Author Archives: kjdickson

Read from Birth: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Many years teaching reading and language arts to young children convinced me that children who are read aloud to from early on are set up for the best possible start in school. When recent findings in neuroscience validated what many of us have long observed and suspected to be true, I decided to create a website to share this information.

Readfrombirth.com‘s aim is to promote the knowledge that reading aloud to children from infancy enhances the parent-child bond that nurtures social-emotional well-being and builds the toolbox of language skills necessary for success in school and life. As technology gains a stronger presence in all our lives, it is imperative that we continue to remind parents of the importance of this simple yet essential practice. Please check it out along with Read from Birth‘s Facebook page. Thanks for helping me spread the word!

Artwork: Sally Dailey

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:

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When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.

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More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.

 

All Vulnerability and Sweetness

41“Around the house with a lantern to look at the sleeping children and put on an extra cover. The miser’s hour for a mother—she looks at her gold and gloats over it!”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, WAR WITHIN AND WITHOUT, p. 223

 

 

I love this image of Anne. It was 1941 and Charles was away on a trip. She was alone with their three young children in their small rented cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. I can imagine her creeping through the house late at night on her way to bed after she’s written in her diary. She pulls the edges of a sweater draped over her shoulders closer to her throat against the evening’s chill with one hand while she holds a lantern with the other. The children will need extra cover.

As she spreads an extra blanket over each one she pauses to look at the face of each sleeping child: Jon. Land. Anne.

What is it about a sleeping child? There is nothing like it to a parent. For one thing, no matter what he or she was like during the day—he could have been the reincarnation of Dennis the Menace—all melts away and is forgotten. The sight of a child’s face in slumber will do that. It is all vulnerability and sweetness.

My own son is eleven now and nearly as tall as I am. I am aware every day of how quickly he is growing up. But when I steal into his room for a last look at night and see his face resting in profile on his pillow, I am struck by how young he really is. Void of expression his features soften and remind me of the little face of not so long ago, emanating trust and innocence—and I realize that despite his rapid changes he has not been on this planet for very long at all.

Gazing at the face of my sleeping child is like time freezing for just a little bit. I get to behold, for a moment, the child he has been in the person he is becoming. Perhaps this is why Anne likens the experience to a miser gloating over his gold. Having lost a child, she knows the transitory nature of life.

Part of each of us, down deep, wishes we could hold onto our children and keep them young forever. We want to keep them close and safe. But we also know, down deep, that they will only be in our care for a time. They are a gift to us only temporarily. We treasure them, we let our hearts fill at the sight of them, we do all we can to enable them to blossom and grow. And then we open our hands, and—when they are ready—we let them go.

Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by Kim Jocelyn Dickson

The Pilot, the Poet, and their Passion

ferr600span“The feeling of exultant joy that there is anyone like that in the world…Clouds and stars and birds–I must have been walking with my head down looking at puddles for twenty years.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, BRING ME A UNICORN, p. 99

 

Anne was a twenty-one year old senior at Smith when she had an encounter that would change her life. It was December of 1927 and the Morrow family was spending the Christmas holidays together in Mexico City, where Anne’s father served as U.S. ambassador. It had been just seven months since Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight that rocked the world. Now, at the invitation of Ambassador Morrow, and in the interest of strengthening relations between the United States and Mexico, Lindbergh was coming to spend the holidays with the Morrow family. And he was about to rock Anne’s world too.

Until this point, Anne’s world had included only the New England upper class–the well-to-do, highly educated, and intellectual—her parents’ people. Charles was different and he took her breath away. This shy “clear, direct, straight boy”[i] who said little but accomplished much, stood in sharp contrast to all the other men she’d known. Next to Charles—an independent, courageous, sincere, forthright man of action—all the articulate, well-read, sophisticated, pretentious suitors Anne had known paled. His directness, his economy of words, his lack of pretense, and his sheer masculine presence bowled Anne over.

In her world people read about and discussed things. In Charles Lindbergh’s world, people did them.

