Counting versus Recounting

  
It’s that time of year when we all begin to think about gratitude.  The lists are showing up everywhere.  My Facebook feed is full of them.  One a day, lengthy lists, or random thankfulness.  It’s the question on everyone’s mind.

What are you thankful for?

Count your blessings.

I love it all.

There is something so right about taking time to be grateful, and making a list is a quick way to remind ourselves that we have so, so much to appreciate.

Still, sometimes I wonder if making a list is enough.  Sometimes I wonder if we need to take the time to tell our stories in order to truly feel the gratitude we ought to feel.

A list may tell how many things I have to be thankful for, but it doesn’t begin to express how deep that gratitude goes.  

A list will say that I am thankful for my husband, but that seems like too trivial a way to express how I feel about the man I called in college to come change my tire in the rain.  Not only did he drop everything to come, not only did he lie on his back in a puddle to make sure I could get safely home, but he took the time to show me how it was done, to make sure that the next time I ran over a nail, I wouldn’t be helpless.  We weren’t even dating, but already he knew how important my idependence was to me.  That same man climbed up on my roof last night to clean out my gutters after a long day of work and also didn’t bat an eye when I said I didn’t need to call a plumber to fix the clog in the sink because I could take it apart myself.  He called me on the phone after I got a rejection letter last week and began making plans for how to move forward, completely refusing to allow me to wallow in self-pity, and he also rubbed my feet when I dropped onto couch exhausted after our Halloween party.  These stories and a million more are what I mean when I say that I am thankful for my husband.  One word is really not enough.

A list may highlight the important people and moments in my life, but it doesn’t say why they bring me to my knees in gratitude.

A list will mention that I am so thankful to watch my oldest daughter grow and mature, but that’s a cliche if you don’t know about the little girl who raged at me day after day, losing her everloving mind over things like crust on her sandwiches and how much time she had in the playplace at McDonalds, screaming at me and kicking me and once even biting me.  You need to know the girl who slowly began to control that fury, only unleashing it on special occasions, like when her little sister touched her things or when I insisted that she wear socks with her shoes.  You need to know about the day that we went head to head, just like all those hundreds of others times, and I sent her to her room to cool off, and she came out a while later, still sniffing back her tears, and threw her arms around me and said, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Mom.”  Am I thankful for that moment?  More than you can possibly imagine without understanding all that came before it.

A list may cover all the things that have made me happy, but it doesn’t help me find gratitude in the things that interrupted my plans, the things that caused me pain, the things that broke my heart.

A list will never mention the time we left behind our life’s work in another country to start all over again here, three kids in tow.  It’s not something I felt particularly thankful for at the time. But if I sit down and tell the whole story, I can’t help but mention how my husband was offered a job even before we left Argentina, how my extroverted oldest daughter arrived here just in time to start first grade and was caught up in no time, how happy our children were to be close to their grandparents and what that has meant to the grandparents.  The whole story reveals how I had to face my fear of failure head on and realize that life as a failure isn’t as bad as I would have thought.  And if I keep telling long enough, eventually it will come out that being here, where we never planned to be, meant that we were only minutes away when a dear friend’s life crumbled away and that we are still here to be a support as she puts together a new and wonderful one.  That one painful story introduces a whole new list of things to be thankful for.

So here’s my thought for Thanksgiving month: maybe we can take a few extra minutes and do more than count our blessings.  Maybe we can recount them, telling the stories of our blessings and being blessed by them all over again.

Maybe those stories can become something that our children can be thankful for.

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I came across this book, and it brought a smile to my face. 

   
There’s a lot of win here.  Lots of playing with perspective and asking silly questions and answering serious questions that weren’t meant to be answered.  It’s fun.  You should check it out sometime.

Plus now I’m thinking about impossibilities.  (They are so much more fun to think about than possibilities.)

I’m thinking of my cute little end table tapdancing across my library floor. I’m wondering what it’s favorite song would be.

I’m thinking of my fuzzy blanket having babies.  Fuzzy blanket babies are something I would like to see.

I’m thinking of having a conversation with my husband’s grandfather, whose picture is on my wall.

