Personal ponderings from a natural night-owl!

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Violence is No Fantasy

What happened in a Colorado movie theatre around 12:30 am this morning was shocking, senseless, and tragic. The victims were in no way to blame for what befell them at the hands of a deranged killer. But we as a society should not be surprised at the increasing number of such violent gun attacks on innocent people when we constantly present violence as entertainment.

I read this quote about the tragedy in a CNN article: “For somebody to go into a movie theater, a place of fun and escapism, and bring that kind of violence into that world is shocking and tragic,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com. But just two short paragraphs later, the same article points out that “Warner Bros., which is owned by the parent company of CNN, has been heavily marketing the action film that includes scenes featuring lots of gunplay and violence.[emphasis mine] Warner Bros. pulled the trailer for the film ‘Gangster Squad,’ which had been running before showings of ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ That film trailer features scenes of men armed with machine guns attacking a movie theater.” Sounds like a lot of what too many people term “fun” and “escapism” involves “fantasy” violence.

I have already seen the inevitable renewed debate over gun control. But this is NOT a gun control issue. This is a behavioral issue. Are violent video games to blame? Or the movie industry itself? How about television? Maybe it’s the parents? None of these is responsible – all of them are. At least we’re talking (occasionally) about those particular issues. Sadly, it’s not politically correct to raise the question of how war and combat are glamorized by our recruitment for and celebration of our armed forces. Frankly, we’ve indoctrinated an entire, desensitized generation into believing that wielding weapons is normal and heroic.

I hear the argument all the time: “Oh, it’s ‘just’ a video game. It’s ‘just’ a movie. Kids aren’t REALLY going to do those things. They know better. They can tell the difference between media and reality” But you know what? When they play it in their spare time, see it in their toys, watch it on TV – in their cartoons, in their news, in their commercials – see it in the movies, witness it in their sports, hear it in their music, and have it in front of them in myriad way ALL THE TIME, they absorb it, they ingest it, they accept it, and they normalize it. It becomes their reality.

My kids are not very exposed to violence through the media. We don’t watch network TV at home at all  (this is no exaggeration – we have had no dish or cable service for over 2.5 years.) We use our TV for Wii games & movies and the most violent DVDs we own are probably the Harry Potter movie collection. However, my kids aren’t completely sheltered from the reality of a violent world. Despite the controversy, I took my kids to see “The Hunger Games,” an admittedly violent movie, because they’d both read the books and because the heroine is herself so horrified by the lack of humanity exhibited by most of the people associated with the games. During the movie, other kids and adults were cheering when each “bad” kid died. Both my girls were horrified by this because even though the characters were “kids making bad choices, they were still kids and they were dying. Why are people cheering for kids dying, mom?” Out of the mouths of babes…

I had a friend, who was raising three boys, tell me once that I didn’t understand that boys need to run around and pretend violence in order to “find their place as men in our society” (I think she’d read that in some book about raising sons). She wasn’t entirely comfortable with it at the time, but “it’s just a necessary part of life.” Her oldest son was so young, maybe 7 years old, that it didn’t MEAN anything, she said. That son is a teenager now and obsessed with all things Army, guns, camouflage, violent video games, killing – and she see no problem with it, still thinks it’s normal. I’m horrified at his transformation and we are no longer friends partially because I don’t want my girls exposed to that kind of “normal” boy.

Does no one see a connection between the massive daily over-exposure of our kids to violence and the rise of school violence? domestic violence? violent bullying? childhood depression? youth suicide? Was no one else horrified that there was a 4 month old baby and a 9 year old child present in that theatre at midnight am for a PG-13 movie containing known adult violence? Does no one else see the grim irony that many people in the theatre didn’t realize what was happening because they thought it was just super-realistic special effects?

Violence is not acceptable – not in our video games, not in our movies, not in our toys, not in our music, not in our television shows, not in our sports, and especially NOT for our children. And if we don’t stand up and say, “No more,” we will continue to find others’ violent escapism fantasies turning into our own very grim reality.

