Gingerbread (again) and joy

Each year, the approach of December fills me with both eager anticipation and . . . dread. It is hard to make it through the Thanksgiving break without worrying about the coming month. Then December comes, and dough in quantities large enough to build (literally) a 4-bedroom, 2 ½ bath Colonial on Winch Street must be made. Supplies must be checked and laid in, which sometimes requires several trips to BJ’s.

Cannon-&-Dylan851Most of all, schedules have to be worked out. We need time to make trees and cookies with the younger students – and willing older people to help. And we need at least six separate days just for the gingerbread houses.

The house scheduling is a nightmare in and of itself. Much bigger than the actual making. Here’s why:

  • Everyone wants the days that are good for them—fair enough!
  • Everyone has days that are absolutely out for them—when you are dancing in the Nutcracker in Boston that night, it is not a good day to be scheduled.
  • Everyone wants to do it with their friends—some people have a dozen or so “best” friends.
  • The kitchen is actually quite small, so you can only make so many houses in one day. (Seven is about the top. Eight is an occasional must.)

Most kids don’t care about the exigencies of scheduling. Why should they? They want it to work out the way they prefer, and feel confident that it will. I, on the other hand, want them to be happy too—why not? We are all there to have fun in this activity! This year, for the first time ever, I think, a young child came to me after the final schedule was posted and said, “Thank you for scheduling me with my friends.” I almost fell over from the sweetness. Somehow she knew that it cost blood, sweat, and tears to make the schedule. And this year, also for the first time, only one person complained (a tiny bit) about not having the day she wanted. She also had friends with her on the new day, which made it easier to accept.

So that part went sweetly well. Not easily, but oh, so sweetly.

Several things happened this year that were astoundingly wonderful. Several new staff members learned the whole process of making houses in a way that makes it possible for them to lead, or second, the job. This was a quantum leap in terms of having available responsible adults for the future. It removes some of the burden from the people that have been making houses with students for up to 40 years – me, Dan, and, though he would hope never to have to be in charge of this, Mikel.

Making-Frosting-Colors771The other wonderful thing that happened is that several teens just couldn’t seem to stay away. There are always a set of people who lead the activity, but there is just so darn much work that there is always more work ready for extra people! What happened this year has happened before, but it just feels so good. A few teens were just . . . always available. Not in a “come and get me if you need me” way, but in a “here I am, shall I make frosting, shall I make colors,” etc., way.

So for me gingerbread this year was less fraught with anxiety and more just wonderful. There were no groups that presented difficulties, and it is hard to imagine that there ever were in the past, although I know that there have been “days from hell” before! But it gave me a chance to think about happiness.

Baked-gingerbread778It takes a lot of adults/older teens to make a gingerbread day happen. It starts when the dough gets made by a bunch of them, and it continues as the younger kids need help with every part of the day’s activities, from figuring out if the pans are greased well enough, to using the dough “space” economically. Then there’s loading the trays and baking—no younger students are involved with that activity—and helping with  problems that develop during the decorating.Big-Ben-in-the-making826 Last, but far from least is putting the houses together, which involves dipping the gingerbread pieces in boiling sugar while the 7 or 11 or 14 year olds stay safely to the side directing the placement.

Then, it’s on to the inevitable grinding job of getting it all cleaned up and put away. I often marvel to myself that, at the end of the day, the kids usually don’t thank the whole cadre of people in the room — often four or five — who are helping. This year I had time to realize that they aren’t even noticing the helping: they are too busy with the doing. I wonder whether they could even tell you who was helping, if you asked them! They are simply too  exhausted when they are finally done to realize what has been going on. Glazed!

Asyah-decorating806But there is plenty of time in the room to watch faces and to almost see intensity. It is not necessarily a party atmosphere — hardly grim, but decidedly concentrated and skewed towards one difficult thing after another. But we all get happiness from it. So I guess that must be where happiness comes from — from sticking to hard stuff, from finishing tasks that you have chosen, from knowing that what you have done doesn’t look one bit like what anyone else has done, even with the same templates, from knowing you have done your share — and also knowing that you have, often, shared.

And I guess that is why those older kids can’t stop helping, and why staff members want to learn how to do it (even though they are going to get burnt!). That is where our happiness comes from. It is not just a matter of wanting to help children do what they have set out to do. It is not that. Rather, it is being part of a big job, undertaken by a lot of intense people with shifting roles, beautiful and heart-warming when the fluidity of it all coming together happens, as it does many times each gingerbread day, for each house.Giraffehouse2014See some gingerbread bakers in action in this short video.

