t surprising, because from quite early on in primary school, pupils are taught to write ‘L.O.’ and to state the learning objective at the top of pages. (I caught my then 8-year-old daughter doing this at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and had to exercise tremendous self-restraint. CGS is about listening, not learning objectives!) Someone, somewhere, has decided that children are really just miniature adults, who like to be told why they are learning something, as if learning wasn’t something worthwhile for its own sake.

As I have said, the author would not disagree. And my colleagues wouldn’t disagree, either. But the people who have time to write the books are not the ones who sit with the 7-year-olds who are struggling to develop reading fluency and struggling even harder to understand why they need to learn to read fluently. If reading is about learning school stuff, and learning school stuff is about doing well on tests, and doing well on tests is about being employable (I kid you not, I saw a 7-foot by 3-foot poster in a primary school hall that indicated skills and traits that made a person more appealing to prospective employers), then if your dreams don’t tend in that direction, learning just isn’t important. Love of learning for its own sake has been squeezed out of the curriculum, and it isn’t just professors in the humanities that have noticed. It’s just that professors in the humanities are the people who have time to write letters to periodicals, and journal articles, and books.

I am not one of those people. My life is complicated by the needs of my children, who are extraordinary in sometimes demanding ways, my own struggles with basic sanity, and an impatience with injustice that remains as hot and irrational as it was when I was seven or eight. ‘But it’s not fair‘ I still protest, in spite of all the grown-up arguments for why it is what it is. So I am no good at explaining to the real grown-ups what’s wrong with the grown-up world. (This is the point at which somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that I should retrain as a Montessori teacher pops up, and I quash it with a memory of trying to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with boys between the ages of six and nine: I was rubbish!) And I also have a CV that appears ‘thin’ to people in the academic world; I look at it and wonder when I had time to write anything. 

Thus, I am opting for a different sort of evening. When I have finished my chores (the kids have done their share, I promise) and everyone is settled, the chances are very good that I will lose myself in Trenton, NJ* rather than Princeton. And tomorrow, I’ll get up feeling regretful that I missed the opportunity to have grown-up conversation about the intellectual life and its pleasures. I love learning and I don’t need an ‘objective’, but I am more at home arguing with my nine-year-old about whether the tree is a silver birch or a paper-bark birch (I don’t always win) or insisting that my 13-year-old son explain to me why fireworks explode in the microwave rather that just being entertained by the fact that they do. (Why do fireworks explode in the microwave? I could make up some stuff that might not be far from the truth, but I’d really like to know.) So, if anyone knows why fireworks explode in the microwave (beyond the basic, ‘because they’re explosives, silly’), let me know.

And thanks to all y’all who read my blog post last night and let me know. So wonderful to know we’re not alone.

the chaos inside

Once upon a time I went to a counseling centre–in Pasadena, CA. It has been at least a couple of decades since I was there. I remember a framed poster that read, ‘You must carry a chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.’ At the time–I was in my early twenties and hadn’t yet read all the Nietzsche I have so far–I thought it justified my internal turbulence. A dancing star sounded good, like the right reward for having struggled through the darkness and desperation.

A good few years on, I have yet to see anything like a dancing star. Just a lot more chaos. I’d like to be able to explain how it all worked out, to point to the low points on the journey and share the momentary, spectacular views. Not that there haven’t been splendid vistas along the way–there have, of course–but that the way is rather up and down and meandering: the journey is ongoing. The chaos is ongoing. I’m not certain that the dancing star is ever going to turn up.

Perhaps I was foolish to mistake depression for some sort of spiritual gestation. I guess that’s a thing some of us do in those hopeful, early years of adulthood. Things have to mean something, and we need to be figuring out that meaning. Now I am not so sure: the chaos inside is just chaos. I am not any nearer to figuring it out now, three decades after I started trying.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any dancing stars, or that hanging on and working on the chaos isn’t worth it. It’s just that there is no formula that dictates how bright a star we are owed for the years of chaos we have endured. It doesn’t work like that. If I knew how it did work, I would try to explain it. But I don’t, and I am not sure that there is one way it works all the time for everyone.

So if you are on the chaotic road, I can’t tell you where it ends or how to get off. But I can tell you you’re not alone. I’m going that way, too. Maybe we can walk together.

on dyslexia and superpowers

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I think a lot about disability. This is not just because I have an 18-year-old with Down syndrome. It is also because I have a profoundly, excruciatingly dyslexic 13-year-old and a 9-year-old whose dyslexia is less devastating.

Knowing about my struggles with dyslexic kids, a neighbour (author and educator Adam Bushnell) kindly lent me Philip Schultz’s memoir, My Dyslexia. I can see why he commented that, for Schultz, dyslexia was ‘like his superpower.’ Having overcome his dyslexia to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Schultz credits his success to the blocks to reading and writing that seemed insurmountable in his early childhood. Not in spite of his dyslexia did he achieve what he has achieved, but because of his dyslexia.