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Brave New World

Some role changes in life are dramatic, expected, and planned for. Many people work an entire year on a wedding – and hopefully even longer getting to know themselves and/or their partner – before actually claiming the title of “spouse.” People get 9 months – or longer, if adoption is involved – before becoming parents. Those are the Big Changes. But most times in my life, I move from one stage to another without even realizing it’s happened except in retrospect.

We finally got the opportunity to see the new Disney/Pixar movie “Brave” today. Being a big Disney fan, I’d been reading online critiques enough to make me curious but not enough to spoil the plot. “Finally, a strong female lead character” read one review “but a disappointing, one-sided stereotypical mother role and a missed opportunity to more deeply explore the oft contentious mother-daughter bond” said another.  Despite the fact that I don’t watch TV, I’d seen the promotional posters and even read an entire article in Wired magazine about how Princess Merida’s (MARE-da) wild red locks were animated. I’d seen various friends’ 140 character reactions, which were, without exception, positive. So I had a few expectations going in: I expected to be entertained, I expected to like the movie, I expected to cry (when do I *not* cry at a Disney movie?), I expected to dislike the mother character, and I expected to identify with and root for the red-headed princess. What I did NOT expect was to look into a giant, movie-screened size mirror and see the villain wearing my face.

[Warning: I will try not to give too much of the plot away here, but if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want ANY spoilers, please come back to this post later.]

The movie started innocently enough – on Princess Merida’s birthday. She was a young child, obviously rambunctious, and was hiding from her mother, Queen Elinor, who just as obviously knew right where she was but made a game of searching. When Elinor caught Merida in a bear hug, Elinor pretended to eat her daughter up like a tasty dessert and the giggles of the animated child on the screen were mirrored by giggles in the seats next to me and brought back happy memories of my own wee one’s babyhood not-so-long past, yet seemingly so far away. She was FUN, this queen and mother, and playfully enjoying her daughter.

Dad was doltish but loving, handing the young child a kid-sized bow and teaching her how to shoot arrows. Elinor looked worried for her daughter’s safety, but my oldest and I shared a wink and a nod since I am a certified archery instructor and my fresh new TEENAGER of less than two weeks (um….when did THAT happen!?) asked for and got her own archery set this past Christmas.

But onscreen as in life, things quickly changed. Merida grew up and the queen started teaching her things – important things – like manners and poise and history. Queen Elinor proved herself to be a classy, poised, educated, and firm woman. She took her duty as a mom and teacher seriously and *gulp* I really liked her. She had rules, as all good parents do. And she was consistent with them, as all good parents must be.  And Merida…well…with typical teen-aged swagger, she was sure she knew better.

I kept waiting for the unreasonable Elinor to appear, the one I wouldn’t like, the one who was stereotypical and flat and one-sided, but all I saw…was me. And it wasn’t in my imagination either. My youngest leaned over at one point and whispered, “She’s just like you, mom!”

But this is Disney. And I’m supposed to identify with the PRINCESS. This is NOT how the story is supposed to go!

The story progressed and there was mother-daughter conflict. There was yelling and anger, actions that couldn’t be undone and words that couldn’t be unsaid – all unsettlingly true to life. Then there was a big change in the plot, which in case you are reading and still haven’t seen the movie, I will NOT reveal. But the smart, poised queen ended up…out of her element, shall we say.

I’d better stop here to confess that the more I identified with Queen Elinor, the more I expected to map the princess to my oldest, who has long, wild, unruly (but non-red) hair and a fervent love of both horses and archery. It was clear this was to be a growing up story, and of COURSE this princess would remind me of my own new teenager, right? Except all of a sudden, as the queen was learning new life skills from her daughter, I realized that this wasn’t a movie about me and my oldest, but me and my very non-traditional, goes-against-the-grain youngest. And I realized that as much as we clash, she has things to teach me.

