Posted in musings

thoughts on humanity

The single most important thing about any person is their humanity.

No matter what other characteristics define them – their race, gender, age, neurotype, health, sexual preference, career, level of education, immigration status, religion, whatever – every single person is human, and by virtue of being human they are entitled to respect and dignity.

Years ago, I stumbled across a few MRA and white supremacy outposts online; I remember reading through their blog archives in a kind of shocked daze, disbelieving that people could actually hold the opinions presented there. Authors attempted to use social and biological science to prove racist tenets, or to claim the superiority of the “alpha male” type over women and more “feminine” men (often just decent and courteous men). Careful rational examination of their source material could show where they were wrong, but the sheer volume of output would make that a full-time job – with little or no reward, given that they’ve already shown their disregard for real science or actual facts.

Since then, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases against the old and sick (e.g., assisted suicide), the LGBTQA community, the homeless (e.g., park bench design), illegal (and often legal) immigrants, and Muslims have risen and fallen through the headlines of the news cycle. Every time there is a group of people who try to make themselves appear and feel superior and, more malevolently, entitled by virtue of that superiority to demean, belittle, and discriminate against groups they deem inferior. We, the employed, do not wish to see or even think about the unemployed; we can provide for ourselves, they cannot so they must be lazy and shiftless, and thus do not even deserve to sleep on a bench where we might see them. We, the citizens, obviously deserved to be born in this nation with all the opportunities we have; those immigrants who were so stupid as to have been born elsewhere shouldn’t be allowed to come here and steal our opportunities. We, the heterosexual, are so uncomfortable with trans and homosexual individuals that we must clearly be the only natural and moral beings here – never mind our promiscuity and infidelity, we are the ones following God’s sexual plan for humanity, and those who disagree should be silenced and kept apart from each other.

And recently, as I’ve been reading through the online communities dedicated to respectful parenting and disability advocacy, I’ve begun to encounter childism and ableism in all their ugliness.

This week, when the horrible story of the Turpin family came to light, the comments I read on the New York Times were straightforward and predictable: this is why homeschooling should be prohibited, or, at least, more strictly regulated. My own coworkers have made the same comments in response to the simple fact that Arizona requires no academic testing of homeschooled students. Similarly, in the past, when horrible stories of bullying or sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers have surfaced, or when poor curriculum choices are exposed, the comments in the homeschooling community are equally predictable: this is why you should never send your children to public school! The issue at the heart of many of these comments is: who is entitled to control children. Does the state get to control children’s activities, in an attempt to create productive future citizens? Or does the family get to control their children, as the creators of and providers for those children during their development? In other words, both sides are coming from a position of childism, even as they claim to have children’s best interests at heart.

The whole philosophy of unschooling, in contrast, rests on the premise that children are not partial persons, or potential persons, but full persons deserving of the same respect and autonomy as adult persons (recognizing of course their individual needs and limitations). As fellow humans, they should have freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all standardized education or into the molds envisioned by their parents. They should have the liberty to use their time as they choose, to eat the foods they like when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tired, to play outside learning to control their own words and actions instead of sitting inside following adult directions all day.

(If you instantly picture children running wild, gorging on junk food, playing violent video games, watching stupid cartoons, and staying up all night, you may have some internalized childism or an incomplete understanding of unschooling. Children who are exposed to beauty and goodness, and given the opportunity to develop maturity and moral character, will resonate with those things just like adults will, since they are equally made in the image of the God of beauty, righteousness, and truth.)

But even in the unschooling community, there is uncertainty when it comes to children with special needs. Since my son most likely has autism or another developmental disorder, I noticed the number of parents commenting that they were unsure of how to maintain that level of freedom and respect while making sure that their children accessed all of the “services” and therapies needed to help them fit in and appear neurotypical. I noticed it even more in the public school setting, where an extremely strong emphasis was placed on accessing services now so that my son would be “caught up” to his peers in time for kindergarten. I picked up on it in the special needs ministry at my church, when the parents’ support group had a meeting about “grieving” over your child’s autism diagnosis as if there was some loss to you in not having a neurotypical child. And I discovered it for myself when I found a thousand support groups for parents of autistic children but hardly any communities for autistic adults. Their voices went unheard.