The attraction between Anne and Charles was instantaneous and mutual, but it would be several months before Charles called for a date. In the fall of 1928, he invited Anne to fly with him. Within a few months they were engaged, and in May of 1929 they married.

Despite their whirlwind courtship, Anne was racked with doubts, and she agonized over their relationship: “It is a dream and a mistake. We are utterly opposed.” [ii] She was introspective; he was a man of action. She was an incessant reader; he rarely cracked a book, his idea of good poetry was that of the lowbrow, sentimental Robert Service, and he didn’t even get the cartoons in The New Yorker magazine. She was Ivy League; he was a college dropout. She was a dreamer; he was practical.

Yet underneath it all there was a powerful attraction. As their daughter Reeve said years later, their marriage was inevitable.[iii]

Indeed it was. For what was at the heart of the attraction between Anne and Charles was a deep, unconscious connection: their emotional similarity.

Years later Anne described a conversation she and Charles had with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at a party in Paris before the war. The four compared notes on the isolation and indignation they suffered because of their fame: “…a pair of unicorns meeting another pair of unicorns.”[iv]

Anne’s self-identified image of the unicorn—an elusive magical creature—was one that would recur in Anne’s literary work. The volume of diaries and letters that contained her first meeting of Charles was entitled Bring Me a Unicorn. Her only published volume of poetry, The Unicorn, included a long poem called “The Unicorn in Captivity”, which was inspired by a tapestry from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the poem Anne described a hunted, fenced in, bound, and wounded creature who found his freedom internally—an image that resonated deeply with her.

The themes of captivity and freedom surfaced again and again in the Lindberghs’ lives. This appeared to be because of the relentless pressure of fame. Incessant publicity held them captive, rendering them unable to move freely. Flying and escaping to far corners of the world granted them the freedom they craved.

I believe that for Anne and Charles, though, the pull toward freedom and away from captivity stemmed from origins far deeper than the world of fame they inhabited as adults. Their identification with the wounded creature was rooted in the pain and “captivity” of emotional isolation they each experienced as children.

Charles’s parents were estranged during his childhood, but they never divorced. At a young age he was forced to assume adult responsibilities and was expected to grow up quickly. One senses that there was no one really there to take care of him. Living in a chronically painful situation, Charles learned early not to feel things. Action became his means of escape.

Anne had a family that appeared to offer every possible good thing to its children, but her childhood, too, was marked by emotional deprivation. She was expected to grow up to be just like her mother—a woman who was uncomfortable with her own feelings and who avoided them through nonstop social activity and philanthropy. Anne was not supported in becoming herself.

When Anne and Charles met that December in Mexico, each of them unconsciously recognized themselves in each other. A unicorn meeting another unicorn. A powerful attraction.

In her novel, The Names of the Mountains, Reeve Lindbergh told a fictionalized version of her aging mother’s gradual decline. Anne—through the character Alicia in the story—said marriage was “…both an escape from and a reflection of the marriage in which each partner was raised.”[v]

For Anne, marriage to Charles was certainly both. He offered an escape from the intellectualized, protective, and confined world of her parents. Charles offered adventure and a chance for her to shift from the life of the mind to the life of the body. Anne’s decision to marry Charles stretched her in ways she might never have known had she not taken the leap.

What she didn’t realize, though, was that she was marrying into the same emotional reality that she had grown up with. Life with Charles may have looked different externally, but emotionally, she would discover, he was every bit as detached as her own parents.

The mystery of attraction is really not so mysterious after all. More and more, I believe that we are attracted to people—romantically or otherwise—at this deeply unconscious level. There is something about the person we are attracted to, below the flow of words and actions, that—no matter how different from us they may appear—is familiar. That reminds us of what we already know.

Not only do we find relationships that replicate the emotional reality we knew growing up, we also manage to create circumstances that repeat it, too. Anne married a man who mirrored the emotional distance and exacting demands of her parents. She also found herself in circumstances, due to her celebrity, in which she had to struggle against feelings of isolation, misperceptions, and captivity–evoking a sense of reality not unlike that of a little girl whose identity and value is not perceived accurately by those around her.

