Reinventing Ourselves

As I look around me at family members and at friends and acquaintances, even at people I don’t know but read about, I am struck with how hard people are trying to reinvent themselves. Some of these people are doing it in little ways, such as: a change in size–through diet and exercise; a quick change of appearance through a different haircut, a new hair color; or facts or fictions people are saying about themselves on Facebook. Others are more daring: having lived decades as straight, people are choosing gay partners. Still others have left any known universe we have once shared and have leapt into the unknown; these people one can only now find in snippets–both words and pics on the Internet.

Why are people doing this? Is it because of self-hate? Is it a calculated strategy to succeed in this changing world? Is it fear of failure? Is it in the hope of finally finding fulfillment? Is it finally trying to be who they really are?

About fifteen years ago, I moved from the East, where I had spent my whole life, except when I was living in London, sight-unseen to the Midwest. Now that was a rather large change. Was I trying to reinvent myself? You bet I was. In work–especially writing–and in love, I sought to create worlds that reflected the now urgent vibrant sense of self that was screaming for expression. Even if no one else acknowledged these needs for change, I did, and I acted on them.

So, did re-inventing myself work? Does reinventing oneself work?

I think it did; I think it can, if the changes one is seeking are authentic; And, if one is able to find a system or world to support the reinvention. For, reinvention is creation and creation is risk-taking, barrier breaking. Sometimes the barriers are family and friends. Sometimes the barriers are new conditions that one encounters. Sometimes the barriers are parts of oneself that are hanging on for dear life until one gives them the boot.

Why I Keep Letters

Perhaps I intuitively understood from an early age that my life would encompass loss. People, places, things. Whatever the case, when I was sent a letter from say my great-grandfather, Bompa, I kept it. From my grandmother in England, her missives were read, then put in a drawer. From my American friends once we moved to England, letters arrived to let me know what was going on in my native country and to let me know even as the years passed I was still missed. Those went in my top drawer. My Norwegian grandmother never wrote me. Her English wasn’t very good. But, I remember she visited Italy once and sent me a rosary. (It was made of a chain with rosaries of mother of pearl–from that trip.) I took a lot of pains to open the chain with pliers, put it around my neck and pinched the chain link closed so that I could wear it to school. Everyone there thought it was weird. You don’t wear a rosary, I was told. I undid it again at the end of the day and regretfully put it in my jewelry box where it has remained ever since–a sort of perennial love jewelry letter–which blooms every time I open the box.

But, I am digressing. There were the adventures of being a military policeman in the very north of Norway captured in pen from my Norwegian boyfriend, which buoyed me up amidst a disintegrating family when I was still living in England. Reassuring letters arrived from my first real American boyfriend back in America when we were on different educational plans in college. Unlike me, he was attending college in the summer, and the reassurance he offered me was because he knew I was not tolerating our separation well. Then years later when I was poor, I received in the mail a hand-drawn advertisement–a birthday invitation–for a ski holiday in Zermatt, Switzerland from a man who was rich. Later still, there was the E.E. Cummings poem that came via post thirteen blocks from west 72nd street to west 85th in NYC from a man I had just met that pretty much sold me on him before I knew one real thing about him. Three of these boyfriends turned into husbands, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that words on paper had something to do with the outcomes.

Words in letters are living breathing spirits to me. Or can be. You can so easily return to them and read the intent of the person who wrote them: A well meaning great-grandfather to his great-granddaughter, a jealous sister to a jealous sister, a father who abandoned his family to his bereft daughter, a troubled son to his guilty mother, a boyfriend who forgave and never forgot. When the great-grandfather, grandmothers, father and mother, lovers and husbands are gone, the letters are still there. When there has been a rift, forgiveness can still take place. Opened, each one is a little piece of history in the making. For a few moments, each one gives me back these people and a piece of myself is restored.

Me and My Siblings

I wrote a little about my sisters, Krissie and Randi, in my last two blogs, Buttercup Hill and Beneath the Arc of a Double Rainbow, but I have two brothers, as well: Stephen and Michael John. In the photo below we are all sitting on our front steps in Riverdale, New York. Judging from our clothing, it’s winter.


(Front center) Stephen. (From top left) Michael John, Lynn, Randi, Krissie.
The photo was taken by our father, Bob Burlingham.

Beneath the Arc of a Double Rainbow

Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” called “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” had part of its origination from an epiphany Shange had when she passed under the arc of a double rainbow one morning and realized that “In that moment of seeing the double rainbow, I felt connected to the delicacy and irrepressible majesty of life.” (Nov. 8, 2010, New Yorker, “Color Vision” by Hilton Als)

My husband Paul had a similar experience kayaking on the lake below our summer cabin in Wisconsin. As he tells the story: “I tumbled out of bed before 5 and noticed the sun arising though a narrow band of clear sky only to have its rays reflected in a thick cloud cover that was moving east. I hustled down to my kayak and paddled directly toward the sunrise. But as I got halfway across the lake, rain started to fall. I looked back and noticed ominous storm clouds moving quickly toward me. Sadly, I turned around and headed back toward the cabin when a magnificent double rainbow appeared before me, with its arc anchored at opposite ends of our bay. And right under the rainbow: our cabin. I was overcome with joy and appreciation for my parents having built this family jewel and then, after their recent deaths, bequeathing it to me. I reflected on how this cabin would provide a place where Lynn and I could spend together the years ahead in the beauty and quiet of nature. What more could I possibly ask of life?”