And in some dark corners of the Internet, some people made it even worse by painting adults with Asperger’s/autism as narcissists and psychopaths, incapable of parenting without emotionally neglecting or abusing their children, and inherently capable of committing the next mass shooting. Maybe they vented some frustration or boosted their own sense of self-worth by saying these horrible and untrue things about others, I don’t know. But I don’t really care. I think of Morenike, the autistic mother of autistic children who loves and advocates for them fearlessly and tirelessly, and who almost had her children removed several years ago, and I wonder what role this type of ableist stigma played in her situation.

And I am thankful beyond words for Ally Grace, another autistic mother of autistic children, who is an unschooler on top of that, and whose stories have helped give me the courage to let my children develop at their own pace and in their own way, with the pressure of needing to conform to some external, arbitrary, socially-defined metric – as well as the courage to be an unschooling parent despite my own social limitations.

I think as all the different “-isms” of discrimination come to light, society will slowly be forced into being more respectful and more accepting of those who are different, of those who may need more help or accommodation given the way the world is set up, but in the meantime there is a fairly vicious backlash of those who seem to think accepting the other somehow diminishes their own status or worth. They are the ones who create the websites in the dark underbelly of the Internet, and they are wrong. To receive another human being with dignity and respect, with courtesy and kindness, regardless of the differences between you and them, allows your own humanity – the image of God within you – to shine forth in beauty and power, even as it elevates their humanity. We can ascend together; we do not need to climb to the heavens on the downtrodden backs of the other.

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Posted in musings

how does the soul survive?

Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me […]

Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination.

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

It’s easy to see evil as something distant, or something belonging to people “not like me;” it’s been especially easy, I think, in a politically polarized era to attempt to push our perception of evil off onto politicians or political enemies, the political and cultural “others”, instead of recognizing the sin that cuts through each and every individual heart. We ignore accusations of immorality against those whose ideology aligns with ours, or who benefit us in some way, while jumping at every hint of wrongdoing in those who disagree with us.

But a good novel will show us the hidden depths of goodness and humanity in even the people we dislike and disagree with, while exposing the foolishness and flaws within the people we most admire and who are most like us. By drawing us in emotionally through the story, it relaxes our defenses and allows new, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths to seep in. Our empathy for the characters can engender empathy for real people whom we may have overlooked, avoided, or misunderstood – and the realities that we see more deeply and completely by the light of imagination can spur us to resist the daily evil and pour out the daily labor of love in our own mundane lives.

In other words: let us go read great books so that our hearts and minds can grow in love and understanding – and maybe, as a result, evil need not win each hourly battle in our thoughts and interactions.

Posted in musings

freedom in learning

What is the goal of education? Or, for that matter, what is the goal of parenthood? Is our aim to shape the children in our care into a certain type of person, to give them specific skills, to qualify them for certain careers, to prepare them for expected circumstances? Do we envision their future selves as the complete products toward which we are currently laboring, and the ends which justify all the unpleasant activities we must force upon them in their childhoods?

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Or do we see our role as parents and educators to be one of providing opportunities to explore and grow, while allowing our children to choose the direction, rate, and nature of that growth? Are they like plants which we tend with loving care – providing soil, water, and space to flourish – but over which, ultimately, we have no true control? I remember one year planting peas, all in a row in a single garden bed; I watered them and fertilized them synchronously, and yet some sprouted days before their neighbors, and some grew to twice the height of others, lanky stems reaching up to the sky much farther in between each set of leaves and tiny tendrils. Nothing I did caused or could have eliminated the differences between those plants (though I certainly could have affected their development negatively by forgetting to water them, in which case the height difference may not have been so noticeable…).

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Perhaps it is the same way with children. Some will shoot out intellectually, reaching with insatiable desire towards the skies of knowledge and academic learning, constant thirst for the sunlight of information driving them onward. We could stunt that growth by neglect or empower it by attention, but we cannot create (and can only with great difficulty destroy) the passion that motivates it. Others may grow in more embodied ways, developing craftsmanship and skill in professions such as music, art, or manual trades, and pursuing the creation of tangible beauty rather than the acquisition of knowledge. While we can offer the opportunity to learn those skills to all children, not all will desire to hone them to mastery, and it is most likely counterproductive to attempt to force it.

The knowledge and skills that align with a child’s natural talents and inclinations will be the easiest for them to develop, as well as the ones most likely to bring them joy and success throughout their lives – regardless of how “one-sided” it may make them appear now.