As adults we recreate the hurts of childhood to get a second chance to work them out and be free of them. And we do all this without realizing it, of course. What is deepest and truest in us is wiser than our conscious self and longs for us to be healed.

But healing doesn’t come automatically, nor does it come easily.

We gain our second chance only when we have the courage to allow this deeper knowledge to come into the light. This requires the slow, painful work of choosing to understand ourselves and the reality of our history. Only then can the present circumstances—the marriage, the difficult situation—be apprehended in its proper perspective and be transformed.

Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by Kim Jocelyn Dickson

[i] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Bring Me a Unicorn (New York, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, 1971) p. 99.

[ii] Ibid. p. 224.

[iii] Reeve Lindbergh, interview in “ Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh” A&E’s Biography, April 2, 2000.

[iv] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Flower and the Nettle (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 510.

[v] Reeve Lindbergh, The Names of the Mountains (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992) p. 101.

The Nap, Revisited

Long KdgI wasn’t always a big fan of the nap.

As my kindergarten report card attests, rest time was the first subject I ever failed in school. (Click on report card to enlarge if you don’t believe me.) I really didn’t see the point in lying quietly on a hard linoleum floor for fifteen minutes when there were so many interesting things to explore—the play kitchen for one. My lousy grade wasn’t the only price I paid for my restlessness though. All that long year I was never chosen to be the child who tiptoed around tapping nappers on the head with a sparkly silver-starred wand, granting permission to rise and stow away mats. Only the students who “relaxed” earned that privilege.

Before entering school I was a big-time nap resister as well. I am still mortified to reveal I slept in a crib until I was pushing four. Four! Later I always wondered: were my parents too chintzy to invest in a big girl bed for me during those years? Were they trying to keep me, the baby of the family, a baby? Or—and this is what I’ve decided was probably the case—was it my mother’s only hope of catching a break? I learned recently there’s a parenting syndrome called “third child fatigue.” I was the third child and I hated naps, so my mother must surely have been fatigued. Without those confining side rails there was no way I would’ve stayed put on my bed and given her the rest I’m sure she desperately needed.

What a difference a few decades make. I first discovered the joy of the afternoon nap as a college student, catching up on late hours spent studying and having fun. Then later, when I was pregnant with my son, I found myself answering the siren call of the snooze every afternoon around three. I realized after he was born that my body had been preparing me for his schedule all along. When he went down at three o’clock for his afternoon siesta, so did I. Our inner alarm clocks were in synch long before he made his appearance.

Today naps are a luxury I’m free to indulge in only during summertime and the occasional weekend. Nothing is lovelier than curling up with a book after lunch, feeling my eyes grow heavy, and floating away for a few minutes. Taking time out from my to-do list feels like the ultimate gift of self care. When I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to resume my day again.

Arianna Huffington discovered the importance of taking time out for rest in the middle of the work day herself after collapsing in exhaustion during her early days running the Huffington Post. She has since installed two nap rooms at HuffPo, where employees can sign up for one hour slots. They are always filled. Imagine–a workplace where a nap is not only tolerated, but encouraged!

I would love to go work there. In the meantime, perhaps I will install a George Costanza-like bunker under my desk at school and disappear during my prep times. I might even make a sparkly silver-starred wand and add a new and, no doubt, coveted position to our roster of classroom jobs. Teacher Waker!

Honoring the Heroic Human Spirit…

IMG_1155“I think that the human spirit—for all its dark side that I here portray—is in essence heroic.”                —Herman Wouk

I came up for air not long ago, after a two month immersion in the extended global conflict known as World War II. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—two volumes, 1,924 pages in all—were so compelling that if I could have put the rest of my life on hold, just to read, I would have.

I’d missed these best-sellers when they were first published in the ’70s and the subsequent mini-series of the ’80s. My history-loving son had read them as a freshman in high school and recommended them to me last summer. Having just spent a couple of years reading fiction and nonfiction around World War I, of which I’d previously known little, I was ready to move on. World War II seemed to me a more familiar subject. So many books and movies had covered the era that I wasn’t sure there was more to understand. I was wrong.