I’m thinking of donuts appearing out of thin air. (It is probably good this hasn’t happened yet.)

And I’m thinking about all the impossible things that are somehow actually happening as I type these words.

I’m thinking of my three children, those impossible, irrepressable individuals, sitting in three classrooms a half-mile away, thinking vivid, brilliant impossible thoughts.

I’m thinking of my good friend down the street, caring for her four children impossibly well and then going off and taking charge of 26 more for the day, and then coming home and loving on those sweet four again, and somehow, impossibly, still sane and even occasionally laughing.

I’m thinking of my sweet friend walking through unending nausea and exaustion while, impossibly, keeping alive two tiny humans and, yet more impossibly, growing one more inside of her.

I’m thinking of my next door neighbor, who lost her husband two weeks ago to cancer, but who woke up this morning and got out of bed and took her daughters to school and carried on with the impossible job of living.

How could we ever imagine that life is empty?  How could we ever protest that we don’t have any stories to tell? 

We live in an impossible world.  (Did you know it is spinning and we are actually kept from flying off it by a force of nature that no one can see?  Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?)

This world is full of impossible life. (Did you know that you can take one tiny nut, put it in the ground and let it rot, and then it will become a tree?  There is absolutely no way that should work.)

You did at least three impossible things before lunch.  I guarantee it. (Or did you think it was nothing when you pushed your foot down on that little bar and then a huge car surged down the road?)

What impossible things will you do before supper? 

Will you even notice?

 
 

Talk To My Kids: Movies Vs. Books

 
Books and movies and hugs. In that order, please.

That title is completely misleading, of course.  We NEVER have to choose between a book and its movie.  The answer is always, “Both, please.”

That said, now that my kids are old enough (in our world, at least) to have tried out plenty of both, I conducted a little interview with them to get their take on books that have been adapted into movies.  First their answers, then my comments.

Note: I asked them these questions separately, so no one knew anyone else’s answers.  I have no idea if this is important to my oh-so-very-scientific findings, but I thought you should know.

 1. What do you usually like better….book or movie?

Ellie: Mostly the book basically because they actually can talk about their emotion without having to act it out

Scott: both the same

Lucy: Normally the movie because I can see what’s happening

 2. What is better about a book?

Ellie: They can do a lot more details

Scott: Books generally have more details than movies do. 

Lucy: Because sometimes I imagine what it looks like and then when I watch the movie it looks totally different.

 3. What is better about a movie?

Ellie: I usually get a better idea of what people look like

Scott: I think that movies are more exciting because you actually get to see the picture.

Lucy: Because you can see what’s happening

 4. Let’s talk specific book movie combos: 

      Harry Potter 

         First, which book is your favorite? 

 Ellie: Last one…eeeeehhhh….yeah

Scott: Four

Lucy: The one where they all drink the potion that makes them look like Harry [7]

         Then, which movie is your favorite? 

Ellie: Honestly, that’s hard but my least favorite is the sixth movie. Maybe the fourth is my favorite, but I’m not sure.

Scott: Seven (Part 1)

Lucy: Eight, and my favortie part is when they go to rescue Luna and get trapped themselves [which I think may be in 7?]

         Last, books or movies?

Ellie: Books

 Scott:  Books

 Lucy: Books

 Series of Unfortunate Events (Book or movie?)

 Ellie: Books

 Scott: Books

 Lucy: Movie

 Lord of the Rings/Hobbit [Note: We have not fully read The Return of The King or watched the movie)

      Which book is best? 

Ellie: The Hobbit

Scott: The Two Towers

Lucy: I don’t know

      Which movie is best? 

Ellie: The first LOTR movie [The Fellowship of the Ring]

Scott: Second half of The Two Towers movie

Lucy: Not sure

       Book or movie?

 Ellie: Books

Scott: Books

 Lucy: Movies, because it is taking a long time for us to finish the last book

 The Hunger Games (Which book is best? Which movie is best? Book or movie?) [Note: She hasn’t quite finished Mockingjay or watched the movie.]