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We may fear that, if children are allowed to choose the direction of their learning, they may choose incorrectly.

Does a tree choose the wrong place to grow a branch?

Does the blackberry bush extend its vines the wrong way?

Hardly.

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis (I believe from Mere Christianity), the tree and the bush are following the rules of their nature and are not wrong or incorrect in doing so, although they may be quite inconvenient indeed for us!

And while it is quite fine to trim back a plant for the sake of our comfort and convenience, it is not at all fine to trim back the growth of another person for the sake of our own convenience. Providing a trellis to support their growth is one thing; stunting or restricting that growth simply because it doesn’t fit our idea of what their growth should look like is quite another.

Children are human too, after all. And humans, we believe, in fundamental democratic terms, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (always being aware of how our actions infringe upon the rights of others, of course).

Coercive education – forcing a child to learn something in which he has no interest, for no purpose at all except the nebulous expectations of adult society, at the expense of time and energy that could have been devoted to the unique and explorative learning that his heart desires – seems to me to be quite far from those exalted human rights.

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We can attempt to control, and set ourselves and our children up for disappointment, failure, and bitterness – or we can let our children provide the directing and motivating force while we provide the rich and nourishing environment in which they can flourish in beauty and individuality. We can give them the gifts of freedom, acceptance, and support, and marvel at the different ways they blossom before our wondering eyes.

“In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

insubordination

Posted in book lists

my year in books, 2017

There isn’t much better than sitting down, uninterrupted, with a good book and a cup of hot tea 🙂

While most of the books I read this year were read on my phone while nursing Aubade, pumping at work, or staying up way too late at night (not counting pages snatched while cooking, eating, or using the bathroom), just the fact that I was reading was good enough for me, even with the interruptions and without the hot tea!

Not counting rereads, I completed 83 books in 2017. I was trying to read books from different genres, time periods, and authors, but there were some definite slants. First, in genres, I read non-fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, historical fiction, and general fiction books somewhat evenly (more fantasy than the others by a bit) – but I read no mysteries or romances, and only one thriller and one book of poetry. For next year, I’d like to read more non-fiction and more poetry! I don’t really mind missing out on the other genres and I don’t have to make sci-fi/fantasy a goal for it to be read…

For time periods, I read exclusively modern books this year and almost half of them were written in just the last decade:chart

This is definitely something I want to change, even if it means I’ll be reading fewer books overall. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from the experience of past generations, and a lot of classic books I haven’t yet read!

The oldest book I read this year was almost going to be Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (a book alternately beautiful, silly, and innocent, by the way), but at the tail end of the year I discovered The Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson, which happened to be published just a year earlier in 1907. It couldn’t be more different, as a sort of Catholic version of the end-times novel popularized in the Protestant world by the Left Behind series. I did find it thought-provoking and even inspiring, as the story of a church disintegrating yet not destroyed in the face of the great tribulation (the nature of that tribulation itself is probably the most brilliant aspect of the book, as evil truly comes wearing the guise of an angel of light and seems to fulfill all the hopes and promises that humanity longs for). Next year, though, I hope to have both of these books beat by at least a few centuries!

As far as trying to read diverse authors went, about two-thirds of the books I read were written by women, and one-third by men. Again, about two-thirds were written by White American authors, while the other one-third were written by people of various ethnicities from various countries, including France, Italy, the UK, Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, China, and Japan. So a lot of the authors reflected me, demographically, as white women from the US, but I did branch out at least a little bit, and I hope to continue doing so next year.

While obviously not all 83 of these books were exceptional, there was only one that I truly disliked: Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon. The premise was intriguing, but the ending (in addition to being horribly depressing) wasn’t what I felt the whole book was leading towards, and the characters and writing weren’t in themselves compelling enough to make up for that.

On the other hand, there were many that I deeply loved! Ten of them I actually read more than once (typically just by starting again at the beginning as soon as I finished it for the first time), and from those I would most highly recommend The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, Watership Down by Richard Adams, and My Antonia by Willa Cather. I feel that these books have in them the seeds of enduring literature as well as just being books I enjoyed reading. But it is always hard to narrow things down! And one of my favorites of the year – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. – wasn’t reread because I could only find the audiobook. So, for the full list of what I read, you can click this link – the books in bold are ones that I believe are or will be classics, and the books in italics are the ones I read multiple times. If there are any that pique your interest, let me know and I’d be more than happy to share my thoughts about it with you!