The brilliance of Wouk’s epic novels is in his ability to transport the reader into places and events around the world through the narrative of one American family and their circle of friends and loved ones. Wouk manages to make you care desperately about these characters, so much so that you find yourself willing to follow them anywhere. And follow them you will. The setting ricochets around the globe from Washington D.C. to Berlin, from Pensacola to Pearl Harbor, from London to Stalingrad, from the bowels of a submarine in the Pacific to the belly of a RAF bomber over Germany, from the Oval Office of the President to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Wouk manages to weave the fictional Henry family’s story into the historical narrative and the lives of actual historical figures believably, and the contrivance to place his characters in these key global hotspots is hardly felt because the story he tells is so engaging.

Harrowing, yet fascinating, the novels engendered in me a newfound appreciation of just what was at stake in this conflict that Wouk called “the worst world catastrophe” and how the geopolitical map changed because of it. One can’t help but wonder about the countless ‘what if’s’ as well. What if the British hadn’t been able to hold out against the Nazis as long as they did and England had succumbed to Hitler? What if Hitler hadn’t opened the eastern front in Russia? What if Germany had succeeded in developing the atomic bomb before the United States? And the big what if: What if the Allied nations had recognized the cancer that was metastasizing in Germany in the 1930s and intervened when Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia?

I can’t remember when I’ve read such an enthralling work of historical fiction, the kind that tells a character-driven story so well that you find yourself absorbing the history of the time almost as a by-product. The kind that makes you more appreciative than ever of all of the courageous men and women who served then and serve now.

Appendix: After writing this review, I came across this Atlantic article on Herman Wouk, who turned 100 this year. Despite winning the Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny, Wouk has not received his critical due from the literary establishment. The issues are addressed here.

Trust Your Apathy

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“I am beginning to respect the apathetic days. Perhaps they are a necessary pause: better to give in to them than to fight them at your desk hopelessly; then you lose both the day and your self-respect. Treat them as physical phenomena–casually–and obey them.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS, OPEN DOORS, p. 276

 

I love this advice. It so goes against the unspoken rule in our culture to grit your teeth and slog on, no matter what.

Feeling tired, sad, or depressed? Get over it. Better yet, take Prozac. And then get over it. At all costs, keep busy, keep moving, keep achieving. Don’t slow down or you’ll never get where you want to be. And the guy behind you will overtake you and get ahead of you.

Who can deny we are an externally motivated culture, taught from early on to move away from the feelings that connect us to our spirituality and inner voice?

Anne struggled with apathy around writing her first book after the kidnapping and death of her son. Her family legacy and that of her husband, Charles, was to suppress pain through action. All of them dealt with difficult feelings by moving away from them. Her parents were wrapped up in public service, and Charles literally moved away from his own grief by taking to the air. Anne was encouraged from all sides to put the loss of her baby behind her by busying herself writing her book.

But she knew that was not the answer.

Anne’s lack of energy for writing, no doubt, was due to the loss of her child and her isolation in her grief. She couldn’t share her sadness with the people closest to her in any meaningful way, and so she worked her feelings out by writing in her diary and confiding in her closest friends.

During this period Anne learned that she had to pay attention to her inner rhythms. For her, learning to go with one’s internal energy flow was like sailing. You can’t force a boat to go further into the wind than it can without losing momentum and your bearings. The only thing to do is give it its head. It will swing and swing and suddenly catch the wind, bite into it and go. You may have to tack back to get on course, but ultimately you get there more quickly. For Anne, the road to writing her book was through her grief. She couldn’t step around it; she had to go through it.

I have often felt that if I lacked energy for doing something I needed or wanted to do that meant it would never be there. Whether it’s the energy for doing something as important to me as writing this book or something as trivial as trimming trees in my yard, any lull in motivation meant the energy would be gone forever; the thing would never happen. I have come to see that energy for any particular thing, like so much in life, simply ebbs and flows. There may be obvious reasons for it–as in one’s energy being tied up in grieving the loss of a loved one–or the reasons may be more mysterious. Maybe the time is just not right.

