Reblog: Testing

Words by Deborah Markus.

Words by Deborah Markus.

Is re-blogging similar to re-gifting? Just wondering, as I am okay with both. We are testing this week, and I remembered this story/post from last year. I needed to hear these words again, and thought maybe someone else might too. We have had a wonderful year, but I am looking forward to formally closing it out and moving on: to summer, to planning for next year and to whatever lies ahead. I’m excited about chronicling some of it in this space and sharing it with you. Hope you have a fantastic day! xoxo, Sheila


We completed our state-mandated testing a couple of weeks ago. North Carolina is a very easy state in which to homeschool. Basically, you need to keep attendance records and administer a standardized test every year (all rules and regs for NC can be found here). The results are not reported to any state or local office, and merely need to be kept on file at home.

Vincent loves taking the test and he tests very well. That choleric fire comes out and he rises to the challenge. Me? I will admit to a twinge of nervousness. After opening the envelope and thumbing through the test booklet, the chatter in my head goes something like this: “Oh, we haven’t done that.” “We’re not doing that until next year.” “That’s a fourth grade concept?” I let myself have about five minutes of this useless, ridiculous, unfounded anxiety. The scores don’t even go anywhere!

I will save my verbose rant about “teaching to the test”, and merely say I think when we reduce education to a correct answer on a generic test, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Education is bigger than punctuation, isolated vocabulary, and poorly written word problems. Are the mechanics of grammar, the love of words and the concepts of mathematics important? Absolutely. However the measurement of them in isolation is flawed at best. At least this is what I tell myself after my five-minute panic.

We have made the choice to homeschool our children. Our decision is not reactionary in any way. It is not a rejection of something, but rather an embrace of something else. Even though the number of families choosing to homeschool is growing, we are clearly in the minority of those with school-aged children. As Waldorf-inspired homeschoolers, we are a minority within a minority. This is where we have chosen to be, and I would not change our decision for anything.

On our second and final day of testing, Jude chose a book of poetry for me to read during storytime, which included the following stanza from “Rose Pogonias” by Robert Frost:

We raised a simple prayer

Before we left the spot,

That in the general mowing

That place might be forgot;

Or if not all so favored,

Obtain such grace of hours,

That none should mow the grass there

While so confused with flowers.

After storytime, both boys went out to play. Vincent was trying to catch butterflies in a field of clover. Not an hour later, my neighbor came to mow that field. We waved to him and watched him from the back porch. The English major in me couldn’t resist getting the book and reading that stanza again. No explications or explanations. Just the words. The perfect words to name that sweet sadness. Natasha Trethewey, our new poet laureate here in the US, says that poetry finds a way to “speak the unspeakable.” I couldn’t agree more.

On our final day of testing, I was taught a lesson that I seem to have to learn and relearn – again and again. What we do and how we spend our days matters. This is the education we have chosen and that we want for our boys: something that fosters thought, encourages connection and speaks truth. Ultimately what we teach and what we learn should reflect, engender and celebrate all that is. On that day, education looked like a tractor in a field. It smelled like freshly cut clover. It sounded like poetry written before I was born. Above all, it felt like home.

Simple Gifts

The boys are learning “Simple Gifts” on the penny whistle this month. Their teacher sent this link of the song performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss. The combination of his cello and her voice is spectacular. I bought the single on iTunes and have been playing it repeatedly as my morning meditation. The “valley of love and delight” can seem so elusive some days, and then there are those other days . . . those blessed days that I want to savor and remember always. In the spirit of gratitude during this week of Thanksgiving, I have listed some of the simple gifts I am thankful for. If you are inspired, please leave your own in the comments. Wishing you all a lovely Thanksgiving.

* The smell of Italian sausage frying, early on a Sunday morning.

* Fresh milk, still warm from the cow, delivered to my door.

* Little-boy hands wrapped up in wool yarn, knitting away on the couch.

* Conversations that leave me a better person.

* The sound of my sewing machine crafting holiday gifts.

* Moving things around and sprucing up the house.

* Our families, both far-flung this year. We miss you all!

* Friends, close enough and kind enough, to let us invite ourselves to Thanksgiving dinner.

* Bluebirds and cardinals that add a vibrancy to the brown landscape.

* Neighbors and friends who raise and grow so much of our food.

* An online community that has astounded me with its capacity for intimacy, openness and support. (That’s you!)

* One and half hours of chatting before buying 4 dozen eggs.

* Friday night phone calls with my favorite sister-in-law.

