Knots

Last week was my spring break.

From school, anyway.

I spent almost the whole of it cleaning my house and purging stuff that should have been pitched long ago (which I vow to do every time I watch Hoarding: Buried Alive, chills crawling up my spine, icy fingers squeezing my heart). As I worked through closets, drawers, cabinets, the garage, I actually felt lighter myself, like a ship might feel when its ballast is tossed overboard. Of course I thought a lot, wrote a lot in my head while I worked, metaphorical stuff like we don’t often get to lighten our own burdens and decluttering is not just liberating; it’s healing. Basically all sorts of take-charge-of-your-life analogies, for that, in essence, is what I was doing, reclaiming my life from a surfeit of junk.

Until the knots.

I was on such a roll in the garage, once it was cleared, dusted, and swept (it’s much larger than I remembered), that my eyes fell upon the dog’s leash which hangs on a peg by the door.  It’s a moderately heavy chain, as Banjo, our yellow Lab, is an enthusiastic, massive beast, pushing 100 pounds.

There were knots in said leash.

This irritated me.

To an inexplicable degree.

My husband usually takes Banjo out in the mornings, and our son, Cadillac Man, will do it later in the day. How can they just let the leash get knotted like this? Are they going to let it go until it’s one giant ball of metal and of no use whatsoever? Do they know how lazy and uncaring this looks? 

Those were—alas—my thoughts.

Being on an organizational rampage, as it were, I couldn’t just wait for one of them to undo these maddening knots. In fact, I didn’t even think of waiting for them. If you want something done . . . I wanted the knots out, right then, so I set about it.

It was harder than I expected.

Chain links, especially tightly-knotted ones, don’t “give” very easily. I thought about my many tangled necklaces, how I sometimes poke a needle through the tiny chains until knots loosen enough for me to pull them out. I would need a tool. Say, a flat-head screwdriver.

At first, poking the knotted leash with the screwdriver did nothing.

I poked harder. 

Stabbed, to be precise.

Still nothing.

I discovered—well into an hour of beating at the first knot, my determination mounting by the moment—that if I also twisted at the knot while I struck it, the one link holding up the works would finally shift, and then the knot could be worked out.

The second knot came undone much faster.

The last knot was nearly the death of me.

I went for the WD-40. I WOULD GET THIS KNOT OUT.

Between a liberal coating of oil and my manic chiseling, voilà! A knot-free leash! After two hours of intensive focus. This was the highlight of my day.

Which is actually sad, in retrospect, but we won’t dwell on that now.

I hung the lovely straight leash back on its peg in the garage, admired it proudly for a few minutes—how it glinted in the afternoon sunlight, seriously—and then I went inside the house to plot my next attack on another project.

Consumed by my various missions, I didn’t think to mention the leash to my family that night. The next morning, I got up early and remembered, so  . . .  I will just take Banjo out myself. 

The very thought of using the nicely-untangled leash made me irrationally happy. I got dressed, put on my shoes, bounced out the door, reached for the leash, and . . .

THE KNOTS WERE BACK!

ALL THREE OF THEM!

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I shouted.

Banjo cowered.

I collected myself enough to rub his belly and console him.

After taking care of the dog, trust that I hunted my husband down. There he sat in his chair, watching TV, sipping  his morning coffee.

I marched right up to him.

“DID YOU PUT KNOTS BACK IN THAT DOG LEASH?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind (highly probable, at the moment).

“Yeah, I put them back!”

“I spent two hours yesterday getting those knots out! Do you know how hard that was? I even had to use WD-40!  You couldn’t think to ask WHY the knots were suddenly gone? You just go and put them back without bothering to say anything?”

“I need those knots! They help me hold onto the chain better!”

I stood very still, many more unspoken words withering in my brain. My husband has arthritis. It often affects his hands and wrists. He also struggles with depth perception, having lost an eye three years ago. It never occurred to me that the knots had a purpose . . .

As if right on cue, Cadillac Man drifted through the living room in his pajamas and mad-scientist bed-hair (he is letting it grow).

“Hey,” he said. Then, after considering our faces: “What’s going on?”

My diatribe degraded into more of a lament: “I spent two hours yesterday getting the knots out of Banjo’s leash and your dad put them back in.”

“I need those knots!” my husband reiterated. “I was glad you put them there in the first place,” he told our son.

Cadillac Man raised his eyebrows. “I never put those in. I don’t know how the chain got like that.”

His father: “What? I thought you did!”

I sighed.

For it doesn’t matter how the knots got there the first time, even if I was right in my original hypothesis: they happened and kept happening because no one stopped to fix them.

What matters is this: That our worst knots in life occur from a lack of simple communication and our utter failure to see from a perspective other than our own.

The next morning, the knots were magically gone again. I thought my husband had relented, perhaps, or taken pity.

But no.

Cadillac Man undid them.

“I’d already told Dad I would take care of Banjo, so he doesn’t need those knots.”

I cannot say who’s really right or wrong anymore in this whole knotty scenario, only that it’s best to move on . . . and bless that boy.

Parodial school

School

School. vazovskyCC BY-SA

Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

– Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

They come to us just as they are.

That’s a good thing. Educators are to value student diversity, to see it as a gift in the classroom community – in fact, a teacher can be evaluated on this.

For children, we know, are not standardized.

They are living portfolios of experiences, abilities, thoughts, feelings, perspectives. They are unfinished stories, works in progress, masterpieces in the making.

Some know several languages. That’s diversity – a gift.

This doesn’t always show on a fluency assessment.

Some are born storytellers, song composers on the fly, wordsmiths extraordinaire, but only when speaking – not always when reading or writing.

Data points can’t capture innate artistry.