I have never had such an epiphany under the double arc of a rainbow, but my last blog “Buttercup Hill” describes the miraculous magic of first buttercups to my sisters and me when we were children, which was our yearly rite of spring. As such, we experienced its seeming sudden glorious appearance and, in our own simple ways, paid homage to it.

Randi and I no longer talk much about the miracles of spring, but my sister Krissie–who became a horticulturist–and I do. Just yesterday, we talked about whether snowdrops are better left to enjoy where they sprout up, or whether it’s okay to snip some to put in a little vase and enjoy indoors. (She said it is okay to snip.) She likes to snip this flower and that and arrange them in delicate formations in vases, a sort of fresh art ensemble to enchant the eye. I remember one year she foraged in the countryside for dried wild flowers and vines and set to work making unique Christmas wreaths for our mother and each of her four siblings. I had mine for about ten years. Finally I had to admit my wreath had become woebegone and bedraggled. Reluctantly, I threw mine out.

A neighbor’s invitation arrived in our mailbox yesterday. The card read, STOP BY for WARM PIE AND COFFEE; We hope you will join us for this chance to get together before winter comes and takes us all inside.

This winter I want to keep myself in the arc of a double rainbow; I want to imagine the joys of Buttercup Hill, snowdrops under the earth waiting to come out while I make and enjoy warm pie and coffee.

Why Learning the Ethical Culture Way Sticks

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, I attended The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. This was no ordinary school, but an educational environment so interesting and alive that I couldn’t wait to get dressed in the morning in order to walk the numerous blocks with my sisters from our house situated in the Catholic–wrong side of the tracks– neighborhood to the wealthy neighborhood near Fieldston Road where the school was located.

In the third grade, when we studied Native Americans across the curriculum, we sewed our own Native American garments in industrial arts, crafted papooses in woodshop, learned Native American dances in rhythms, sang Native American songs in music. At the end of the year, as a culminating project, we dressed in our Native American clothes and took to the woods for a day where we baked fish in clay over a wood fire we built, ground corn for cornmeal cakes, played Native American games and lived for seven hours communally as Native Americans.

I loved this school. When I became a teacher of gifted kids, I used the emersion techniques I experienced as a Fieldston student to create curriculum for gifted kids to make their own learning meaningful from the inside out…the students encouraged to seek answers to their own questions in areas of their own interests.

If you go on The Fieldston School website today, the school’s philosophy of learning remains unchanged from the school’s philosophy when I attended the school in the 1950’s:

“The students become active learners and engage in vital discourse in a community of dedicated teachers and an atmosphere of intellectual discipline and creativity. Through a curriculum rooted in the tenets of progressive education, students become independent thinkers as they learn that asking their own questions and seeking their own answers provides the key to the deepest kind of understanding. Cooperative, student-centered, discussion-based learning, and the freedom to make mistakes, are part of our students’ everyday lives. We value inclusion and economic and racial diversity, and we honor all of our students for their unique contributions, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs. We consider service to be critical to the development of character, so we incorporate community service into the children’s school experience from the earliest grades.”

Teachers of elementary school students in public schools today have to meet so many requirements: school, district, state, nation. I think it is only the exceptional teacher who can meet those requirements and still create a living, breathing, exciting educational environment for students in which there is time for the students to ask their own questions about what they are learning–or better yet–choose something they want to learn and be guided to get meaningful answers to their questions.

I have not forgotten my elementary school teachers. Nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt in learning in the ethical culture way. My third grade teacher’s name was Ms. Barbara Phenner. We called her Phenny.

It might even be because of her I chose to be a teacher of gifted kids. She certainly made us all feel important and unique…special. Learning, Phenny taught me, is exciting, interesting, understandable, fun.

Buttercup Hill

I must be thinking of Buttercup Hill because fall is shutting down to make way for winter.

One of five children, I used to run up the long hill in Riverdale, New York where we lived and climb over the fence to see if the buttercups had decided it was warm enough to open up yet. If they did, the brown hill would suddenly be brush painted in a bright lustrous yellow. I would lie down turning my head left and right to be eye level with the blossoms. If I were there with one of my sisters, we would play the buttercup game.

These scenarios went something like this:

“Lean your head way back,” my second oldest sister, Randi, commanded plucking a few flowers to wave them just under my chin.”

“You’re not buttery,” she proclaimed when my chin did not reflect yellow.