* Long overdue correspondence, stamped and mailed.

* Random notes and recognizable melodies coming from aforementioned penny whistles somewhere in the house.

* Heart-pounding walks with my dog that start with a lot more layers of clothing than they end with.

Pushing Boundaries

Most times when I talk to my neighbors there is some kind of physical barrier between us. Usually it’s a creek, barbed wire, a cattle gate or some combination of the three. They are usually working on one side. I am usually walking with my dog on the other. Fencing is a big deal around here, and the famous line from Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors” often echoes in my mind when I am walking their mishmash, yet meticulously kept, fence lines. Recently I went back and read the whole of that poem, “Mending Wall,” and was struck by these words: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Metaphorical fences have occupied a lot of my inner work this past year. And unlike my neighbors, who have dozens and dozens of four-legged reasons to keep building and maintaining their fences, I have worked hard this year to dismantle some of those boundaries that no longer serve me. I have repeatedly asked myself Frost’s three implicit questions: what was I walling in? what was I walling out? and whom was I offending? The answers to these questions surprised me, as they were the same in practically every situation. Always, always, always, I was walling in myself – well, me and my fear. On the other side was a sense of freedom, usually some sort of creative self-expression. And the kicker – who was I offending? – no one!!! Nobody even knows the stupid fence exists except for me.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have a deep respect and an unabashed love for my neighbors, both the people they are and the work that they do. Back in the spring, I spent what I now refer to as “the lovely day” with two of them. They were cutting oats in the field that borders mine. It was one of those days that seems somehow suspended in time – long, languid and sweet. After they put in a hard day’s work – baling some 8,000 pounds of oats – we spent about an hour or so talking. That day was a touchstone for me – the balance of intense physical labor with easy conversation. The lesson that there is time for what is necessary.

So many times I wanted to capture that day on film – well, on my iPhone. But I was too embarrassed and afraid of what they would think. I surreptitiously took the shot above, but I was standing rather far away. It is one of the few photos I have ever edited for this blog. After that day, I decided I was going to muster my courage and take some proper pictures. I told myself they probably weren’t going to think anything – or anything worse than what they already think! The first time I asked my neighbor to take his picture, my hands were shaking so badly, the shot came out blurry. The second time, I simply said, “Don’t move,” and snapped the shot.

Fast forward a couple of months. I spent a Saturday evening in late summer with these same two neighbors. We were way back in the cow pasture, and I took 70 photographs. Most were of Holstein steers, but many of my neighbors too. That evening led to this post that I absolutely love. I love chronicling this part of my everyday life. My neighbors are an intimate part of this landscape that is so dear to my heart. So I will continue taking pictures of them on their side of the fence – mending barbed wire bare-handed, baling hay, working the land – while I enjoy the freedom I have found on the other side.

What Waldorf Looks Like in My Home

This post is a part of Waldorf Wednesday. See all the links here.

I accuse my friend Alisha of living in a felted house. I have this idyllic picture in my head of her charming setting: winding paths that connect the (felted) houses, vibrant Waldorf-inspired homeschooling co-ops, seasonal festivals complete with happy families and cherubic children. There are probably even gnomes perched under beeswax lamp posts scattered throughout the neighborhood. I know this is not true – well, the paths, co-op and festivals are – I’m not sure about the gnomes. It is so easy to compare, contrast and find ourselves lacking when we think about what Waldorf homeschooling looks like elsewhere.

My house is not felted. My walls are not even lazured. There is no natural wood anywhere, and my boys have never had a Waldorf doll, play stands or knitted gnome hats. Pretty early on, I learned the outward symbols of Waldorf did not impart any of the intentionality, spirituality and simplicity I wanted in our home. Because, trust me, I tried to just “buy” Waldorf in the beginning. I spent a lot of money – this is not hard! – on art supplies, child-sized German brooms and dust pans, anthroposophical books that were (and still are) beyond my comprehension and a myriad of other wooden, silken and beeswax-covered items. I scattered these things around our home and hoped, like fairy dust, they would work their magic. Surprisingly, this did not happen.

The other unfortunate misconception I had in the beginning was thinking Waldorf was more about the boys than it was about me. Three years into this gig and I can say with confidence: it has so very precious little to do with my boys, and so, so very much to do with me. If I can quiet my mind, open my heart and hold the space, things happen. Big things happen. Unfortunately there is not a formula, a catalog, a website or a blog that can tell you exactly how to do this. It’s setting the intention. It’s knowing your children. It’s connecting with the angels. It’s doing all of this over and over and over. Day after day. Some days, hour after hour.