Later in the movie, more becomes clear. It’s clear that the lessons Elinor was teaching to Merida were valuable to Merida after all, not a waste as Merida thought. And it’s equally clear that Merida HAD learned those lessons, well, even as it looked like they weren’t sticking. Elinor was proud of her daughter and loved her, despite the frustrations – and it was a mutual feeling. And in the end, as ALWAYS happens, the child changed the parent as much as the parent changed the child. At least, thank GOD and Walt Disney, it was a happy ending.

Last school year I focused on preparing myself to be a better parent to a budding teenager. I am so thankful that, for now, our relationship is solid and she is going in the right direction for her (also a direction with which I can live).  But this upcoming school year will, I think, be one of focus on how I can be a better parent to the child who is simultaneously most like and most unlike me. It won’t be easy, but I have confidence that there is a happy ending in our future. Because, as the movie reminds us at the very end, our destiny is something we CAN change, if we are BRAVE.

A Whole New World

Seventeen years ago today was one of the very best of my entire life so far. Seventeen years ago today, October 22, 1994, I declared before God and family the commitment I’d already made in my heart on New Year’s Eve 1992. Seventeen years ago today, I married my very best friend.

When he asked me to be his wife, it was unplanned and completely from the heart. When I said yes, it was a rare triumph of heart over head for me. I clearly and distinctly remember my brain processing the question and thinking, “What?! Not time! Too soon! Not planned! What if…?!” and my heart interrupting with just one word, the only word, the right word which, when spoken, instantly shocked and silenced my head: YES. It hung in the air and left both our heads and hearts alike breathless and wondering what had just happened, what had just been said, what had just been agreed. Yet we both knew it was right and forever. We kept it secret for 10 months from all but our single best friends. It had been sudden, yet 2 years and 9.5 months in the making. And even the f0llowing fall when he made it socially official with the traditional ring, some were shocked, surprised, and thinking it was too soon. But we knew, he and I, and we couldn’t wait!

We wrote our own vows because it just seemed right to do that. Sadly, the envelope with the original vows written in our own hand was lost in the whirlwind of the day. Years later, I listened closely, over and over again, to the wedding video and painstakingly transcribed those vows into our wedding album so we’d be able to read them and remember them always. They are as true today as they were then. I’m still working on fulfilling mine in the way he deserves, even though I fall short in so many ways. He has fulfilled his and continues to make them true every day.

Our wedding day was AWESOME! We thought about so many details to make the day meaningful for us and fun for our guests. We planned and planned – together – and it went off with only few smalls glitches, like a dropped and broken unity candle (apparently NOT some kind of bad omen). My only real regret that day was the damn fake flowers in hideously unnatural rainbow hues, but hey – everyone needs something to go wrong so there’s a good wedding horror story to tell in later years.

Although it was expensive and I had to fight to make it happen, I am so very glad we have professional video from the entire day, from getting ready with my bridesmaids at home to getting to the church to taking pictures to the reception. Although the videography seems amateurish now with transitional effects that make me cringe, I still watch it every year. I cry at the sight of people in attendance who are no longer with us, I laugh at the me I used to be, and I giggle at the sheer silliness. I never imagined watching it with my own kids, but I do and they love it as much as I do. Mostly, I love the LOVE and fun of it all. And I still dearly love that man he was and is now.

Some people think marriage doesn’t matter, that it’s at best an unnecessary social formality and at worse a misogynistic patriarchal artifact. But words DO have power; traditions DO have meaning; public declarations of commitment in front of those we love, toward whom we feel a sense of respect and admiration and responsibility, creates a new kind of bond and cements the foundation that under-girds a very vibrant and ever-changing relationship.

We’re not exchanging gifts today. Some years we do and some years we don’t. For our 15 year anniversary we went on a cruise to the Bahamas that he reluctantly agreed to on our 14th anniversary. I told him that it was such an amazingly fun trip that it could even count for this year’s anniversary (pretty good return on investment, getting credit for 4 anniversaries from a single three day cruise, donchya think?). But really, what gift could ever compare to the one he gave me 14 years ago: the gift of his heart, soul, and love?