 Ellie: Mockingjay is the best book, but Catching Fire is a close second, Catching Fire is the best movie, I don’t know about book or movie…they’re both so good…I can’t tell

 5. What book that you’ve read would you like to see a movie of?

 Ellie: The Sisters Grimm and…Do your books count? Can I say that?

 Scott: The Phantom Tollbooth

Lucy: Not sure 

 6. Do you feel like watching the movie before reading the book ruins it? 

Ellie: Yes, but just because the book is usually a lot different from the movie

Scott: Yes

Lucy: Yes

7. Does reading the book first ruin the movie

Ellie: Not really

Scott: No

Lucy: No
There are several things of interest in their answers, and the most important of all is: I HAVE TOTALLY NERDED OUT MY CHILDREN!! I’m so proud.

What you see most of all here (other than the nerdiness) is how much the environment you raise them in, your values and opinions and how you spend your time, totally molds their own view of things.  My kids may eventually change their minds, but right now, they have totally bought in to our love of books and words and powerful stories of all kinds.

My other observations:

1. Tyranical as it often seemed to them at the time, I have succeeded in convincing them it is always the right thing to do to read the book BEFORE you watch the movie.  Victory is mine.

2. Ellie is way less decisive than her younger siblings.  Picking one favorite was very difficult for her.  A girl after my own heart.

3. It takes half of forever to read The Lord of the Rings out loud.  We have literally been working on it for a year and a half and are only on the first chapter of The Return of the King. And yet, somehow, my older kids still like the books better than the movies.  This shocked me.  I would think they were only saying that to please me, but I can’t remember the last time they expressed an opinion just because I wanted them to.  

4. My books totally count.

5. Lucy is a testament to the power of reading out loud.  She LOVES the HP movies and can’t read to herself beyond simple beginner books, but still she prefers the books over the movies.  And she is right.  Those movies are delightful, but nothing can touch the books.

6. I agree with Scott.  There should be a much better movie of The Phantom Tollbooth.  The one that exists is awful.  I didn’t even tell him about it.

7. Narnia!  I knew there was something I was forgetting to ask them about.  Ah well.  Another day.

Back to School Treasure

  
I wasn’t planning to offer up more links this soon, but then I ran across several things that I just couldn’t wait to show you.  This is what comes of having my children back in school and having more time for reading of all sorts. 

Internet treasure! (Yes, it exists.  It’s just buried under the refuse.)

  • This.  This is the reason I couldn’t wait to show these.  I’d like to make a million comments, but Gaiman already said it all so well that I should just let you read his own words.  


 “And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people… You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”


“And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.  As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”

Just so, so much win here.  Go read the whole thing.  

  • And just in case you thought Neil Gaiman was making up that empathy thing, some science to back him up. It turns out reading fiction makes you a better, more empathetic friend.  

“In the study, empathy was only apparent in the groups of people who read fiction and who were emotionally transported. Meanwhile, those who were not transported demonstrated a decrease in empathy.”

But then, we already knew that, right?  Because we’ve felt it ourselves.

  • Speaking of reading, this one made me laugh…a smug laugh that only other readers won’t find obnoxious.  So I knew I had to share it with you!
  • And while we’re feeling smug (as if we ever stopped…) go take this vocabulary test to see how many words you know.  Apparently I know 34,800 words.  Which probably explains why I talk so much.
  • And then let’s resume our proper place in the universe and be inspired by the beauty and perspective of these photos.  I feel like there are a lot of interesting thoughts to think while looking at them.  And none of them are about how great I am.
  • While we’re being inspired (and put in our place)…look at these.  Beautiful.  Fanciful.  Inspired by fairy tales.  I want to buy them all.  
  • Then let’s read this, and cry a little, and laugh a little, and be more empathetic.  It will make us better.

See what I mean?  Some things you just shouldn’t miss out on. 

Happy Monday, everyone, and may back-to-school be the best version of itself.

    My Life In Trees


    I don’t know how tall the tree next to the driveway really was, but it seemed like a giant to me.  I was five, and the streets of small-town California were my whole world.  I had already watched my father fall out of this same tree, but it didn’t stop me from loving it, from climbing up the little two-by-fours nailed to the trunk and stepping onto the branches and going higher and higher until it felt like I was all alone on the top of the world.