What is becoming clearer to me is that I can trust my internal inclinations. When I am impelled to do one thing and not another that may even appear to make more sense, I have learned to go with my impulse. When I do, I find, just as in Anne’s sailing metaphor, that while the path may be less direct, I get to my goal more quickly. And I avoid the wasted doldrums of guilt and self-chastisement and “I should be doing such and such.”

Recently I’d been sitting at my computer writing for four hours. I stopped for lunch and began to think about the things I needed to do in the afternoon: go to the bank, get the tires on the car rotated, exchange a scarf I needed for a wedding, stop at the grocery store. Yawn. I was exhausted from sitting and concentrating all morning and felt no desire to do all those things. Yet they needed to be done. I really wanted to get outside–it was a gorgeous, sunny eighty-degree day–and be in the water. And so I did. I went for a swim, dipped in the Jacuzzi, sunned for a while, and relaxed. Two hours later I was rested, showered, and able to do my errands easily. Had I pushed myself to do them first I would have felt tired, cranky, and put-upon. My little detour ended up being just the thing I needed to help me reach my goal.

A list of errands may be a small thing, but I find the principle holds true for the bigger things as well. When, like Anne, I “trust my apathy” and stop to consider what I really want and need in any moment, I hold life and life holds me much more graciously.

[Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh]

The Way Life Should Be

imagesYour summer place. Have you ever worried that you might not get back there?

“I am writing you in the desperate feeling that we will never get to North Haven. I have felt superstitious about it from the beginning because I have counted on it overmuch all summer long: the quiet and apartness and all of you, and the feeling of being completely alone and natural and oneself…”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: HOUR OF GOLD, HOUR OF LEAD, p. 72

Anne was a newly married bride of twenty-four when she wrote these words to her mother. After the wedding and honeymoon in May she and Charles had barely touched back down to earth. His involvement in the aviation industry beckoned him from all quarters of the country. It was an exciting time for Anne, joining him in these ventures. She was meeting new people, seeing parts of the country she’d never seen before, and adjusting to life with her new husband. But she missed her family and longed for something familiar and secure in the midst of her new transient life.

Since she was a young girl, Anne had vacationed with her family in the summer on the island of North Haven, just off the coast of Maine. Their large summer “cottage” overlooked Penobscot Bay with a view to the blue Camden Hills on the mainland. For Anne, North Haven offered a retreat, a chance to be with her family away from the usual rhythms of life. Whether North Haven delivered long, lazy summer days in the cool clear sunshine or cozy indoor hours by the fire as squalls swirled outside, the Morrow summer home was a refuge. Here, Anne’s parents were relieved from some of the pressures of their busy lives and the family was free to simply be.

This first summer of her marriage Anne feared she might not get there. For the first time she experienced the tug of the needs of her husband on one hand and the pull of her family on the other. It was a tension she would feel always. Becoming caught in what others close to her wanted from her, to the extent that she had difficulty claiming what she wanted for herself, was a familiar place.

In the midst of this dynamic, however, I’m sure that Anne herself longed to get back to North Haven that summer.

If you’ve ever been to North Haven you’d understand why.

When I lived on the East Coast I had a friend whose family owned two summer cottages on North Haven. My friend, Laurel, had grown up spending summers on the island, just as Anne had. One summer she invited me and a few other friends to go to North Haven for a long weekend. I was just discovering Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s books, so I already knew of the island and was thrilled for the opportunity to go.

It turned out to be beyond my ability to imagine. A sign posted along the highway just past the state line says: “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” That captures perfectly the way I have come to feel about North Haven. Over the next several summers, the island would be a yearly vacation retreat for me and a group of friends from Princeton.

Regardless of the weather, North Haven was magical. Otherworldly. Whether cloudy and rainy and shrouded in mists of purple, blue, and gray, or bathed in sunshine and cool crystalline air, the deep green pines stood out against the wild rocky shore and beckoned you to come closer, go deeper. The scent of pine and sea filled your lungs and you felt more alive than ever.