Some are engaged in tough battles, have greater mountains to climb – these kids aren’t from houses covered with vines who will go everywhere in two straight lines – yet there’s a nobility within them, born of courage, of gaining hard-won ground, more so than any knight of legendary lore.

Many of these are innovators. Because they have to be. The bulk of their energy goes not into conforming, but into coping.

Their diversity might blow the top off the charts while their test scores might lie at the other end of the spectrum. Growth is difficult to measure in a constant state of change.

So, one cannot, in the same breath, value diversity and mandate standardization. To celebrate Not-Sameness, yet to penalize schools and teachers for not attaining Sameness – what words are there for this dichotomy?

Paradox? Oxymoron? Mixed messages?

Bizarro World?

Parodial school.

That students have a right to a quality education is an unequivocal point. That the absence of order and structure invites chaos is understood. Conformity, however, doesn’t beget excellence; inspiration does.

This is the hinge on which the entire portal hangs.

For what is true for students is also true for teachers.

As a non-traditional age undergraduate, I encountered The Giver for the first time as assigned reading in a course. I subsequently wrote an essay on its imagery that the professor believed could be entered in the university’s research and creative achievement competition. At this event, I walked hallways lined with exhibitions from the medical and engineering fields, until a university official greeted me: “Ah yes, you’re representing the Humanities Department.”

“No sir,” I replied, shaking his proffered hand. “I’m representing Education.”

His expression was clearly perplexed. “We hardly ever get anyone from Education here.”

This, at a celebration of research and creative achievement.

My question remains: Why, in the unlimited universe, not?

The answer, I suspect, is that teachers don’t realize they have that power.

We must, in turn, keep a wise perspective of the things over which we’re gaining control and those we are relinquishing – squelching – in the process.

In the hearts of students as well as in their teachers’. 

 

Born

“They said it would be a while,” announced the young man, as he came through the apartment door. “I gave the nurses your number – I figured I could wait here just as good as at the hospital, since it’s so close.”

“Yes, that’s true!” beamed his mother, closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you came!”

The young man’s father nodded from the table. “You’re just in time for strawberry shortcake. Come have a bite.”

The young man seated himself at the table while his mother dished up another serving of shortcake topped with freshly-whipped cream. He’d hardly tasted it when the telephone rang. He froze – it couldn’t be the hospital, could it? 

His mother darted to the phone: “Hello? Yes … yes he is.”

She held the receiver out to him.

Was something wrong? Despite the juicy strawberries, his mouth was dry as he took the phone.

“Congratulations!” said the chipper nurse on the other end. “You have a daughter! Mother and baby are doing fine.”

He managed to thank the nurse. He hung up and looked into the rapt blue eyes of his parents.

“It’s a girl,” he said, blinking. “She’s already here!”

His mother hugged him. She began to cry.

In a flurry, they gathered the dishes and set them in the sink. His mother took off her apron and grabbed her pocketbook. His father put on his black cap, and the three of them fairly scrambled out of the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

His mother-in-law and sister-in-law were standing at the nursery window when the young man arrived with his parents in tow. 

Said his sister-in-law: “It’s a girl – finally!” She sounded almost wistful, having no children of her own.

Turning to hug the young man, his mother-in-law said: “Looka there – a granddaughter, after five grandsons! I thought this baby might come fast. All of my mine did.”

“Mine did, too,” said the young man’s mother, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The mother-in-law took her by the arm.”Come up close and see your first grandbaby.” And she stepped back to let the new grandmother near the nursery window.

“Ohhhh,” whispered the young man’s mother, gazing through the glass. “She looks just like a little angel.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, unabated. 

Her son, the brand-new father, peered through the glass beside her, frowning. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but one thing was for sure – the newborn wasn’t pretty. “Good Lord. She looks just like Daddy.” 

Everyone laughed at that. It was true – the wrinkly, ruddy newborn had hardly any hair and looked like a little old man – indeed the image of her granddaddy, who beheld her silently, smiling, his heart bursting with pride. He thought of the twenty silver dollars he’d collected  for his first grandchild. One day when this baby was old enough, he’d give them to her.

The in-laws congratulated each other on one side of the glass as the baby slept soundly on the other, while somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, the baby’s mother wanted to know when she was getting some supper, since the baby’s arrival had preempted it.

Thus was I born, that long-ago evening in May, strawberry season, in the city, when fathers were relegated to waiting rooms instead of witnessing and participating in births, before Cool Whip was even invented – alas.

As the day rolls around yet again, with every celebrant who gathered at the nursery window long passed on, it occurs to me that knowing the story of my birth is a gift. It ranks high, priceless, among all the gifts given me over a lifetime. I owe this mostly to my grandmother, a tireless storyteller, and some to her son, my father, who, in his matter-of-fact way, told me that my mother grumbled about missing her supper and that newborns aren’t pretty – not even his own! He made a similar observation at the funeral of his father – my grandfather – as we stood by the casket. “He looks really good,” I said, stroking Granddaddy’s snow-white hair for the last time, marveling at the smoothness of his skin. My father frowned: “I don’t know why people say that. Corpses don’t look good.”

Geez, Daddy.

Nevertheless, I cherish my birth narrative as told by those who were there.

Tonight I celebrate them and their truths, their personalities, their wit, their lives – and their stories, which allow me to see events from their perspectives. Tonight, for just a moment, I am at the window, watching through their eyes, when I am born.

The fascinating reciprocal, of course, is that because of their stories, they live on through mine.

Reflection: Do you know your birth – or adoption – narrative? If you do, write it down! If you don’t, ask, if possible. If not possible, well, that’s a powerful story in itself. Explore your beginning, experiment with perspective  – and write. And, by all means, if you know the birth stories of others – tell them.