    Or, mostly alone, at least.  My brother was usually with me, just a branch or two below. Being two years older meant he was bigger and more cautious.  He told me not to go up too high, not to step out so far.  Naturally, I didn’t listen.  Do little sisters ever listen?  Not the stubborn, independent kind.  I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure that’s what brought on the dare.  Me venturing out too far, ignoring his warnings, no doubt bragging that I wasn’t afraid.  If you’re so unafraid, he said, why don’t you crawl across the carport, over the roof, and down the porch rails on the other side?

    I dare you.

    It probably seemed like a safe dare, so outlandish that he could prove his point without fear of any danger.  Let’s just say he learned two things about me that day (and maybe that was when I discovered them myself): 1. I truly wasn’t afraid (not of things in the real world, at least) and 2. I would always take a dare.

    I held my breath on hands and knees the whole way across that fiberglass carport roof.  I scrambed nimbly and much more sure of myself over the sloping shingles of the house roof.  I was assailed by a moment of doubt at the thought of swinging my legs over the edge to climb down the porch, but the thought of that dare pushed me to action.

    I was just climbing onto the porch rails when my mother came out the front door.  Now that I am a mother, I am truly sorry for the heart attack I gave her.  Everyone was amazed.  Shocked.  Angry.  Terrified.  But amazed.  I was pretty impressed with myself, to be honest.

    I’ve been daring myself to do terrifying things ever since.


    You know that girl will do absolutely any crazy thing.

    I still remember when I discovered the little stand of silk trees behind our neighbors’ houses. They were a whole land of imagination all by themselves.  We were really living in military issued housing, a tile-floored ranch on a little housing development plopped in the middle of some fields on an Oklahoma Army base.  But across that quiet street and behind that row of boring yards was a magical world.

    The branches swooped low and waved their fronds of fern-like leaves.  The blossoms were pink puffs of softness, perfect for decoration or for gathering to be woven into magical garments.  The long seed-pods hung down in clusters to be gathered for stews or to be stowed as provisions for all sorts of adventures.  Even now when I think of the endless private world of wonder that is childhood, of long afternoons outside, of skinned knees and twigs in my hair, of sun and shade and the smell of honesuckle, those silk trees are the picture I see.

    There I learned to create worlds and to be rich while owning nothing at all.  I played in those worlds alone and I also brought friends in to play along, only to discover that nothing seemed the same through someone else’s eyes.  So there it was that I came to the sad conclusion (childish, but then, I was a child) that I should always only hug my magical worlds close and keep them safe from prying eyes.


    For the record, this is the only time I can ever remember my mother holding a gun, but if those red pants and that pointed hood don’t say “doesn’t fit in this all too real world” I don’t know what does.

    Later the tree was in our back yard.  For as much as it was my favorite place to be, for as many hours as I spent in its branches, I couldn’t now describe even a single branch to you.  I know it was off to the side, up against the neighbor’s fence.  I know that the bottom branches were low enough that I could reach up and, holding on tight, walk my feet up the trunk until my whole 13-year-old self could scramble up into the tree and disappear among the leaves.  I know that somewhere up above the roofline was the perfect forking branch where I could settle in, leaning back against the trunk and reaching up to the perfect little branch above where I kept the box.

    I’m not sure when I thought to start keeping the box in the tree, but I do know once I put it there, it stayed there for a long time.  It was only an old cardboard shoe box, but inside I could keep a few treasures, things I thought were beautiful and should be stowed in a secret hideout in a tree.  A rock.  A pinecone.  A few faded flowers.  And a book.  Always a book that I could pull out and read, sitting on my branch, hidden from the world that contained middle school and poufy bangs and acid washed jeans.

    I could just be me, in a tree, where things were green and other lands were just a page-turn away.

    How did that book get wet? my mother asked.  Did you leave it outside?

    I just nodded, not wanting to explain that I hadn’t really considered the ineffectiveness of a cardboard box as protection against the Oregon rains.  But the book dried out.  And I loved it all the more because it had had its own treetop adventure.

