A Tether Between Our Teeth
Last night, I took my daughter Aliyah, home from college, to a gospel music worship service -- actually a history of gospel music -- at our local (mostly) African-American Baptist Church. I emphasize 'mostly' because in reality New Life Baptist is the most racially integrated house of worship in our town. Years ago, we helped Aliyah reorganize an entire homeschooling week so that she could attend and perform in a "women of praise" gospel music workshop.
When I arrived, I was certain that I didn't want to be there. It had nothing to do with religion, even though my own is very different - brought up Jewish, and a convinced Friend (Quaker) for more than 30 years. We usually worship in silent expectation, waiting upon that which will call us to ourselves that very day. Sometime it is profound; sometimes I make "to do" lists in my head; I learned long ago that profundity and shopping lists are both part - and probably necessary parts -- of God's continuing soap opera for me. Others will feel differently. I have friends at New Life Baptist, and since I don't get there very often, I expected it to be a real treat, and had been looking forward to it for several weeks.
But now I was certain I didn't want to be there. I have been sick for the previous 10 days - sore throat, cough, fever, chills, running nose, difficulty swallowing, ears ringing, you know the drill - and haven't yet been able to shake it. I sat down feeling sorry for myself, and all the things I had hoped to accomplish in the past 10 days which were now down the tube. Mucus ran down the back of my throat, and I'd forgotten the throat lozenges, and my handkerchief was disgusting. And then I began to reflect upon the fact that I wasn't likely to get better for four or five days more, imagined all the things I now wasn't likely to accomplish, and felt even sorrier. I just wanted to go lie down, even though I was quick to acknowledge to myself that lying down simply made me feel worse!
I was in a sorry state. I was caught between past regrets and future intimations of suffering (I did promise my wife that I wasn't going to die soon, if I could help it.) And then they started to sing. It took me awhile to be cleansed in the reverberation. I didn't want to surrender my misery. Slowly but surely, or maybe not so surely at least at first, I was swallowed by song. Took a little while longer for forgetfulness to kick in, and for me to be surrounded in the bubble. I began to keep time on the side of my pew with my right hand (I purposefully sat on the end, in case I needed to run out for a drink of water), and then decided I could clap, and then decided I could stand up, like everyone else, and then I couldn't remember what the last song was as soon as the next one began, and then I couldn't even remember the last verse, and the way the call-and-response broke up the lines into single words, I couldn't remember the line that came before.
And then there was only the present. Past regrets had melted away. Future doubts were yet to be known. I was right here, finding a place of stillness awash in sound. No ears ringing. Present. Just a beating heart. Or as my favorite religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it ("God's Grandeur"), "World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
I slept very well that night, perhaps for the first time in ten days. Awoke still with the sniffles.
* * * * *
My only next-door neighbor Evalyn Poff died this morning, after a long and compelling life. She was 86. Her memorial service is likely to be attended by the Governor if she is in town, various members of the state legislature, the Mayor, virtually everyone who knows anyone in the political life of our fair city. She was never elected to public office, but was county chair of one of the political parties, and one of our town's most respected denizens.
However, that is not how Evalyn will be remembered in our family. Evalyn was Meera's first piano teacher (at age 2), though the relationship was never formalized. It was simply the place where she and, it turns out, half a dozen other children in the neighborhood learned to play, between snacks, snatches of conversation, and hitting up her husband Dick for pennies and nickels, and occasional dollar bills (most of which we made her return.)
Evalyn's careers were wide-ranging, from shoe saleswoman, to international clothing buyer, to university accountant, to legislative aide, at which she worked until only six months before her death. But I think what made the largest impression, and which she said had kept her young all these years was her first job, working her way through college (and out of South Dakota, where she was one of 10 children) as a circus trapeze artist and acrobat. "There," she'd say, pointing out the old photograph of the 20-year-old in a leotard, "I used to swing out over the circus ring by holding onto a tether between my teeth."
Evalyn was a godsend for Meera. Both my wife and I are rather sedentary sorts, not just in our levels of physical activity, but in the depths of who we are. We try, occasionally, we get up on the treadmill, I haul myself down to jazzercise, but the truth is we are, like Aliyah, nouns, not verbs. Meera is most assuredly a verb. So was Evalyn. We have two favorite photographs. The first shows Meera at four (and Evalyn in her mid-70s), on rollerblades, Meera dressed in red sweatpants, red shirt, protective helmet, and a mink stole pillaged from a neighborhood yard sale. The second is the two of them on bikes, Meera decked out in pink tutu - I don't think Evalyn could find hers that day.
And so from Evalyn, we learned about verbs, not only how to deal with ours, but what they can look like as active, engaged, extraordinary adults. We knew none of this when we moved in 15 years ago, and for reasons unclear, the value of having the right neighbors is not usually included in real estate prices. Good thing, too, for, with Evalyn being priceless, we never could have afforded the house!
It is unlikely that many of you reading this would have come to know me, or I you, were it not for Evalyn. In late December 1996, we experienced an ice storm that left us without electricity for 11 days. As it turned out, our gas stove still worked, but we had no heat. Evalyn's house had a woodstove for heating, but no way to cook. So for 11 days, we ferried back in forth. I sat in a rocking chair next to the woodstove with a yellow legal pad, and wrote what I thought at the time would simply be a keepsake for the kids. Those scribblings became my first homeschooling book And the Skylark Sings with Me.
So much of what makes a difference in our homeschooling lives is the degree to which we allow the best that our communities and neighbors have to offer into them. This would be true for non-homeschoolers as well, but what homeschooling does is to allow us to open ourselves to this learning with intention. We allow our children to become rooted in a series of concentric streams of experience: within our families, neighborhoods, communities, ecosystem, nation, and world. And once we start thinking about rooting our kids this way within these interpenetrating streams of experience, somehow some of it is likely to wash over us as well. Unbound from the factory mentality that public education has come to embody, and free from "the dreary shower", our children and, if we can gather up the courage, we ourselves, are ready to joyously swing out over the circus ring of this strange and wondrous world, the tether held firmly between our teeth.
Thank you, Evalyn!