Having said all of that, there are some over-arching tenets that translate and define what Waldorf looks like at our house. My particular way of manifesting Waldorf comes with a healthy dose of Simplicity Parenting. When Waldorf gets too complicated (which is not hard, especially in the beginning) I fall back on Kim John Payne’s advice: less words, less stuff, less choices. From there, it is easier to return to center and continue down the path. Anyway, here is some idea of what Waldorf looks like in my home.

  • Seeing the whole child and educating the whole child: mentally, physically, spiritually.
  • Taking into account the ages of my children and the corresponding anthroposophical stage of human development.
  • Honoring story and art as much as math and science.
  • Knowing time outside to be paramount – second only to sleep.
  • Limiting screen time to about once a week.
  • Using handwork, form drawing, and full body movement to address a variety of physical, emotional and spiritual challenges.
  • Utilizing the temperaments as a guide in parenting.
  • Encouraging wonder, awe and reverence in myself and in my children.
  • Holding a daily, weekly and seasonal rhythm.

If a Tree Falls . . .

Sometimes I feel like I cannot scratch an itch without it being seen and talked about in this little town of mine. My neighbors keep a close eye on all that goes on around here. Which, truth be told, is not much. Cows graze, rain falls (or doesn’t), gardens grow, fields are tended, people drive up the road and then back down the road. This dearth of activity produces a soothing predictability that has laid claim to my heart. Big news around here can sometimes be sitting in a field one usually walks through. Such an aberration on my part caused a neighbor to get in his truck and come make sure everything was all right. I assured him I was fine. It was a quiet Sunday morning, I had a good friend singing in my ear and I couldn’t think of any better way to spend an hour than to sit in this particular field and watch the grass grow. I was told the story of my deviance from another neighbor of mine who owns the field. He said he had told yet a third neighbor that if he saw me sitting in that field that everything was probably okay. Although as he said this, he did give me a slight tilt of head, as if questioning the sanity of someone just sitting in a field.

Most of the time, I am appreciative of these watchful eyes, as I know their intentions are heartfelt. So you would think when a 50 foot black walnut tree came down in our front yard during a crazy storm one afternoon, my neighbors would be all over it. I expected phone calls, pickup trucks in my driveway, offers of tractors and chain saws, advice on tree removal, stories about cracking the nuts that came from the tree. The silence that followed the storm was deafening. It took a full 24 hours for one neighbor to putt-putt over here on his lawn mower to investigate. He looked at me funny and said, “What happened?” I stated the obvious, and told him the tree fell during the storm we had on Monday. He responded, “Well I didn’t see it.” I didn’t quite know what to say, but I did feel slightly complicit in some sort of vague subterfuge.

Another neighbor (the one who saw me sitting in the field from a good quarter mile away) was standing in my driveway on Wednesday morning, 36 hours after the tree had fallen and not 20 feet from it, failed to notice the wreckage. After we had made small talk for about 5 minutes, I idiotically said, “I have a tree in my front yard.” He looked in the direction of our garden and said, “Well, my grandpaw, he always said those trees would make good shade one day.” I didn’t think this was the proper response, and I began to question his sanity. I then said, “Do you see the tree laying in my front yard.” He turned his head a fraction of an inch and his jaw dropped. “When did that happen?” I told him the same thing I told my other neighbor: “Monday during the storm.” “Well how come I didn’t know about it?” I didn’t have an answer for him either. Yet a third neighbor stopped me on Wednesday afternoon and said, “I think you’ve got somethin’ a-layin’ in your yard.” He probably had driven past my house at least six times since it happened. I told him that we had a tree come down in the storm on Monday. He looked at me incredulously and said, “But I just now noticed it.” Again, what was there to say?

Now that the news is out there, the offers of help and equipment, much advice and many stories have poured in just as I expected. I have lived in this house for a dozen years and have only now just discovered this little parcel of privacy. If I ever do get an itch or want to just sit and watch the grass grow, you can rest assured I’ll be doing it in the middle of my front yard.

PS. Amazingly we suffered no damage to our house. The tree fell just to the right of our power lines and just shy of the front porch. It clipped the gutter, but only dented it slightly. I love it when something nutty happens and the only thing to come out of it is a good story.

PPS. In deference to my neighbors, you really couldn’t see the tree unless you were standing on our front porch. Between the chest-high hay fields and the way our house sits, it was perfectly hidden from view.