Sunday, June 30, 2013

Iron rails and flower soup

(Note: the post next Monday -- the second Monday of the month -- will be a Goblin-to-Go story, so it's time to send suggested  "ingredients" for the story.)

I didn't mean to write about another book this week, especially another book about trains, but my husband and I took the train to Boston last Monday for our anniversary, and I got to thinking about one of my least favorite children's stories: Tootle.

"The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run," says Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. I love that book -- wrote my graduate thesis on Melville -- but that doesn't mean I approve of Ahab's iron-railed pathway. Inflexibility can be dangerous and damaging.

It's why I dislike Tootle so much, the Little Golden Book about the train engine who was learning how to be a big locomotive, but who kept leaving the track to go play in the meadow among the flowers and the butterflies and the horses, ending up (if I remember correctly) with flowers in the soup bowls -- until he was finally coerced into conforming, agreeing to "stay on the rails no matter what." No more creative play. No more exploring beyond the fixed rails.

When my boys were little, I wanted them to become themselves, not somebody else's idea of who or what they ought to be, so I stopped reading that book. My mother and I got into an argument over it; she insisted that a train belongs on the tracks, and that people, too, need to figure out where they belong and what they are meant to do, and live accordingly. I suspect some of our contention had to do with generational differences: she grew up during the Great Depression, whereas I was a child of the '60's. (One of the illustrations does show Tootle looking a lot like a flower child of my generation.) 

Older now than my mother was then, I begin to understand her reasoning: after all, I did want the Amtrack Downeaster to stay on the rails last Monday; I do want my doctor to practice careful medicine; I want my priest to be a faithful pastor.  But the injunction to "stay on the rails no matter what" still seems to promote a kind of mindless, dangerous conformity.

And just as there turns out to be published commentary about sexism in The Little Engine that Could, last week's book (scroll through, with thanks to my dear friend Dina) there is also an article that talks about Tootle as an anti-gay book (see, so it seems particularly appropriate to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down DOMA by questioning what becomes of the free-spirited Tootle. 

And, in spite of my book-bashing here, it's probably ok to read Tootle to our kids as long as it's balanced by plenty of other books with more openly creative and inclusive messages. That said, it's not one I will buy for my grandchildren.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Engines and Elephants

Read to your kids.

That sounds pretty obvious, but I remember a workshop I attended over 20 years ago on "Language Acquisition" that made me aware that the best way to improve the reading skills of the less adept 17-year-olds in my classroom would be for someone to have read to them when they were little. (It made me fantasize about a sabbatical during which I hung out at laundromats and read stories to children between infancy and 3 years.)

If kids don't hear the written word spoken (as in reading books to them), they don't grow up with "sentence sense." They may have magnificent vocabularies from a highly verbal environment, but reading and writing will be more of a challenge for them than for their read-to classmates. Fourth grade is often when the gulf between the two groups becomes obvious.

Once we commit to regular reading, there's the next question: what books are best? Children's picture books can be like poetry in their condensed clarity and precise choice of words, and there are plenty of really wonderful ones out there. But in the end, don't worry too much about "quality" -- I had a professor who said (about adults, but it works for kids, too) that "Readers of trash have taste that can be improved; non-readers have no taste." It's a pretty harsh-sounding statement, but I find it also a really generous one. The basic message is:  just read.

Meanwhile, in connection with "what to read," I want to share a story about one of my kids' favorites. I was standing in line at the library to check out The Little Engine that Could, one of the classics, for my two little boys, when the woman behind me said, "You shouldn't be reading that to your kids. It's sexist."

"But it's got a female protagonist," I responded. "The little engine is a girl! I thought it would be good for my boys to know that girls can be strong, too."

"Yeah," the other mom responded, "but look at how the men are represented. First, what's the broken-down train carrying?"

"Food and toys for the children on the other side of the mountain."

"Right," she went on, "women's work.  And when the big male engines are asked to help, they say they're too busy, too tired, or too important to bother. What an image to give kids about adult males, that children aren't worth helping! It's got to be a female engine that cares enough to do the job."

I checked the book out anyway, that day and many times after. But off and on I would hear that strident voice telling me it was a bad choice.