When he went to Africa for 6 weeks in 2009, I knew I’d miss him, but I never EVER expected it to be as hard as it was to live without his physical presence every day. We’d not been apart for more than a week before he left and I told him afterward that never again would we be apart that long. He’s just too much a part of my very self, more than I ever realized, for me to feel whole for long without him.

Three days ago, I read about a couple who was married for 72 years. She was 90 and he was 94 and sadly, they were together in a car with him driving when he pulled out in front of another car at an intersection and were hit. They were rushed to the hospital and put in the ICU together, basically non-responsive, but yet holding hands. They died an hour apart – to the minute – still holding hands. Their children said that’s how their parents would have wanted to die – together – because one wouldn’t have wanted to live without the other. I completely understand.

So happy 17th wedding anniversary to my best friend, my soul-mate, my sweetie, my children’s father, my lover, my husband, my delight. To John. Here’s to a lifetime more memories together because after 17 years, we are just getting started!

I Am The Starlight

Just about 12 weeks ago we, as a family, made the decision to pull our soon-to-be 7th grader out of the local public school system and educate her at home through an online public charter school. (See my post “I’ve Got No Strings” for a detailed explanation of that very big educational decision). At that time, we had settled on Ohio Connections Academy as the delivery vehicle. However, further investigation in the form of online and face-to-face informational meetings with OCA led to some serious concerns: namely that instead of harnessing the power of the one-to-one technology situation to connect and expose learners to others, it was being used to shelter or insulate  them. It was, we suspect, old school thinking wrapped in shiny 21st century paper. NOT what we want.

So…it was back to the drawing board. I did some research and discovered 25 public online charter schools in Ohio. Each one received an email with the following questions:

1) How are you using the technology you provide each student to allow kids to interact and connect with each other and with the larger outside world?

2) What percentage of your assessments are online (presumably in the form of traditional multiple choice-type tests) versus project, long-writing, or portfolio based, authentic assessment?

3) What textbook publishers do you buy from? Do you maintain continuity throughout your entire program or do you switch around between different publishers?

4) What type of methodology do you employ to teach mathematics, the traditional memorization/rote approach or a foundational knowledge, investigative learning approach?

5) How does the day-to-day online learning you deliver differ from watching a lecture-style power-point presentation or a taped lecture?

Some of the 25 online public charters service only a small portion of the state. Some service only struggling, below-grade level learners. Some never contacted me back - those were all easily eliminated. But after investigating all the choices, we have now settled on - and committed to - the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Having made the decision, it was shockingly easy to enroll. There were several online forms to complete and a few items that had to be faxed or emailed in. It was done in a matter of hours and we were confirmed by the school as fully registered in under 24 hours!

At this point, I thought there wasn’t much else to do but enjoy the summer break. However, Emily got an invitation to participate in some online camps to help her learn how classes will work in the fall.  Each camp ran one hour daily for a week, with topics such as “Disease Detective,” “Movie Making,” and “Goal-Setting.” The first time we tried to log-on, it took longer than expected as we got the hang of the software, but after the first day, Emily was able to get on by herself. I sat with her for the first session and was SHOCKED that within the first 10 minutes of the class, she was typing answers into the chat box and “raising her hand” virtually, which she NEVER would have that quickly done in a brick and mortar classroom. This was exciting stuff!

This week, it’s been my turn to learn. I have joined the OHVA Yahoo group, “liked” the OHVA Facebook page, connected with several veteran OHVA parents, and am attending the “Learning Coach and Mentor Institute.” Through the institute, I am participating in several one-hour informational session using Elluminate (the same software used for Emily’s camps and for the “class connect” sessions she’ll have live with her teachers).  Here’s some of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Like Suzuki violin, this is not just an educational change, but a lifestyle change.

2. Many MANY people have chosen this path – and very successfully. A shocking number are disillusioned public educators, which I did NOT expect.

3. The box is, for the most part, blown away. School can happen anytime, anywhere, in pajamas or clothes, in the house or at a park, and in any subject ORDER Emily decides works for her.