Maybe so. I don’t doubt that the struggle shaped him. But not all dyslexics are as fond of books and words as he was (and never mind the slipperiness of the definition and diagnosis of dyslexia). And–more importantly–not everyone with dyslexia has his grit. He owes much to his persistent, even indomitable, self-belief: ‘even when the entire world seemed to be ganging up on me, some persisting sense of myself argued on my behalf’. Ditto for the young scientist Schultz admired, who called her dyslexia ‘her secret weapon’. I’d say the credit goes to her consistent, pig-headed determination and sheer force of will. Dyslexia provided her with a mountain, true. Hope and courage enabled her to climb it.

The challenge that people with dyslexia face is the same, at bottom, as the challenge we all face: to ‘learn to love what is weakest and most confounding about ourselves, because and despite and in deference to what is essential about us’ (all quotations p. 117). The great challenge of his life, and mine, and my children’s, and yours, is very simple. It’s all about not giving up.

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This is true whether it’s dyslexia or depression or Down syndrome (or just daily life during a pandemic) that challenges us. I almost wrote ‘afflicts’ there; I hesitated because it’s an unpopular way of thinking about disability. So negative. But affliction is exactly what Schultz describes; it’s what my son experiences; it is, if I am honest, the way I experience depression. And it is the affliction that stirs, in some of us, the gritty response that makes for success. The super power of the oyster is not the irritation provided by the grain of sand but the ability it has to smooth over that irritant until it forms a pearl.

In a sense, then, we are the most ‘disabled’ by the conditions that afflict us when we lack either the ability to recognise the grain of sand or the mountain for what it is, or we lack the hope and courage to surmount it. Most days, I would say that Anna, my 18-year-old with Down syndrome, isn’t especially ‘disabled’ by her genetic idiosyncrasy. Having thought through Schultz’s book, though, I see that’s not exactly what I mean. In terms of sheer not-being-able-to-do-stuff, Anna is always going to ‘win’ the competition for the most disabled. Yet she is not usually afflicted by her condition, and I am beginning to see why: she doesn’t see the summit. We clamber around on the slopes together, but there’s no determined ascent.

Maybe that’s why I’m still a little uncomfortable with these thoughts about mountains and overcoming. Why do some people make it to the top while others are defeated by the summit? I don’t know. I may not know much more about disability than I did before reading Schultz’s book. But I have seen in a new and crystal clear way that my kids who need to see the summit and learn to climb need grit more than any other intervention. And that is more helpful than I can say. Thanks for the loan, Adam.

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The Most Holy Trinity

At least during the pandemic, we don’t have the weekly argument about going to Mass, or the complaints that it’s boring. That doesn’t exactly comprise a silver lining, though: when we (the parents) tune in to Mass at Blackfriars (Oxford), the kids get on with other things. The 16-year-old is asleep, the 13-year-old is watching YouTube, the 9-year-old is skating around the house on her roller blades, and my eldest is listening to music and humming along. This is better than the nerf war that was going on during the Liturgy of the Word. (It may also be noted that one of the adults is asleep on the sofa during the Eucharistic Prayer and the other is writing this blog.)

Keeping the feasts and fasts while physically separated from the Church is tough. We fail a lot. And regular prayer is hard, too. I thought that one of the redeeming things about the pandemic would be the possibility of praying Compline ‘with’ the community in Kent I so enjoy visiting. But it is often impossible to follow along–we can’t understand the sung words, and the video lags. I don’t mind. The rest of the family does, and so we haven’t been joining in. Universalis has continued to be a lifeline for me. I stay connected by knowing what day it is–today is the feast of the Most Holy Trinity; were it not a Sunday, we would remember St Robert of Newminster today. When the kids are out of school, holidays are cancelled, work is squished in around lessons, and the usual schedule of activities and appointments is suspended, it is easy to get lost–hardly remembering what day of the week it is, much less the month and date. Tomorrow there will be no school run, and we won’t go to work. It will still be Monday, though: Monday of week 10 in ordinary time (or St William of York, if you observe his memorial). Liturgical time goes on, pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown. I am grateful for that.

And I am grateful, more grateful than ever, for communities like the Dominican friars we join for Sunday Mass and the Benedictine nuns I like to visit at Minster Abbey. A few years ago, I wrote about the nuns, reflecting that my misunderstanding of Sr Johanna revealed an important truth about the relationship of the wider Church with such communities. ‘I’ve got your back,’ I thought she said. That wasn’t what she said, but it was true. While I am here, with my family, loosely following the Sunday Mass, it is happening, just as it always has, at Blackfriars and everywhere that religious communities gather for the celebration of the Eucharist.