Fast forward 20 years. In my 11th grade American Literature classroom, on the last day before Christmas vacation, I often asked students to bring in their favorite story books from childhood and we'd read them aloud. I explained that we were honoring their "language acquisition" as children, but it was also fun. About a third to a half of the students would bring in a favorite. One year we still had time left when we'd finished all their books, so I asked them how many remembered The Little Engine that Could. Although no one had brought it in, most of them knew it. So I asked: "What color is the engine?"

"Red!" was the universal response.

"What gender is the engine?"

"Male!" they all said.

"Wrong on both counts," I said; "she is blue," and I told them the story of the irate mom. They just shook their heads.

That experience relieved any left-over guilt about reading that beloved book over and over to my own children. My students remembered the story line, the courage and persistence and determination of the little engine who not only thought she could, but actually made it over the mountain -- they weren't caught up in the gender or even the color. It was ok.

So again the message is: just read. Read lots, read often, and trust that the variety of books you choose will offer an enormous range of ideas and images. And if you still worry about The Little Engine that Could, balance it with the tender image of fatherhood in Horton Hatches the Egg.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

a light in the darkness

At the triennial deacons’ assembly last week in Williamsburg, what was meant to be an outdoor liturgy got moved inside because dangerously violent storms were predicted. The sky was still a hazy blue at 4 p.m. when the service began, but a few minutes into the Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher's homily, the sky blackened and roared as trees outside the window bent sideways, then bowed to the ground. Torrents of rain suddenly threw themselves against the windows.

Then the lights went out.

Undeterred, the bishop finished her homily in the dark as the storm raged on, then invited everyone to get out their cell phones and finish reading the service by the electronic glow. We did. 

“Let there be light,” God said. And there was light. Now, light emanating from a cell phone certainly isn't what the writer(s) of Genesis had in mind, but it worked. The bishop's immediate response reminded us that in the midst of darkness and potential danger, we actually carried light with us. (Who would have thought that the Light of Christ could come from the light of a cell phone...) 

It took over 24 hours for power to be restored, and during that time I began to ponder how parenting (or grandparenting) can often require the same kind of good-humored, creative, and instantaneous flexibility that Bishop Gallagher showed. 

I don't think parents can avoid the dark times, whether from a two-year old's tantrums or a terrifying illness or the outrageous negativity of an unhappy teenager. My own tendency has always been to want the big fix, an end to the darkness, but that peculiar service-by-cell-phone-light was a reminder that sometimes we can find a small and immediate thing that doesn't quiet the storm or dispel the darkness, but that lets us function in the midst of it all. Sometimes just getting through is enough, just seeing the next word or the next step.

And it helps to have companions; a lot of little lights together make us less lonely and afraid. 

My favorite short story is Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing." It's a desperately sad story, but the deep truth it offers is that a single, small good thing can offer hope in the midst of horrendous events. If this is, for whatever reason, a dark and stormy time in your life as a parent, think about what small good thing might provide a little light, a little hope, a brief respite from the turmoil. 

Like those cell phones in our pockets that gave light to our prayers, probably what you need in order to take the next step, and the next, is already within reach. And if nothing else, prayer in the midst of darkness ultimately provides its own light.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Goblin-to-Go Story: beets (growing in a bucket), a three-legged stool, a helicopter, lemon sherbet, and a dirty fedora (size 7 3/4)

When the leaves of his tree shook with laughter, the green goblin knew that Elfie's light step had tickled the toes of the tree on her way up.

The wood elf was small as a fairy, but without wings. "Guess what?" she asked as she settled down next to him on his favorite branch. "I've just seen beets in a bucket!"

"Hmm," the goblin replied, scratching his green head,"isn't it early for beets?"

"Oh, I don't mean picked beets, beets planted in a bucket. On a back porch. I've seen flowers growing in buckets, but never beets!"

photo by Micah C. Brown

The full moon was sliding down behind the riverbank when suddenly a giant shadow drifted across it, wide wings and sharp talons heading straight toward the goblin's tree. With a soundless force that shook the branch, a barn owl landed next to them. He towered over them both.

"Morning, all," he said. "What's new with you?" Elfie ruffled his soft feathers and told him about the beets.

Owl listened without blinking an eye, then said, "A week ago when my hunting took me out beyond the last field, I flew home by way of the city, and I saw that way up on a seventh floor fire escape, someone has built a fairy house in a red bucket. Your beets reminded me."

"What fun!" Elfie said. "Can you take us there? I want to see it!"