4. It will by fun, but we WILL have bad days and it will not always be easy.

5. My over-exuberance, type-A-ness, and potential desire to recreate the familiar box will be large potential stumbling blocks to success.

6. We need to start slow, let her be done for the day when she’s done (instead of “suggesting” she work just one more hour or do just one more lesson), and lower our expectations for the first month.

7. We CAN do this – and it’s really exciting!

Our supplies for the entire year come in two boxes and arrive tomorrow. I think I’ll wait to open them until Emily comes home from her 5 week trip out west with my parents. It’s nearly time to buckle in and hang on for the ride of our lives!

I’ve Got No Strings

If we don't change something now - this is what we'll have...We have made a life-changing decision about our children’s education for next school year.  We know many people will have questions about our choices. I am writing to try to more fully explain our situation and reasoning to those who care.

The past two years have been a major disappointment for us educationally for Emily, our oldest.  We went from an top notch elementary situation into a nightmare in 5th grade, with teachers who completely dismissed our involvement and contribution as parents to the educational process.  They would neither work with us as educational partners nor fulfill the basic requirements of their own administration to communicate with us. When we tried to address the situation, we received no support from school administrators and worse, saw Emily singled out and retaliated against by the very teachers who said they cared about her. It was absolutely shocking for all of us.

We saw Em go from loving school – even when she had to work at it – to hating school. And even though things improved in 6th grade (really – they could not have been worse), we have still been disappointed with the overall school environment created by the administration and by the unrealistic expectations put on teachers. Sadly, this is the school and environment that our youngest would be entering next year.

Intermediate school teachers in our district are inadequately supported in every way. Em’s teachers this year asked for donations of supplies because so many students do not have what they need from home to be successful in school – and because those teachers are already supplementing materials the school provides at their own personal cost. Class sizes are large and unwieldy. After two quarters assuming Em wasn’t turning in her work, 3 assignments marked as “missing” and not turned in were  “found” by the teacher only after I got in touch and explained that I’d seen the finished work myself and specifically confronted Emily about having turned it in. This happened three different times in a single quarter. Our public schools are over-run with students whose families do not and have not put an emphasis on education, so discipline moves to the forefront. It took 6 adults to chaperone a class of 30 students on a recent field trip to a local art museum.

Add to this situation the worsening educational fiscal conditions and a virtual war on educators by current Ohio governor Kasich. Just last week, our school district announced another 2 million dollars in budget cuts which will remove 9 certified staff from the school our Em WOULD be attending next year if she stayed in the district – this blow to a school that already had a community reputation of being one of the two worst in the district in terms of learning environment, achievement, and student control.  I also had a disturbing conversation with the gifted teacher Em would have next year.  After   clearly identifying myself as the parent of an incoming gifted 7th grader with questions about the curriculum, the teacher proceeded to tell me that all the kids love her class because it’s so easy and she loves it because she doesn’t have to work very hard to teach gifted kids. I was physically sick to my stomach after the conversation.

As a classroom educator for many years, John spent a good deal of his career exploring and implementing best practices in education, even when those best practices, supported by empirical research, went against the traditions of 150 years of public school education in this country.  Now as an administrator with vast exposure through his personal learning network to best practices from around the world, John has seen first-hand how empowering and effective techniques like cross-cultural and multi-age collaboration, truly individualized instruction, and experiential real-world application can be in a child’s education. He has seen and taught to teachers all over the world how technology can facilitate education – and yet our own children experience none of this.

As parents who care passionately about our kids’ learning and who believe that one of our most important parental responsibilities is overseeing their education, we can no longer sit by and watch the vast educational opportunities and best practices available in this place and in this time pass by our own children. This is why we are removing both our children from our local school district next year.  Megan, our youngest, will be attending a neighboring district’s public magnet school – Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and Emily will be attending a “school without walls” – the Ohio Connections Academy.