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The “do nothing” strategy

This week’s post was written by SVS parent Carolyn Shepard Fox.

When my oldest daughter, Sarah, was three and a half, we had a 20-minute drive home from her nursery school, a special place where I believed Sarah had the freedom to grow and learn without imposed academic structure. On each drive home I would ask, “What did you do today?” Glancing in the rear view mirror, I could see her sitting quietly in her car seat, looking intently out the side window. She’d answer, “Oh, nothing really.”

As a parent helper, I had observed the flutter of activity that filled her mornings at school. I knew that she had done far from nothing. Her thoughtful response of “nothing really” left me wondering, what does doing nothing really mean?

In my work as a midwife, I firmly subscribed to the belief that midwifery is the art of doing nothing well. So much of attending birth is watching and waiting as a very natural process unfolds. Doing nothing until you have to do something. I recall one of the first births I attended as a brand new midwife. The labor was long—nearly 72 hours. It was the woman’s first baby, and she was tired and afraid. However, her body slowly moved the process along, and her strong, healthy baby continued to do well. We waited and watched, hour after hour. And every few hours, my nurse and physician colleagues wanted to know what “we” were going to do. Hospital culture has little understanding for the process of waiting and seemingly doing nothing.

“The labor is progressing, and the baby is doing well. We’ll continue to support the woman and we’ll wait,” was my best answer. Not having the clout of a more seasoned midwife, I knew my response was met with deep skepticism and concern. But, after what seemed like an eternity, the woman gave birth to a very healthy 11-pound baby.

In a medicalized world of birth, very few women are allowed to labor for 3 long days without some kind of intervention. And for several days, the hospital staff told stories about the birth of the “giant” baby.

To this day, I am impressed by the power of watching and waiting. It wasn’t easy. I wanted the birth to happen faster just as much as everybody else did. I felt exhausted, challenged by my limited clinical experience, and a little afraid. But, I drew on all the things I knew about birth and its progress. I made sure the woman and her baby were safe at all times, watching closely for any sign that either of them was in danger.

But more importantly, I protected the woman’s space to “just be” and her right to give birth without unnecessary intervention. I respected the mystery of nature and its power to unfold. In watching and waiting, I honored the art of doing nothing well.

In doing nothing we become excellent at waiting. Waiting gives us a chance to see what may come. When I plant seeds in the early spring, I cover them with earth, sprinkle them with water and then wait. It often seems like nothing is happening, and every year I wonder if they’ll actually grow. And they do. Nothing becomes something in a matter of days.

When my middle child and second daughter, Jane, started at Sudbury Valley School, she’d never been to school before. She started within days of her fourth birthday. All that winter she stayed by her sister Sarah’s side. Now nearly 11, Sarah and her friends spent their days talking, hanging out, playing on laptops, iPads and phones, and exploring the outdoors. And Jane followed them around like a little duckling. She insisted that Sarah sign her in and out, take her to the bathroom and walk her to the refrigerator for her lunch box. To her credit, Sarah took care of Jane. This went on into the spring and early summer months.

“How was school today?” I would ask Jane on our short ride home.
“It was sooooooooooo boring.”
“You didn’t do anything?”
“No, Mama, nothing.”

But despite her proclamations of boredom, Jane never seemed unhappy or resistant to going to school. Most notably, she came home with an air of confidence and self-possession that made her seem somehow older. After a day of imposed closeness at school, I expected Jane and Sarah to readily escape from each other when they came home. But instead, they would often continue to play enthusiastically until bedtime. To make clear that we do not exist in a bizarre family utopia, Sarah did express frustration about Jane’s neverending presence in her school life.

She’d ask,”When is Jane going to do something by herself?”
And I’d answer,”One day she’s going to start doing her own thing I promise.” Or so I hoped.

Summer came, school ended, and we all wondered what Jane would do when she returned to SVS in the fall. September, October and part of November came and went, and Jane continued to follow Sarah around.

The question of intervention loomed like a dark cloud. Did we need to do something after doing nothing for so long? I was afraid, and my nagging shadow self wondered if I was a bad parent. Maybe waiting and doing nothing was the wrong choice. Should we withdraw Jane from school? What if she just wasn’t ready to be at SVS? What was this doing to Sarah?

But somewhere under all of those doubts and fears, a small voice said, “Have faith in Jane. She’s doing so much. I can’t see it, but just like a seed in the garden, she’s growing, and the first bits of green will poke through the soil any time now.” And then one day in the darkest part of late November, a time when no seed grows here in New England, Jane left her sister’s side and made a friend. And that was that. Independent Jane was born!