The owl began to protest that it was too close to dawn, but the goblin said, "There's plenty of time. And besides, we haven't had an adventure together in ages."

So Owl bent down, and the elf and goblin clambered onto his back. Stretching out his great wings, he waited to catch the morning breeze, then off they went, soaring over the sleepy town, the winding river, fields, farms, another village, then the city itself. The green goblin had made occasional visits to children in the city, but the wood elf had never ventured there before. When they finally landed, she almost tumbled off the owl in her excitement because there on a three-legged stool, among all the other flowerpots on the fire escape, was the fairy house!

While Owl sat on the railing to keep watch, Elfie slipped through the front door into the fairy house, and Goblin set about testing its construction. "Somebody built this to last," he said. "It's weatherproof, and sturdy enough to withstand even the high wind of a helicopter going by."

"And beautiful!" Elfie added, poking her head out one of the tiny windows. "It has a bed, and chairs, and a table inside. This is way better than beets!"

She came out and sat down among some star-shaped flowers. "But fairies don't come this far into the city, so even though they could fly here, they won't. It's too bad."

The green goblin, meanwhile, was peering into a window. "The little girl who's asleep in there has fairy pictures on the wall," he said,  "and is wearing pajamas with fairies on them.  I do wish we could talk a fairy into living here." He sighed, knowing it would be impossible. Then his face brightened. "But you could!" he said, pointing to Elfie.

"I am NOT a fairy!" said the wood elf. "And besides, I can't fly, so I'd be stuck here, seven stories up in the air."

"But," said the goblin, whose job in life was to make people happy, "it's just your size. And you like it. Couldn't you stay for a little while, like a vacation, just a week? I could sleep among the flowerpots, and Owl here could check on us every night, couldn't you?" Owl nodded wisely. The green goblin used his softest, most persuasive voice: "Just a week?"

Elfie didn't answer.

"Ok, how about just one night?" the goblin went on. "Think about all the work the little girl put into this, and no one ever living here. It would be so sad." He sighed an enormous sigh.

Elfie burst out laughing. "Ok, ok, you win! Let's give it a try today. Just promise you won't leave me here alone."

The goblin promised. Owl agreed to return that night, then took off into the brightening sky.

Now on summer mornings, Keesha liked to take her breakfast out on the fire escape. It gave her a chance to check on her fairy house. Even though it had stayed empty for such a long time, she still hoped, every morning. She opened the window, put her orange juice and oatmeal on the windowsill, and climbed out.

She heard a happy gasp, and saw a green face peeking around her mother's flowers. "Is that maple and brown sugar oatmeal?" the voice asked.

Keesha knew not to talk to strangers, but this stranger was only the size of a large cat, and he was green like Kermit the Frog. "What are you?" she asked. "You're too big for my fairy house, but too small to be a person. And you're green."

"I'm a goblin," he said, "and my favorite breakfast in the whole world is instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal."

"What are you doing here?" Keesha asked.

"I've brought a friend to visit your fairy house," the goblin said. "May I have some of your oatmeal?"

"You brought me a fairy!" Keesha exclaimed. "Oh, where is she?"

Elfie stepped out of the fairy house, her eyes sparkling. "I'm here, but I'm not a fairy. I'm a wood elf."

Keesha looked at Elfie, dressed in the soft colors of the forest, standing by the house Keesha had built with her own hands, and she smiled a smile that lit up the whole morning. "I don't care what you are -- just that you're here! You came! Someone came to my house!" She put out her hand, and Elfie stepped gracefully onto it. Keesha turned to the green goblin. "Thank you," she said. "And yes, you may have all of my oatmeal! I can get myself some more."

Turning back to Elfie she asked, "And what do you like to eat?"

Elfie had rarely eaten people food, so she told Keesha to bring whatever she liked best. The goblin was just polishing off the oatmeal when Keesha came back through the window carrying an egg cup with a small scoop of lemon sherbet and the tiniest doll spoon the goblin had ever seen. Elfie laughed as the sherbet skittered around in the cup while she chased it with the spoon, and she laughed again with delight when she tasted it.

"It's the sweetest thing I've ever eaten!" she said. "Do you have this for breakfast, too?"

"Oh, no, it's supposed to be dinner dessert," answered Keesha. "Don't tell my mum."

The green goblin set a gentle hand on Keesha's arm and said, "We'd best not let your mum know that we're here. Grown-ups don't always understand. We can be your secret for now."