Those of you who know us personally know that these decisions have not come without much thought, consideration, evaluation, and detailed research. Yet you still might shake your head and wonder what on earth we are doing – and you might even believe we are jeopardizing our children’s futures. Don’t kids who switch school districts statistically show a decline in performance and in scores?  How can we be sure that our Meg’s interest in the arts isn’t just a phase?  Won’t such an emphasis on the arts cause her to be less well-rounded?  And online school – isn’t that just the same as home-schooling?  Didn’t our experience with Suzuki violin demonstrate that I am not a good fit as a teacher for my own kids?  Don’t we think Emily, who is quiet and introverted, needs to learn how to socialize with her peers and with other adults?  Let me address these questions which I am sure you are asking.

Megan has been passionate about the arts since she was 2.5 years old and has an innate theatricality apparent to everyone who meets her.  It started when at age 2.5, she talked for 6 months (20% of her life then!) about learning to play the violin when NO ONEwe knew played violin. She loved learning to play the violin, loves learning piano now, has excelled in the vigorous vocal arts program she is in this year, and loves movement and dance. The first time we stepped foot in Miller South, we all KNEW it was an environment in which she would thrive. Myriad research has proven a positive link between participation in the arts and increased achievement in other academic subjects – and Miller South’s standardized test score blow away our home district’s school scores. Miller South is dedicated to educating the whole child in all fundamental subject areas.  It offers courses in foreign language as well as advanced placement for math, science, history, and language arts which would not be available in our home district.  As a public school, it is required to adhere to the same curriculum standards and meet the same testing requirements as every other public school in the state.

But with all these positives, it’s NOT an ideal school.  Class sizes are large – larger than our home district – with the potential for conflict resulting from the very diverse socio-economic make-up of the students (a proANDa con of this school). Math is taught in a very traditional way, not in the investigative method our home district uses. And we’ve heard that the homework load is large. We are not expecting to love every aspect of this school. And frankly, that would not be realistic.

As for Emily, she has shown a strong desire to pursue studies in her own way on various topics, but undeniably needs close guidance from a professional educator – which I am not – to keep her on track. She gets intensely interested in one subject, learns all she can, then moves on to something else. She will benefit from being able to pursue these interests across disciplines.  She has always excelled in reading, writing, and language arts and has recently started showing signs of interest in other languages.  With Ohio Connections Academy, she will be able to take course-work appropriate to her level, even if that means taking an 8th grade class in 7th grade.  Several foreign languages will be an option for her, too.  At the same time, she requires more time to process and understand mathematical concepts.  With one-on-one access to her teacher every single day, she will not get lost in the crowd and will have access to the type of help that right now only Dad can provide at night when he gets home.

Emily will NOT be home-schooled any more than she already is.  As a learning coach, my role is to mark her attendance, tracking the hours that she works to ensure that we meet the minimum state requirements for study, communicate with her teachers about her progress, and ensure that her homework is completed and submitted. With the exception of hours tracking, these are all activities I do perform.  I am NOT expected to know the material or act as Emily’s teacher in any way, since she is taught and supported by state-certified teaching staff at this PUBLIC school just as she would be at any public school. The curriculum materials are written to the student and the student is expected to log-in each day, spend an average of 5 to 7 hours a day on school work, and complete the activities assigned. The LMS (learning management system) is very clear on what has to be done each day, when things are due, and what is overdue – and I will have full access to that system as well to monitor grades, assignments, and assessments.  Only 30% of Emily’s time will be spent at the computer. The rest of the time, she will be reading to learn, working on projects or experiments, completing portfolio assignments, or taking field trips in person with her teachers and classmates.

Frankly, the social aspects of this choice are the most concerning to us. Despite assurances that OCA sponsors numerous state and local field trips, we believe regular – not sporadic – social interaction is imperative. Emily will remain involved with the same Girl Scout troop she has been a member of since kindergarten.  She will continue to do both community service and social activities with her church youth group as well as take her private art lessons and attend lapidary club meetings and field trips (for kids who love rocks) which she’s gotten involved with this spring.  We plan to enroll her in some other group art activities so that she has daily exposure both to different forms of art AND to other children her age with her interests.  She has also expressed interest in a recreational sport like gymnastics – and in taking horseback riding lessons (we’ll see about that one!).