In doing nothing, we give our children space to be. Seekers sit in meditation for years to glimpse this kind of giving over to Nothingness. For it is in this space of Nothingness that growth occurs. As a parent, as a midwife, as a gardener, and as a human being, the challenge of deciding when to do something and when to do nothing requires a constant awareness of the most basic emotions.

Fear makes me want to muck about, to intervene, to try to correct something I think might be wrong. But Jane’s experience, like a long birth or a seed in the spring garden, reminded me that the instinct to wait and see, the act of doing nothing, allows for something to be.



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Playing with books

This week’s blog post was written by SVS staff member Sylvia Beier.

4.30_joaquinThe SVS library is making me so happy. I am much more of a reader than a collector of books, but libraries play a big role in my life. As a teenager, I skipped school a lot to go to the library to wander around the stacks. I was looking for something, and I did not quite know what it would be – but when I found it I knew it was it.

One of my very early memories of books – way back from before I could read – is playing with the paperback detective novels on the shelves behind my father’s favorite reading chair. What I would do is take them off the shelf, stack them up, organize them, and try to put them back in various ways, trying to make them fit and somehow look good.

How did I organize them? By color, design, size. I clearly remember an intriguing bunch of mostly bright red books sporting a distinctive black and white stripe pattern on the top of the spine (Rex Stout?), and another group that was mostly white (Simenon!) Some books had a little owl graphic on the spine, others a stylized image of three fish. Then there were odd ones that did not seem to go with any others. And some came in slightly different sizes, sticking out here and there.

A bit frustratingly, there wasn’t ever enough space for all of them to fit, so after experiments with vertical positioning and horizontal piling, I resorted to laying some books flat on top of the rows.

Altogether, not so different from what I spent the summer doing at SVS.

Last summer, I not only had the pleasure of thinking back to this utterly absorbing childhood activity of mine, but I was also allowed to relive it when I took over the cleaning, sorting, and arranging of the  SVS library.

As I began to discover as a child in my world between reading chair and bookshelf, you can arrange books based on a variety of factors:

  • Spine design –  My past favorite
  • Color – Still popular with some interior decorators
  • Publisher – The French bookstores do this and it looks fabulous)
  • Author’s gender – The fictitious Komura library in Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore”
  • Your bookshelf – You need an extra sturdy one for the National Geographic Magazine! (Its paper is made with clay and heavy as brick!)

Organizing by subjects and authors is popular. The alphabet is everywhere, and does not only provide the first building blocks of what’s in a book, but an overarching system for spreading them over shelves and rooms.

Books seem to suggest order: start picking them off a shelf or begin stacking up some that are lying about in a heap, and themes begin to emerge, categories evolve. You put some together that seem to go together, like socks, sort of, and before you know it you start dreaming up possible systems, with each book a little fragment of a larger whole – until there comes the odd book, that does not fit anywhere, like those darn extra socks.

Better stick to the pragmatic. Book organizing has always been a bit flawed, not just because there is always that one book that is too large for the size of the shelf, but because it is an attempt to organize something the entirety of which is unknown. New books are continuously written and published by humans whose primary interest is not necessarily to neatly fit into an established library category (even though that might help in getting published.)

For example, where were all the computer books in 1900? And what is a computer book anyway? A book about desktops and laptops? Programming? Software? Games? Electronic Social Media? Information Security? All of the above and more? What an explosion in new categories!

So what should the SVS library look like? How should it be organized? Around 2010, the SVS Library Committee decided that the library should be as “browser friendly” as possible, and books should be arranged in a way that easily communicated what was on the shelves. The Library of Congress system we had been using didn’t satisfy that purpose, so the school began working on a large scale library re-organization project.

In Phase 1, books are being arranged under headings such as Biology, Religion, Literature, Art, Architecture, Applied Science, Chemistry, US History, derived from what we have on the shelves – and we have a lot!

In Phase 2, within each heading, books are being further arranged according to what makes sense given the books we have and continue to add to the library. Literature is arranged alphabetically by author. History by themes such as The Civil War, World War I, World War II.

Every room will have a list of the kind of books it contains and how they are arranged—not by color, I’m afraid.

We are in the midst of it, and it is very exciting!

Most marvelously, because our library is not a museum, but an entity that lives within its community, it will never be finished, so we can continue to play with books at SVS.


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