“I am, too. I am very buttery.”

“Not!”

“Am!”

“Your turn,” Randi said.

I copied her gesture, amazed to see her chin was yellow.

I was torn about telling her the truth.

“I think I do see a little yellow on your chin,” I admitted.

“See, I am buttery!” she gloated.

I wish I had lied.

Now, up on Buttercup Hill with my oldest sister, Krissie, things were different.

Two Ferdinands, we sat down in the yellow blossoms together and– for a suspended moment in time–we tried to smell the spring in the flowers.

“Let’s just pretend they do smell,” said Krissie.

“They look like they should smell very sweet.” I said.

“I agree,” said my oldest sister. “We smell the sweet of spring.”

We joined pinkies. “Sweet,” we said is unison enjoying sisterhood and the profusion of yellow.

Oh, the sweetness of sisterhood on Buttercup Hill!

A “Published Book” by Students for Students of Students Has Impact

The book Written and Illustrated by: A Revolutionary Two-Brain Approach for Teaching Students How to Write and Illustrate Amazing Books by David Melton is a wonderful tool for adapting to your school’s writing programs, but only if there is a teacher in charge who cares deeply about children, writing, art, books, and professionally finished products.

For eight years, I developed my own writing program using this book. Each year, the student books got better and better. As the writing program grew in reputation more students wanted to write a book, to have a book by the end of the program to take home and keep. A book they could display on their own shelves, knowing they had created it from its very inception to its self-manufactured sewn and pasted product. (Many of them looked like professionally published books.)

Ron Knox for the Lawrence Journal World wrote an article “Student writings will be added to West library” about the pride some of my students took in their books. In order to have a book to take home and one book for the library these students had to make two. It took a semester of work to complete them.

I liked when Knox said, “After the students and their parents cleared the room, Burlingham spoke softly about her student’s accomplishments.

“Patience,” she said, “that helps bring them along.”

The class, although part of the school’s gifted program, was open to everyone. Some of the kids could flat-out write, she said. Some struggled to finish their projects.

For the words of the students and a photo open this link:
http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/feb/01/student_writings_will_be_added_west_library/

Encouraging Writing for Eighth Graders

The National Council of Teachers of English holds a writing competition each year for eighth graders called the Promising Young Writers Program. The students have to write an Impromptu Theme under teacher’s supervision and submit a Best Writing Sample (poetry or prose), both not more than 10 pages in length.

Student participation is dependent on nomination by teachers; a selection committee is recommended, and nominees should show evidence of effective writing before they are chosen. The number of nominees is dependent on the average daily enrollment. For example, under 100–1 nominee; 500 or more–6 nominees.

As a coordinator of gifted ed. at West Junior High School in Lawrence, Kansas, with most of our programs open to all interested kids, I was uniquely positioned to assess students with interest and ability in writing. I took note of the seventh graders with such abilities and encouraged them to try out for the competition once they reached eighth grade.

The process of writing and revising on a subject that the students themselves selected was beneficial. They took time to think about their chosen topic. They created their piece for the Best Writing Sample. Thought about it some more; revised, and revised some more.

On the day of, they handed in their Best Writing Sample and sat for 75 minutes at the computer writing on the subject of this year’s Impromptu Theme.

Every year, my students were winners in the state of Kansas. I think the reason they were is that because I cared so much about it, it rubbed off on them. They internalized the success and became more confident about their writing ability. Word spread with these successes, and other kids wanted to try out. The importance of writing became more “in” at school.

Website as Forum

My very second blog was titled: SHOULD I BEGIN A WEBSITE? Not quite a year later, I will weigh in on this.

Yes!

But perhaps not for the obvious reasons, exactly.

The obvious reasons:You can advertise your work

  •  You can post a resume
  •  You can add in personal information to humanize your work
  •  You can illustrate your thoughts with photos
  •  You can blog, if you want
  •  You can publish from your site

Less obvious reasons:

  • You “think” people are reading what you express; so it’s a private/public discussion
  • YOU ARE NO LONGER ALONE IN A ROOM

What Am I Writing Now?

Here at our summer cabin in Wisconsin, where the morning hours are quiet and peaceful, I sit with my laptop and compose short stories that all deal—one way or another—with the trajectory of time on consciousness.

I came to the cabin with all my titles in a folder on my desktop. Things I had jotted down during the year when they popped into my head as I was completing my memoir.

In the wee hours, I study the list and see whether any energy resonates from the words to me, then back to the page. If something stirs in me, I start typing to see where it goes. If the story flows from the words in such a way that hours have passed and I think it’s only minutes, I am on to something.

Stories have unfolded from growth on stems to buds, to a little flowering in a way that seems right to me. In a week, I will gather up my flowering buds in my arms, carry them back to Lawrence, and lay them out in my study for examination.

This fall, I will change from a creator to an analytic technician, working with my stories to make the words more clear, to give them deeper meaning, working to have them resonate for a bigger audience than just myself.