    It turns out a book can take you away from your adolescent self and drop you in someone else’s life and also be a wrinkly-paged reminder that rains will change you but never stop you from being who you are inside.

    Not long after, I sat up in that tree while a gentle rain fell down and felt that life was a pretty beautiful thing after all.


    It was an awkward time.  You would have hidden in a tree, too.
    The Indiana tree was miles down the road, tucked away in a park only a few a locals ever visited.  When I just had to get away, to be out of the dorm life of college friends and the pressures of trying to be someone grown up and headed somewhere, I sped down the country road to the empty park and stared at the lonely little trees and breathed.

    Breathing really only works when you’re looking at trees.

    Then I would drive back, get on with life, be social again and enjoy the thrills of becoming.

    As college neared its end, the panic began to grow.  The visits to the out-of-the-way park became more frequent.  The breathing became more determined.

    One day in a burst of desperation I got out of the car and strode over to the nearest little tree.  With great difficulty, I pulled myself onto the bottom branch.  I scraped my leg.  My shoulder ached.  I climbed one branch higher and had to stop.  I wasn’t sure the poor tree could handle my weight.  I stood there, clinging to the trunk, feeling huge and awkward, and it hit me.

    I was a grown-up.

    Without trying or achieving or performing any sort of ritual, I just was what I was.  An adult.  Too big to climb little trees.

    A wave of sadness came over me.  I couldn’t be as light and care-free as I once was.  I was all grown up now, weighed down to the earth, confined to the realities of my real-world age and size.

    And then I relaxed.  The breathing got easier.  Because just living had gotten me here to this place, so just living would get me through it.

    I got back in my car and went back to my living.

    A few short weeks later I sat in a different car looking at that same tree when the man who would become my husband gave me my first kiss.  The tree waved in the wind, just being a tree, not trying to be anything else.

    All felt right with the world.

    I wanted to go on and on. There are probably half a dozen more significant trees in my life. But time is short and memories are hard work. Thanks to Lil Blue Boo for the idea. It gave me an excuse to think about trees, which is another way of saying, it made me happy. More of life should be spent on things like remembering trees. Especially since, as you can see, I have no pictures of those places. This is my snapshot, probably as poorly lit and unevenly colored as all old snapshots are, but what’s the use of memories if not to be slanted in just the way you want them?

    Storytelling Aids: Sticker Fun!

    I have a houseful of children this week, as we’ve added four friends to the mix for a few days.  (That makes seven, if you’re counting.)  So far, it’s been a pretty great time, but there isn’t much left over for writing, so I’ll keep this quick.

    Just wanted to share with you all this fun little packet of stickers I found at Wal-Mart last week.  The second I saw it, I knew I had to have it.

      
    See that little fox?  That was the true selling point.  That and the $3 price.  So much cuteness.  I brought it home, thinking of fun storytelling times with little girls (did I mention the houseful of children?) and then I had to spend two days beating my daughters off with a stick until I had time to take a couple of pictures.  As soon as I took these, they went to town.

    It has two little backgrounds to work with:

      
    And then four pages of darling little stickers to make all the action:

     
    The orange racoon!  The pink fox!  The funny little frog thing!  The hedgehog!  I don’t know what adventures they’re all going to get up to, but if there isn’t some fighting over apples and falling off of logs, I’ll be disappointed.
    The stickers themselves really do appear to be reusable, can be peeled off and moved around and rearranged, which is perfect for storytelling.

    Three dollars, people.  Just thought you should know.

    And happy last week of July!  Next week we’ll be going back to school, so this houseful of children will drop from 7 to 0, at least for a few hours each day.  

    Oh, glorious quiet!  Oh, tremendous pile of work.

    See you all then!

    Downside

    There’s this huge sign on a main road near my house.  It says, “Can Your Four-Year-old Read This?” There’s some fine print underneath it to the effect of “If not, why not? Enroll them in our crazy private school and they will.”

    Every time I drive past that place, I want to burn it to the ground.