Keesha nodded wisely. "She'll be on the phone all day anyway. She answers questions for something called Amazon that I thought was a river but she says is books."

The green goblin curled up for a nap inside an old gray fedora that had been used to hold garden tools (he took the tools out first). The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was Elfie curled up in the palm of Keesha's hand while the two of them made plans to build a front porch for the fairy house.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bread & Stories & all that Jazz: including an invitation and a recipe

When we were growing up, my sister used to play Christmas carols on the piano for our extended family; she was the only one who knew how. Somewhere there's a photograph of her wearing earmuffs because the rest of us sang so badly that if she listened to us, we threw her off key.

In spite of a limited musical background and zero musical talent, when I came across quantum physicists describing the interconnectedness of the universe in terms of music -- particularly jazz -- it made perfect sense. As Margaret Wheatley writes, "We listen carefully, we communicate constantly, and suddenly there is music...the music comes from somewhere else, from a unified whole...." (right, that would be God). There's also the improvisational nature of jazz, the way each musician influences and inspires the others. I like that image.

But what I like even better are the quantum metaphors that use weaving and braiding to explain the interconnectedness of everything. (Remember Jesus saying that what we do for the least among us, we do for him.)  Physicists say that every time -- every time! -- we make a decision, take action, even have an intention, we are actually tugging at the web of reality and relationships that make up the universe.

These weaving metaphors are why, I realize, I take such delight in gathering disparate ingredients for the Green Goblin stories: I get to take those individual threads and weave them into a single story. The story connects all those who  offer ideas, and all those who read the story. The story becomes a small quantum tug on the fabric of the universe.

It's also, I suspect, why my favorite bread recipe is challah, the Jewish braided bread that is served especially on the Sabbath. My favorite recipe takes seven separate strands to create a single loaf. (I think here of 1 Corinthians 10:17: "We who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread.")

So here is my invitation: ask your children to think up something they would like in next week's Goblin-to-Go story, and send it either in the comment box below, or via Facebook (for those of you connected there....).  Here's a picture of the goblin's tree in case they want to know where he lives:

And here is my favorite recipe for braided bread:

1 1/4 c. warm water
2-3 T yeast (or 3 packages)
3 T sugar
3 T honey
1/3 c. olive oil
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
5 1/2 - 6 c. flour
1 T salt
and for the egg wash: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 T milk
optional: sesame seeds or poppy seeds to sprinkle on top

In a large bowl, mix water, yeast, sugar, and honey. Let stand until yeast bubbles. Stir in olive oil and eggs. Gradually stir in 5 cups of flour plus the salt. Turn onto a floured board and have the children help knead in the remaining flour as needed until the dough is not sticky any more, but smooth. (Try not to get it too stiff, but keep it pliable.)

Put the dough into a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in bulk, which can be anywhere from 35-50 minutes, depending on warmth.

Invite the children to punch the dough down and knead it a couple of times. Pull out a ball of dough about the size of small grapefruit and set aside. Divide the remaining dough into four parts and have the children roll each one into a strand about 20 inches long.

Put the four strands side by side lengthwise on a well-greased baking sheet and pinch together at one end. I always find this part a little complicated, but depending on the ages of your children, they could probably manage just fine: with the strands facing you (or whoever is doing the braiding), take the strand on your left and place it over the second strand, under the third, and over the fourth. Repeat, starting with the second strand on your left. Continue with the third and fourth strands, until the braid is complete. Pinch the ends together.

Now take the smaller piece of dough and divide it into three parts. Have the children roll these out into three 10-inch strands. Lay them side by side, pinch one end together, and have the children make a classic three-part braid. Pinch together and place on top of the large braid.

Cover and let rise in a warm place till doubled. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. After the bread has risen, mix together the egg yolk and milk and gently brush it over the risen bread dough, top and sides and everything. If you like, you can then sprinkle poppy seeds or sesame seeds over the top, although when my children were little they liked it best without seeds.

                             Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve warm, or cool or a wire rack.

This bread is best broken apart by hand as everyone pulls off what they want, though it can be sliced once it's cool. With butter, this bread is one of my  favorite things to eat in the whole world.

The traditional Jewish blessing over the bread is: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

Consider reading next week's Goblin-to-Go story while eating braided bread (with butter) and listening to jazz....