There is no denying that our children are very different from each other and have vastly different needs.  Emily might have been lost in the shadow of extroverts at Miller South had she been admitted and Megan might wither in a less socially stimulating environment likeOhioConnectionsAcademy. On the flip side, Emily has blossomed with private art instruction – and we hope the same will happen with private educational instruction.  Megan yearns to learn in an environment that accommodates her artistic expression – and we hope that Miller South is such an environment.  But instead of looking at this as a life-changing, permanent decision, we have all agreed to treat it as a one year experiment.  If we find that either situation is NOT meeting our children’s educational and social needs, we are prepared to keep searching for the best fit for both of them.

Are we taking a risk by pursuing these alternative schooling options? Admittedly, we are. But we would also be taking a risk staying in our home district: a risk that the disappointing status quo would not change or would worsen, a risk that we would regret squandering our children’s potential and squash their love of learning out of our own selfish fear of change.  And THOSE are risks we simply cannot continue to take.

Raising Clematis

I’ve blogged about my clematis before, but I wonder if I’m the right one to raise clematis.  Clematis defies me and exasperates me.  I like things neat, orderly, and predictable.  Clematis is messy.  In fact, clematis is disorder personified and wild in the truest sense of the word.  The shoots grow fast and in every direction possible.  They have no single minded pursuit of a goal.  They just…grow!  I like control; I like things to go – and grow – the way *I* want them to be.  Clematis defies prediction and direction.  Sure, I can make suggestions to it, kind of  … guide it the way I HOPE it will grow, make sure it has support so it can keep growing without falling over or breaking off.  But really, when it comes down to it, the clematis decides where and how it will grow.  Clematis is … FRUSTRATING

I don’t understand clematis.  I can learn about its development; I can study it in books or online; I can read about other people’s experiences with clematis.  But when it comes to tending real live plants, it’s an ENTIRELY different story.  Clematis is definitely a “learn as you grow” plant.  And every clematis, depending on where and how it’s grown, has unique personality, unique character.

Clematis does not come with instructions, not REALLY.  Descriptions like “keep the roots cool and the foliage in full sun” are laughingly insufficient.  Apparently, I’m supposed to fertilize it – like every 4 weeks.  I have never fertilized my clematis.  I’m supposed to plan other plants underneath it to keep the roots cool and the moisture in.  Uh…nope.  Oh, and I’m supposed to water it, too.  Just ask my husband how good I am about that chore. (hint: watering? what’s that?)

But apparently, clematis is incredibly resilient.  Three weeks ago, I tried to be a good gardener.  I came out with tools and determination to care for the clematis in the early spring like it should be cared for.  It didn’t go well.  I pruned a gigantic part of it down to nothingness in frustration and despair.  It was overgrown, heavy, swaying, unruly.  I couldn’t fix it, so I essentially started over, years and years of growth and training sheared away in minutes.  I was sad.  No, I was sick.  I had lead in the pit of my stomach when I did it.  I was sure I had irreparably harmed it forever, that it was going to die – there were only a few small shoots of new green growth left when I was done.

But yet, in less than a month, the clematis regrew.  In fact, it more than regrew – it THRIVED.  Where I ruthlessly pruned it, the clematis has climbed as high as it’s ever been and seems set to exceed expectations for the year.  Some days, I can literally see a difference in growth from morning to evening.  It grows whether I train it or not, whether I prune it or not, whether I water it or not.  It just. keeps. growing.

But somehow, even though it baffles my very nature (hee hee – pun intended!), this plant brings me joy.  I love how forgiving it is.  It DOES grow – no matter what I do to or with it.  Its shoots reach out like arms and its flowers smile on me even when I don’t feel like smiling.  I LOVE how my porch turns into a literal outdoor room bounded by life-affirming greenery and in time, exuberant purple flowers.  I am sitting outside on the porch now as I write this, and I am so peaceful, relaxed, and calm.  Clematis does that!