    I’d like to say that is because of my high principles regarding education and the preservation of childhood, but that would only be one quarter true at best. The real reason it kindles my normally well-controlled rage is that my six-year-old can’t read it.  (That and the fact that the sign is smug and awful, but mostly the six-year-old thing.)

    My beautiful youngest child, the most original person I know, has not been quick to learn to read. 

    I blame all the stories.

    I’ve posted several times here about Lucy, who just turned six and will start first grade in August, and her love of stories. Last week I gave you a sample of the weird and wonderful way her mind works. She is pretty clearly the most creative of my three children, and that is really saying something. 

    And yet. She’s not that interested in learning how to read.

    Don’t get me wrong. She loves books. Loves them. She loves the idea that stories are inside of them. She likes the idea of someday reading. She just doesn’t want to learn to read.

    It’s the stories. I’m serious.

    Here’s the thing: right now, the slow sounding out of words is getting in the way. She wants a story, and reading it herself is the slowest way to get one. 

    There are a half dozen faster ways. Someone can read to her. She can flip through the pictures and make one up based on what she sees (this one is actually her favorite). She can toss the book aside and invent a story out of her head. She can ask someone else to make one up for her. There are several people in our house to choose from.

      
    Believe me, her version of what Hello Kitty is going to do will be way more entertaining than whatever is written in this book.

    So. She went to kindergarten. We did all the homework. We plowed through the little phonics books (most of which, gasp, don’t even contain actual stories!). And every single minute of it has been painful and horrible.

    She is learning. Just exactly enough to be on the low end of normal for her grade level. But she is not excelling. She did not test high enough on standardized tests to get into the high ability program her brother and sister are in and where anyone who knows her can tell you she belongs. 

     Why I am I telling you this? I’m not publicly shaming my kid or unburdening my deepest fears or even humble bragging (much).  I just passed through a time this year of worrying about this issue, and I’ve finally gotten the monkey off my back, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I’m not the only one who worries about this stuff.

    I will not be enrolling my daughter in the horrible private school down the street. I will not be spending my summer pushing her through reading courses.  I will possibly be defacing that sign in the middle of the night. 

    Here’s why:

    1. The research does not support the current craze for early reading.  You can read about this here, or here, or here. Or any one of a dozen other places. All the studies show that early reading has positive effects on school performance only for a very short time. After a couple of years, there is no difference between the performance of early readers vs. later readers. Long story short, this isn’t going to affect her life after another year or two.

    2. Anecdotal evidence tells me the narrative intelligence she’s developed will be more than enough to turn her into a great reader when she’s ready.  My oldest daughter, who is ten and starting fifth grade in August, was a late reader, too. At the time I mostly attributed that to the fact that she was learning two languages at once, so I didn’t worry about it as much. (I still worried some because first child. Also, To a bibliophile there is nothing more terrifying the the idea that your kid might not love to read.) Worry or no worry, the fact remains that she didn’t learn to read on her own until halfway through first grade, which for her was age 7. This in spite of the fact that she has no learning disabililities and is highly intelligent.  She just wasn’t ready. But now? Now she has stacks of books everywhere and has to be nagged to turn off the light at night and can talk books with you for hours. This in spite of the fact that she is naturally extroverted and craves all things people and motion and excitement. This girl was raised on story, and in retrospect, I was ridiculous to waste a single second worrying that she wouldn’t love books or be successful in school. 

    3. It’s historically ridiculous that I’m even referring to this as “late reading.” When I was in kindergarten, no one learned how to read. I learned in first grade and didn’t start reading chapter books on my own until later than that. Did you? People didn’t used to even start school until they were seven. There are rumors that Einstein didn’t learn to read until he was nine. Those rumors are likely untrue, but there are also reports that he never wore socks, which is  likely true, and I think has some bearing on this matter because my daughter also hates to wear socks. I’ve lost track of my point… Oh yes the point is that we worry about too many things these days. 

    If your four-year-old can read, I congratulate you. If she just makes things up from the pictures, I congratulate you, too. If your ten-year-old can play concertos, I applaud your work. If your ten-year-old sings off key in the shower, I applaud you, too. Their lives have story and music, which means they have meaning and joy. Good for you.

    Go tell them a story. It will all work out.