Our trip was the same from year to year. The ferry delivered us into the arms of the harbor and gently let us go. We drove through fields of blue lupine and grazing cows to get to our cottage. The lilacs by the porch would still be in bloom. I’d cut some for the table that night. We’d unpack, stopping every couple of minutes to look out the bedroom window into the cove just yards from the front door. Across the cove, the sun would just be beginning to dip behind the Camden Hills in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, pinks, and magentas. We’d all stop what we were doing to rush out to the dock to watch. This became one of our rituals on the island.

We had others, and a sort of routine emerged. Since there were so few distractions on the island we’d make up our own. First were the lazy mornings. People would rise whenever they felt like it. Someone would make coffee, and there were usually a few people sitting on the porch drinking it, reading novels, and having leisurely conversations. Someone might cook a big breakfast, or we might fend for ourselves when hunger struck. Grape-Nuts and muffins were perfect. Once children came along, breakfasts became a bit more official. After breakfast, someone might take a walk or a bike ride. Or go sailing. Or row across the cove to the spit of rocks to dig mussels for dinner. Or sunbathe. The water in the cove was too cold to swim in, but Laurel took one quick dip every year. She’d been doing it since she was a little girl.

Lunch was a loose affair, too. A pot of homemade soup sat on the stove, ready whenever we were. Afterward there might be naps outside in the sun. Someone might make a trip to town to restock supplies at Waterman’s, the only general store on the island, or to pick up lobster, fresh from this morning’s haul, for dinner that night. We’d scatter alone or in couples or small groups to do whatever we felt like. But late afternoon brought a ritual nobody wanted to miss.

As the sun dipped lower and the air grew cooler, we pulled on our sweaters and took up our mallets. The lawn in front of the cottage that sloped to the edge of the cove became our croquet court. It was happy hour. Steve would roll out the old battered wooden wagon of some child long ago and set up the bar. Gin and tonics. Margaritas. Take your pick. Music rolled out over the lawn–James Taylor, maybe, or the soundtrack to “The Big Chill.” As a matter of fact, sometimes we felt we were living “The Big Chill.” We’d sip our drinks; we’d savor the sunset; we’d dance and sing along to the music; we’d have no mercy for each other on the court, sending each other’s croquet balls off into oblivion and evoking the ooga-booga charm of protection around our own (this involved making the sign of the cross over your croquet ball and chanting ‘ooga booga’) whenever threatened. We were silly and laughed at nothing and everything. Whoever was responsible for dinner that night would be inside preparing the lobster and it would be ready soon. Life was good.

Our days took on a lovely timeless rhythm. Our spirits adapted to our surroundings and we breathed in time with the wind and the tides and our most basic needs. Released from the pressures of our day-to-day existence, we felt more fully alive than ever. Our sense of life was heightened–perhaps because we had slowed down enough to appreciate it.

The special group of friends are scattered all across the country now. We had been in graduate school together, some of us worked at a summer camp together, some of us had been to college together. One of us has died, children have been born. We’ve all moved to new stages in our lives. But none of us will forget those days. Even in the midst of living them I think we all knew how extraordinary our days on North Haven were. We were young, on the threshold of the rest of our lives, and our playground was one of the loveliest places God ever made.

Mystical, enchanting, ruggedly beautiful, North Haven is a taste of what heaven might just be like. Or at the very least–the way life was intended to be. I can understand Anne’s worry that she might not get back there. But she did. And as she would recount later in Gift from the Sea, she managed to find “North Haven” for herself in other places too. Places where she could retreat to and, in letting go of the demands of daily life, tap into her inner springs once again.

[Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh]

Teaching TITANIC

IMG_0280“My grandfather wants to know why we’re studying the Titanic.”  The boy was taking advantage of a lull in our fifth grade literature class when he walked right up from the back of the room and put his question to me in a quietly serious voice.

I thought a moment. In the nearly twenty years I’d been teaching Robert Ballard’s Exploring the Titanic to elementary school students that question had been raised only one other time, and it came from a colleague who thought it was morbid and didn’t see the point in teaching about a terrible tragedy.

