Her Greatest Gift To You

The question is one of roots and shoots; where we come from, what we’ve sprouted from that. What is the best nonmaterial gift you ever received from Mom? I wonder what T will answer as a grown man. There is no way he could ever be grateful enough for all I pour into him with my body, heart, and mind.  Much of mothering will remain unsung. So goes our job description:

Hours – Overtime
Pay – The joy in the labor
Must be taken for granted

But what part of it will have impressed itself most deeply upon his consciousness when he is ready to build his own life?

At a restaurant one night with a friend way back, I realized in the talking and sharing just how much the affirmation from my parents – especially my mother – rooted me deeply and well in life. The extent to which her genuine verbal confidence in me has rippled throughout my life and relationships became startingly clear.

Solitary Confinement, a Window into Life

A good friend sent me this essay, saying, “Made me so sad. For the man he killed, for the family who suffered and for this man behind bars with a great gift who could have done so much.”

The story is not for the faint-hearted and it’s not something you read everyday.  It’s longer than the speed and fullness of my days normally allow.  So I don’t expect you to read the prison essay all the way through.  You don’t have to, to understand the thoughts that follow.

I’m not saying Blake doesn’t deserve punishment.  I did always consider – even as a high schooler – LIFE in prison to be worse than death.  Make it solitary and you have the worst form of torture – even apart from the animal conditions described.  The glimpse of this unthinkable existence got me thinking about the basic things that make us human.

“Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however…Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones.”

Our very body proclaims that life is change. We live in constant flux, each of us a sentient network of innumerous biochemical activity, electromagnetic charges, neurotransmission – all in collaboration even to help you with the simple and sophisticated task of reading this thought.  About every four months, a red blood cell expires and is displaced by a new one. A cease in modulation in a major part of our structure or the whole would mean paralysis or death. There is a coherence to the changes. The bodily vicissitudes are not random but often follow cycles.  Of time, weather, season. For the person is a microcosmic embodiment of the universe. There is the planetary orbit.  The revolutions.  And we are governed by a circadian rhythm. Whether or not we choose to rise and set with the sun, our organ systems each heed their own clock of peak functioning in keeping with the tide of day and night.  The woman’s body is a candid avatar of the Cycle.

When change propels us forward, it is one for the better – to higher consciousness and goals, a broader base of knowledge and achievement. I think of my husband who is ever pushing the frontiers of his own learning, creating the next place to get to. The next instrument to craft, the new Samba beat to teach. While setting fresh goals for his son. If we devolved, we wouldn’t live our human potential. One of the most tragic sights is the rich, talented, and beautiful executing their own ruin, squandering faculty and resources on addictions. When, on perfectly good legs, they turn and walk away from the horizon of promise. It is pitiful because this forward movement is a capacity particular to man, as history shows. Mineral, plant, animal remain their characteristic matter and energy over time. But giraffes over two thousand years ago did not learn to build fire or revamp their lifestyle by the industrial revolution. Human energy can carry a powerfully constructive, creative momentum.

Where we take pause in the movement to recalibrate, we gather meaning from where we’ve been.  Solitary confinement becomes a senseless existence because the days that have passed there bear no such thing as progress. The Box is a vacuum devoid of virtually all organic markers of change, of direction. There is no purpose to breathing – only the death grip on sanity.  Hope is a picture we paint of a better place we imagine for ourself, a new place to go. It provides meaning for the present and future. But there is no hope in vacuity.

We don’t draw meaning in isolation but against a communal tapestry where we locate our own thread that contributes to the greater design. Which takes us to the most salient characteristic of solitary confinement. Why is our social nature of significance?

Even if you don’t believe we bear the image of God in a way plants and animals do not, you have to listen to what our communicative capacity says about personhood. We certainly can talk to ourself, but communication is at its most meaningful when it happens in a social context, with someone who gives us audience. The fact that we can speak is its own witness that we are born into a world where we can expect others to tune into us.  Now, while animals have a language, our innate need to express takes us more deeply and richly into articulation of complex structure and substance and medium. Not only speech, but also art, allow us to mark our personal identity and broad humanness. I express myself through the writing and my music. Others paint, dance. God is known as the Living Word by which He spoke all things into life. We bear this divine image in the ways we speak our verbal, visual, physical art. In the artistic procreation, we do more than transmit energy, breathe, even learn. We birth something of beauty.

Prayer is the highest plane of articulation. Throughout the ages the peoples have continued to pray. That is, to utter fear, hope, joy to a God who is invisible. The drive to communicate at the most human level impels a faith that Someone hears. And cares. What completes our humanity is a relationship with the Deity.


But still the noise was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one another for even reasons they didn’t know, threatening to kill one another’s mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all around who for too long dwell there.

In a box frozen in time and consequently no hope for change, the one thing the prisoners in confinement have is the insatiable need to express themselves. The only way they can is through the pressure valve of helpless rage. One could hardly feel human there.

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight [Thoughts on Women and Suffering]

I’ve always been drawn to African-American history.  This novel I picked up four years ago repaints the slave culture of Louisiana that was new to me.  Something struck me about the half-white, half-black protagonist.  I wrote the author, a writing professor at the University of Riverside 20 minutes away.  Here are the excerpts of my email and of her reply:

It struck me that Moinette could have been Asian.  There is something singular about the poignancy of Korean drama.  The premodern Korean woman in particular was literally long-suffering.  It was not only the incredible afflictions Moinette endured and navigated but her taciturn response, her posture that could have set her on an island on the other side of the world in Asia.  I found it so interesting that her measured narrative and matter-of-factness in all the adversity were culturally familiar to me.  Her voice.  Was it the unremitting suffering that evened the voice, the hopes?  Or that she was a woman?  Or that she was not white? 