Happy reading in the new year!

Posted in family life

happy birthday Aubade!

In the in-between week from Christmas to New Year’s, a baby girl was born, and now we have one more reason to celebrate every holiday season!

And while the flu may have meant that we didn’t get any first Christmas pictures for Aubade, I did make sure to have the camera on hand on her first birthday.

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I know I’m biased, but I think she’s pretty much a perfect baby ❤

Aubade, I love your zest for life, your self-assurance, and your sweet affectionate gestures. I love the exuberance with which you dance when I sing, and the excitement with which you run to the shower when you hear the water turn on. I love when you sit next to me on the floor, each of us doing our own things but happy to be together, and I love when you sit on top of me, knock me over, and bounce on my belly while laughing uproariously! I love when you bring me books to read, and I love how you get so enthusiastic about turning the pages that you won’t even give me time to say the words first. I love how even though you don’t say any words yet, you still communicate exactly what you’re feeling, thinking, and wanting.

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You crawled over rocks to get to this wheelbarrow, because you saw Rondel playing by it and wanted to know for yourself what was inside. You were uncomfortable, but you didn’t cry. You were too short to reach in easily, but you didn’t ask for help. And so you found the satisfaction both of accomplishing your goal and answering your curiosity!

I am so excited to get to watch you continue to grow and blossom, my daughter. Whatever life holds for you, your strength, tenacity and joy will serve you well.

Posted in family life

2017

2017 is coming to a close.

We started out with postpartum depression and RSV; we’re ending with all three kids sick with the flu! (Well, to be more accurate, they were sick over Christmas and are mostly better now.) In between we fit more into one year than I would have thought possible, with therapies, medications, travel, moving into a new home, dipping our toes into the world of special needs education, and beginning a new round of transitions with my husband graduating and finding a job (which will start shortly after the New Year).

And I have learned so much this year, including about things that I thought I already understood but was able to look at from personal experience or through the new and edifying perspective of someone else’s experience or research. I acknowledged my anxiety as an obstacle in my path rather than a personal failing, thereby removing the associated guilt and shame and allowing myself to move forward; I began to make space for myself and the people I love to be different, express their differences, and be loved for who they are with those differences; I learned when to stand up for myself and when to disengage, and that both are ok given the circumstances as well as my own mental state; and I found the courage to make uncommon decisions for uncommon reasons without becoming defensive or belittling the choices I turned down. At least, those are the seeds of change that are beginning to germinate within me as a result of this year – I think I could spend a lifetime watching them grow!

This was also a year of good reading. What began as a way to cope with my depression when almost nothing else could distract my mind from the darkness turned into a re-ignition of my lifelong compulsive love of books and a chance to discover new characters, adventures, worlds, and authors. For the first time since childhood I kept a book log for myself, which was a massively encouraging endeavor in and of itself, and managed to read and record 84 previously-unread-by-me books since I started tracking mid-January! I think the books deserve their own post so I will say no more here – but it was a major part of my year and a consistent source of pleasure and refreshment as well as an escape from my own head.

And of course this was the year of Aubade, since she just barely made an appearance in 2016 but has by now infiltrated herself into every thread of the warp and weave of our lives. Through her, the boys have gained independence and learned compassion and gentleness. She has stolen our sleep but given us laughter. She is a confident baby princess, secure in her belief that whatever she wants, she should have, and she will get it for herself if no one will get it for her! She is a fearless baby explorer, certain that she can do whatever she sets her mind to do, and that around every corner (or behind every door, or on top of every high place) there is something new and exciting to discover. She is a bestower of hugs and a jealous claimant to her mommy’s lap. She is a passionate lover of showers (or pools, or baths, or splash pads), peek-a-boo, mud on her fingers, the thrill of the climb, the loudness of blenders and vacuums, snuggles with the people she loves, and singing or playing music. I can hardly believe she has only been in our lives for a year, because life without her would seem so empty.

Overall, it was a year of crashing lows, dark valleys to endure, and steep mountains to climb (my saint for the year was St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes, and it certainly seemed fitting when I was in the depths of the depression) – but it was also a year of soaring highs, transcendent mountain views, and glorious sunrises. A more stable and mundane year would certainly have been easier, but I am thankful for the things that happened and the way they shaped the person I am now. And now, let the adventures of 2018 begin!