My own interest in Titanic had been piqued right about the time I was the age of my students and first saw A Night to Remember. Later, as an adult coming across Ballard’s book about his discovery of the wreck and subsequent dives two and a half miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic, I realized the story’s potential for teaching invaluable lessons.

Through the years my students and I have uncovered many of them. We learn about Titanic on the heels of our study of Greek mythology and find that Titanic’s story has all the elements of a Greek myth. Students see that hubris—the Greek word for excessive pride or self-confidence—is at the heart of the story and caused a series of human mistakes, creating a perfect storm of circumstances that brought the great ship down. From Titanic students learn that technology is not infallible.

Along with our class study, students are required to choose an aspect of the Titanic story that appeals to them. After doing research they write a paper, create a tangible project that shows their learning, and present both to the class. Hundreds of projects in, I continue to be amazed by their creativity and learn new things.

Some students are fascinated by the ship itself and build models. Others love the human stories. One boy dressed up as and told the story of Charles Joughin, Titanic’s head baker, who survived the freezing water for an exceptionally long time–allegedly by taking a few nips of whiskey before the sinking. A girl was fascinated by Violet Jessop, the stewardess who survived not only Titanic’s sinking, but the sinking of the Lusitania and Britannic as well. This student found a pattern for her American Girl doll and sewed a World War I volunteer nurse’s uniform, just like the one Jessop would have worn when she served on Britannic, which was converted to a hospital ship during the war. Still other students compose poetry, write diaries, paint pictures, create PowerPoint presentations, and sing songs. Last year, the students in orchestra and band took it upon themselves to learn the Titanic theme from the movie and gave a concert when we opened the doors to our “Titanic Museum” for students from other classes.

At a loss as to how to convey any of this, I looked down at the boy and smiled. “Tell your grandfather we study the Titanic…because it’s interesting.”

He nodded, satisfied, and returned to his seat.

The $200 Gooey Butter Cake

ImageWhat price gooey butter cake? I found out last month at my school’s annual benefit and fundraiser.

Every year teachers are invited to offer “experiences” to raise money for various programs at our independent school. Imaginative offerings run the gamut from after school Zumba classes to splashy high ticket items that are usually put up for bid at live auction. They have titles like “Disneyland with Your Teacher, 2 Friends, and All the Churros You Can Eat!” or “Limo Trip to the American Girl Doll Store for High Tea with Your Teacher and 3 Friends!”

What did I have to offer? I racked my brain for inspiration. I felt a bit like the little drummer boy without the frankincense, gold, or myrrh. I had no Disneyland season pass upon which to draw. And I’d raised a boy, so I didn’t know from the American Girl store.

What is it that students really want? I asked myself. And then the answer came to me. They want gooey butter cake.

Each fall when I teach my fifth grade students how to write the dreaded opinion essay, I draw them in by way of their stomachs. I model the classic five paragraph structure with my own topic, “My Favorite Dessert.” Once they write their essays, I bake a gooey butter cake and bring it to class for them to sample. They swoon. They rhapsodize. And they beg for more.

If you’re not from St. Louis, you may not be familiar with this simple, yet irresistible confection made from cake mix, eggs, butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar. If you are from St. Louis, no explanation is required.

Two weeks before this year’s benefit, I donned my chef’s hat, took up my wooden spoon, and made my pitch during morning chapel. A dramatic PowerPoint presentation, “The Gooey Butter Cake Story,” recounted the legend of how it came to be–by accident of course, as all great discoveries seem to–during the Great Depression in St. Louis. I reminded my current and former students that this delectable treat could be found all over my hometown, but NOWHERE in southern California. That seemed to clinch it.

A parent reported to me afterward that her son predicted my gooey butter cake would “…go for thousands!” and urged her to get there early. 

The event organizers apparently weren’t clued in to the word on the street, so put it up for silent bidding with the option to purchase outright for $200. As instructed, my student’s mother got there early and snapped it up.

I wasn’t able to attend, but heard that there were quite a few disappointed people. The gooey butter cake was the talk of the evening. I was proud of my hometown. SoCal wants St. Louis gooey butter cake! Next year? Live auction!