I did not take to the style too much, especially in the beginning.  Fewer clipped sentences would’ve smoothed out the reading – at least for me.  I continued beyond the first chapter because I wanted to finish what I’d started, but from the point of Pelagie’s murder I was hooked and found myself moved by the last of the pages long after the reading. 

Thank you for the enlightening and stirring journey!

I’m glad you wrote.  I think those are some excellent parallels with the particular suffering of Asian women, of so many women of color.

A Very Thoughtful Gift

Two months ago, I received an email from Li, whom I’d like to meet someday.  She was planning a gift for Francesca, a mutual friend who is expecting, and asked for three things: a bead (of any sort) and two notes, a well wish for the Mom-to-Be and a well wish for the baby.  The beads formed the necklace, a collective token of love from Francesca’s friends.  The well wishes for the baby were transformed into an origami mobile.

This gift idea is one of the most thoughtful I’ve come across.  It was all a lot of work.  Li contacted Francesca’s friends in secret.  Handiwork lovely, too.

photo (3)(1)  photo (4)

The Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings

When her middle-grade daughter doesn’t look as though she’ll ever master elementary math, Quinn pulls the trigger on herself and succumbs to the homeschooling she had half-toyed with in earlier years.  Mom chronicles the series of expeditions she sets out on in pursuit of first-hand insight into the different provinces of approach in homeschooling.  Apart from the trademark humor and her skillful writing, what I appreciate is her open-mindedness and the curiosity that never fails to reward.  Her action research takes her across the gamut of groups whose worldview has no congruity with hers, from unschooling hippies to the most insular fundamental Christians.  I like how the book closes a year’s trial in the new schooling – on a humble note of reposed uncertainty.  The different homeschool camps stake everything on their own philosophy and method.  But every child, every family is unique.  And along the way, life happens.  Quinn keeps it real.  The narrative is more about Mom’s movement through knock-kneed trepidation to creative resourcing, than it is about the student’s educational needs and strides.

Author response to the repeat question from her community on whether the family was going to continue homeschooling – from her final chapter:

In the extended dance remix, this question became: Are you going to continue to give Alice the benefits of one-on-one attention and open-ended time for self-discovery, to the possible detriment of her later ability to work in groups?  Or are you going to send her back to a public/private school and take the chance she’ll never develop a self-generated work ethic, but at least she’ll get some time away from your weirdness?  Of course, what some of them really wanted to know was: Quinn, will you ever wear real pants before noon again?  

I’d been asking myself the same questions.  The answer to all of them turns out to be: maybe.

I’m still nowhere near as confident about homeschooling as some of the parents I’ve met this year and I probably never will be.  This education we’re giving Alice is an experiment and not every experiment succeeds…but I feel considerably better about the choices we’re making.  Alice will learn and she will blossom and she will have friends.  If her current education stops working, I hope I will have the clarity to figure out what she needs and the fortitude to get it.  I’m pretty certain the options will grow wider and more interesting with each passing year.

I also know some lessons are best learned at a kitchen table and some lessons are best learned in a gymnasium, a lecture hall or a chemistry lab.  It would be nice if every student had better access to every option, and I anticipate that over the next decade they will.  For the first time in recent memory I’m looking at something that matters very, very much to me and feeling neither dread nor angst.  Oddly enough, I’m feeling optimistic.

It’s been an instructive year.


Dad got him on checkers last month, planning to hold off on the chess he was eager to teach.  Checkers would lay the foundation.  But, enchanted by the glass knight, Tennyson started asking and asking to learn chess.

“Mom, let’s play chess,” he’s asked numerous times, hooked.

I managed to provide plausible reasons why it wasn’t the best time.  Or offer Daddy up in my stead.  One particular morning last week, I came clean.

“I don’t know how, love.”

I always have freely admitted to him things I don’t know (let’s look it up) or am not good at (now DADDY’s talented at that).  But curiously, embarrassment the size of a micron weighed on my ego in the confession.

So I asked my son to teach me.  Not only so he could feel that Mom was connecting, entering his world; but so he would internalize the rules and strategizing in the coaching.  Of course I sound the braggart mom:  I was surprised at how good a teacher he was.  After explaining who’s who and how each piece moves, Tennyson encouraged me to try each out.

“The Bishop moves diagonally like this.”
“The Knight moves 1, 2 Boom.  The Queen can go anywhere.”

The enacting helped him remember the rules.  Father and Son stuck each other with the sword after each conquest: “King takes Knight.  ChArge!”

Earlier that morning I had been eyeing the chance to hunker down and get to the workbooks in math, sight words, and reading so I could in happy conscience have my student color in the little attendance box that attests we did “school” that day.  It’s a well-worn tune.  Home educators know learning is so much more than those books or the completed checklist, but what is so darn comforting about these things?

The morning instead detoured to the Barney in Spanish that’s been partly responsible for the recent stream of Latin American songs and numbers out of the little guy’s mouth.  Then came the chess.

He at one point changed his mind and decided not to eat my Pawn – to keep his King from being taken by mine.  “Let me THINK.  Let me THINK…” he determined, poised over the board.

Yeah, Mom.  Let him think.

“You’re doing so great with him, honey,” I commended Daddy yesterday.
“You mean I wasn’t doing so great before?”


A recent match: Daddy realized it was Checkmate.  He had no moves left.  His son had won.