I would rather be there, of course. And I would rather wrestle the kids out the door of the house and into the door of St Bede’s than listen to them running up and down while I try to follow the homily. But in these strange times, it is good to know that we are the Body of Christ: we are incorporated at baptism and we members are nourished by our participation in the Eucharist. And yet, we remain joined to the Body even at this distance. The regular communion of the nuns, the monks, and the friars benefits us; we participate in a mystical way. So the act of spiritual communion that we make (thanks to the prayer given us by the friars) is real. It’s just not physical.

I think what I have been doing for the last hour, since the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, is considering why I keep on sitting here, while Mass is going on somewhere else. While my participation in the liturgy is rather two-dimensional, involving two senses rather than the usual 5, it helps me to make the spiritual act of communion. And so I will tune in again next week.

May days

Keeping up with writing is harder than I expected. Fortunately, spring is unfolding whether I write about it or not!

Of course, it hasn’t all been sunshine and flowers. For the last few days, winter has stretched out a long, cold arm! I’ve had to cover my seedlings and put an extra layer on myself. The up side is that we have a great excuse to light the wood-burning stove.

These are strange times. Yet the birds and the sheep don’t notice, and the trees are almost all sporting their summer foliage. Some things are unaffected by the virus, and I am very glad to be in a position to notice them!

Deo gratias

Strange times

I keep writing that: ‘Strange times we are living in’, I say. What I mean, I think, is ‘deeply unsettling times’. On the one hand, I rejoice at the recovery of the planet. I hope some crude oil remains in the ground, since we don’t need nearly as much of it at the moment. I am glad to read the news about clear air in India. And I am having a love-hate relationship with home-schooling. Since my 13-year-old hates school to the point of anxiety and borderline depression, I am happy that he doesn’t have to go. But trying to get the kids to do schoolwork is difficult, and trying to plan educational activities for them—things that they might enjoy doing that also count as learning—is even more difficult. There’s a reason I teach at a university and not at a primary or secondary school.

And it’s stressful. Teaching on zoom is weird. Maybe I will get better at it, but so far, I have found it completely devastating. It will take a while for me to get over the feeling that I am inarticulate and stupid. Perhaps I have always been inarticulate and stupid, and zoom teaching is only bringing the real me to the surface. That’s my worry, of course: I am the person who heard about impostor syndrome and thought, ‘Well, yeah, I understand that that’s a thing. But everyone really does know more than I do. Maybe even the students…’ I am the one person who really is an impostor, apparently. Shifting teaching platforms and expecting to lose my job (a half-time contract renewed every year) pushes all my ‘I am not worthy’ buttons.

And yet, I am not on the front-line. God help those doctors and nurses and all the people who keep the hospitals and doctors’ offices running during these ‘strange’ times. I cannot begin to imagine life as someone facing COVID-19 at work on a daily basis. I couldn’t come home: the risk to my daughter is too great. My husband and I are fortunate— working from home was already a reality for us a lot of the time, and working through the crisis is like trying to write a conference paper for early September during the summer holidays. Difficult, but not impossible, however impossible it feels mid-August. The stress of caring for the sick and the dying and of the possibility of infection, illness and death is beyond anything I am likely to experience, however long this craziness lasts. Thank God the people who are keeping the medical establishment running are keeping on.

Except they’re not, are they? I didn’t read the article about the ER doctor in New York who committed suicide. Why would I? It would be voyeurism. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her, I say. She needs my prayers more than my curiosity about the circumstances of her death. How? I wondered when I first saw the headline, how did she commit suicide? A doctor would know the best way. I didn’t read on, because to do so would have been wrong. Not for everyone, but wrong for me. I’m so sorry for her, because I have a sense of what the approach to suicide is like, and it is awful beyond words. I’m sorry for her family, who will have lost a loved one to COVID-19 in a twisted and bewildering way.

Let’s face it: nobody is ok. Parents are not ok. Health care professionals are not ok. People who are out of work because of the crisis are not ok. Teenagers are not ok. My 16-year-old is really not ok. He should be preparing for exams he’s likely to have to take (though they’ve been cancelled) in September, but he can’t focus. He should be reading ahead for his new course of study (A-levels) that will begin in September. ‘It’s school without friends,’ he says. School was made bearable for him by having his friends around. My younger teenage son is not ok, either. He hates school, and got through at secondary by staying under the radar, doing the minimum required and not getting into trouble. At home, the threat of coming under uncomfortable school scrutiny disappears, and there’s no motivation to do anything academic. I discover, to my deep dismay, that the child who loved learning his whole life has forgotten what it is to enjoy learning. He can’t translate his curiosity into a desire to learn. I am sad for him, so sad. Families are not ok—not the kids, not the parents.