I love how the clematis draws other life to our house.  Birds nest in our clematis.  And hummingbirds flit around the vines when they are in bloom – even though the blossoms are purple.  I love it when people compliment my lovely porch in spring and summer, even though I know I had very little to do with how it looks.   I apologize for the ugly brown, dead-looking vines when people visit in the winter.  But I smile wisely inside because *I* know that the new growth comes best from the old, that appearance of death – which is simply rest and not death at all – is the price we pay for spring and summer glory.

So maybe I *am* the right one to grow clematis after all.  Maybe I’m supposed to learn life lessons from my clematis – patience, vision, foresight, acceptance, love.  Maybe things are just as they are supposed to be.

(P.S.  You probably think I just blogged about my clematis.  That’s what I thought I was doing when I started writing this post.  But replace the word “clematis” with the word “kids” and…)

The Glance

She walked in to the vet’s office as I was getting ready to walk out yesterday.  Our eyes met, briefly, but that glance told me everything I needed to know.  It was a look of anguish, embarrassment over being seen with such red-rimmed eyes full of tears.  I quickly looked down, she looked away, struggling with a large chocolate lab on a leash in one hand and a baby carrier in the other.  The person at the desk took on a hushed tone and gave her a sympathetic look as she choked out the “yes” that confirmed who she was.  But I already knew.  Why else would someone be crying as they entered a vet’s office?  I just knew.

One of the office assistants helped her through the door from the waiting room into the hallway with the examining rooms.  An older looking but happy, bouncy Labrador with a very obvious skin problem came through first, most of his belly bare and large patches of fur gone from the top of his back, too.  He greeted my dog, they touched noses for a bit, then the entourage was gone.  When they disappeared, I whispered to the person at the desk, confirming my suspicions.  Yes, that’s why they were here.  Yes, it was the skin condition, much pain and suffering, they’ve tried everything, she’s been with that dog through so much.  I could barely sign the credit card slip for the shake in my hand and the tears in my own eyes.

I went out to my car and cried with her, for her, and I waited.  I imagined her having to come out with just an empty collar and leash where only minutes before, there had been a friend.  No one should have to go through that alone, or worse, with a baby in tow. It was early in the day – was she going to be alone trying to cope all day today while her husband was at work?  I imagined just going up to her when she exited the vet’s office, giving her a hug, telling her I was so sorry for her loss, giving her some tissues.

But all my pets have died naturally, so I had no idea how long she’d be.  I started constructing other scenarios – maybe someone was meeting her here, maybe she would go to the grief counseling place immediately behind the vet’s office. Finally someone DID come out, and my heart jumped, but it wasn’t her.  I pretended to look for something on the floor of my car, just so my own red-rimmed eyes wouldn’t give me away.  10 minutes went by, then 15.  I started to feel like a stalker and it occurred to me that maybe she wouldn’t appreciate my gestures at all.  Maybe she was a private type of person who didn’t like hugs.  What complete stranger does that, anyway?  So I got embarrassed and I drove away.

I felt sad.  Not depressed – pushed down – but simply sad.  Grief over a tangible loss like that – a dog, a parent, a child, a friend – grief over those makes sense.  Is it possible to experience that same kind of sadness, of grief, over lost ideals, lost identity, lost dreams, over mistakes made unintentionally?

I paused to think of her this morning when I got up and he got up, too, stretching as he does, then coming to push his nose under my hand in greeting.  I imagined fleetingly how she had to come home to a quiet house, no sound of four feet running to greet her, no tail wagging in complete acceptance.  I felt a brief stab in my own heart for the pain in hers when she remembers to feed a friend who is no longer there except in memory.

My own will get some extra love today (but no extra snacks, because he’s got a few pounds to shed).  And I’ll put away that grief of loss for another time, hopefully far in the future, when it’s my turn to hold an empty collar and leash.

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