But it isn’t all bad, as hard as it is to live in the mess and the chaos and insubordination. The boys have moved from the bickering and fighting that characterises the first few days of any family vacation into the hanging out and doing things together that comes after that initial period of friction. Walks with the kids are more frequent; reading together is becoming more frequent; and watching Star Trek (TNG) with the girls each evening is a treat. And having compline streamed online from the monastery that is my soul’s home away from home is beyond a treat. It’s a lifeline, and being able to share it with the family in the living room is sublime, despite the kids’ grumbling and the livestream lagging.

These are strange times, to be sure. And we are definitely not ok. But I suppose if there is one thing that being a person dogged by a dark depression-cloud has taught me, it is that being not-ok is not the whole story. It’s not the whole reality right now, and it is not a permanent state of affairs. It sucks for now. So I am letting the kids have afternoon screen time, and opening the wine early.

When we don’t have compline with the nuns, this is one of my favourites. Pray it with me if you are so inclined.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake.  

 

Third Sunday of Easter

The weekend after Easter—Easter Saturday and the Second Sunday of Easter—didn’t seem like a weekend at all. Time is like that these days. Even having virtual Mass on a Sunday and keeping to the school week doesn’t erase the sense of being in some kind of liminal time. It is almost like the strange stretch of the summer holidays when we are home and our friends are away, still on holiday somewhere. Almost. But not quite, because when you do see people out and about, you have to stand six feet away from them to have a chat, and the topics of conversation are far from the usual.

The signs of spring continue unabated. The farm smells as farm-like as ever, pungent, with mixed aromas of cow and sheep and heaps of dung for fertilizer—or so I imagine. What else could those smelly heaps be for? Some of the sheep have been shorn, and in the field along the path lambs skip (really) as the adults graze, untouched by the energy of the new generation. Their skipping time has gone.

Sometimes I feel like that: my skipping time has gone. These have not been easy days for me, though I can’t blame the dreaded virus. It’s just me, as I have always been, with ups and downs. Lately the downs have dipped into deep darkness and despair. It has occurred to me that this may be normal for me, but it is not normal. So maybe my normal can change. This is a radical thought, mind you.

But not, I think, an impossibility. And that is somewhere to start.

Deo gratias.

Holy Saturday

The big news from the nature reserve this week is that the tadpoles have hatched. Last week we had frogspawn; this week we have tadpoles! They’re difficult to see, since they’re about the same colour as the bottom of the pond. Midday was the best time of day to see them. At the ends of the day I mostly saw the reflection of trees round about the pond. And it was impossible to take their photo! Anna and I also saw some peacock butterflies, which also moved too fast to be captured in a photo. But there were some things that stood still.

My own vegetable patch (top left) has been planted: potatoes, onions, leeks, and beets. Carrots, radishes, and salad greens are in big pots, and the tomatoes are in small, plantable pots. We’ll see. I’ve never had much luck with tomatoes on this side of the Atlantic. The sheep are self-explanatory, and I’m not sure what is flowering in the top right corner. Ditto for the weed with the lovely flowers in the next row.

I think the budding tree might be a sycamore, the one without any leaves is an alder (another late leafer), and the last is a willow, of course. The bird is a bullfinch, unless I am mistaken.

Apart from the forget-me-nots, the flowers are all in my front garden. I planted some bulbs in December, and I’m very glad I did. It has been great to watch them grow, and satisfying, since I am not good at growing anything I can’t eat.

The odd one out is the pizza. But it is a family favourite, all made from scratch and cooked at ridiculously high temperatures on Lewis’s Big Green Egg. Pizza night was Maundy Thursday. We joined the Dominicans at Blackfriars in Oxford for the Mass, and we will tune in again tonight for the Vigil.

 

This week I have watched the death toll rise and feared for all the vulnerable. There are no words.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. 

The cruelest month?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.

I’m not sure whether April really is the cruelest month, but this year it might be. By all accounts, the pandemic is bound to get worse before it gets better. It hasn’t been a happy week, but at least my family are all well, so I must summon some gratitude and get on with it.

The natural world carries on without regard to the number of new COVID-19 cases (on the rise) or the stock market (not on the rise). Birds still flit to and fro carrying nest-making materials, singing their usual songs, and occasionally staying still long enough for me to identify them.

Early springtime is erratic. One day, we have sunshine and almost-warm weather; the next, it’s blowing a gale and threatening snow. The signs of spring are also inconsistent. The oaks still think it’s winter, while the gorse blooms bright yellow.

And in a strange twist of fate (par for the course this week), wordpress won’t let me upload any new photos. Cruel.