I went for a walk today in the Calvin Nature Preserve and noticed this trio of mushrooms all snuggled up with each other. It made me think of one my favorite moments of this past weekend, when I sat on the same couch between my two adult children, watching the Euro soccer finals. We live in the same house, but we aren’t together for that long too often these days. It was delightful.
And then I saw this trio.
After that, I really wanted to find a third instance, just so I could call this post a trio of mushroom trios.
Now is a great time to walk in the woods in Michigan if you love mushrooms. I don’t know what any of them are called, but I love to spot them–the bright ones, spotted ones, cupped ones, ruffled ones, tall skinny fairy umbrellas, tiny ones, meaty ones.
There are lots of solo mushrooms, lots of duos, lots of clumps of singles, but very few trios. This quest messed with my stated reason for going on this walk: so I could reset my neck after staring down at a computer all morning. But I couldn’t help myself.
At last, success!
Not quite as snuggly as the other two, but I’m counting it.
It was quiet and dim in the woods on this cloudy day. I got to commune with a little green snake, a beaver, and a young deer. (We will not mention the 1,000,000 bugs and the fact that I forgot bug spray even though I thought I’d learned that lesson just two days earlier.) I am grateful for the gift of the woods, for the lack of other walkers because the animals weren’t hiding themselves as they often do, for the beauty and fruitfulness of this world. Its literal fruitfulness, thanks to this first handful of blackberries.
What simple pleasures have you enjoyed lately? What is delighting you?
This is my gift to all you beautiful grownups who are now having to homeschool your children when that is not at all what you signed up for. My kids and I benefitted greatly from that daily time away from each other, and they know I’d have been way tougher on them than most teachers they had, so the traditional schooling model worked well for us for a long time. But now nobody has that option–and I love you and feel for you.
Plenty of people with education degrees are putting up suggested schedules, and your kids’ schools most likely sent home workbooks and online coursework. But there will be times when you’ll feel like you should be doing something educational but you’re Just. Too. Tired. Yet you don’t want to just set them free to do whatever yet again.
This list is for you.
These are cool things to look at or listen to online that can count as social studies (learning about other cultures), field trips to museums, language arts, maybe even a little science. I’m trying to focus on things that aren’t being shared everywhere, so hopefully you can find something new to you. They’re good for multiple ages and grades. I hope you find something you and your family can sit back and enjoy. We’re all in this together.
Free Rice: This is a vocabulary game/quiz. For every correct answer sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme. It shows stats of how many grains of rice your game has donated, and how many were donated total the day before. You can run it on a computer or as an app (link on the site above). When I played, the vocab words were: build, snack, workout, chef. So this is an elementary-student-level quiz. And it’s charitable!
Storyline Online: Professional actors reading picture books accompanied by professionally edited video of said books. Yes, please! Great variety of stories–silly, serious, touching.
Story Time from Space: Many videos of picture books about space explorers (both real and pretend) and scientists and space itself read by astronauts while they’re floating around the International Space Station.
The Spanish Experiment: Children’s stories read in Spanish with slow audio. Well-known children’s stories translated into Spanish and spoken by a native Spanish speaker. Read along in Spanish or English.
Scribd is offering unlimited audiobooks and ebooks for 30 days without having to enter a credit card number. This could be lifesaving since libraries are now closed!
Audible Stories: Audible is now offering hundreds of audiobooks for free on their platform. They are available for streaming, not downloading, but the selection is fantastic. There are stories for toddlers through teens, classics, Audible originals, stories read in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and an Asian language I could not recognize. Mostly fiction, but I found a few nonfiction.
MapCrunch: Every day, this site plunks you down in the street view of a new, random place in the world. All you have to do is visit and explore. On Thursday, March 26, it took me to Lago Moro, a lovely lake surrounded by mountains in Italy.
5 minutes of a log over a stream in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It’s amazing the variety of animals that cross this log–bears, foxes, mountain lions, wood ducks (my favorite duck), kingfishers with fish, and more. The guy who owns the wilderness cam has a list of all the animals at the end of the video. And the best part: the only sound is a babbling or occasionally rushing stream.
Cincinnati Zoo Home Safari: Every day, the Cincinnati Zoo posts a 20-or-so-minute video to their Facebook page and then to this page, introducing one of their animals, and including two activities you can do at home. So far, sloths, ocelots, and a baby hippo!
Georgia Aquarium Webcams: There are 8 webcams here of beluga whales, whale sharks, penguins, puffins, piranhas, sea lions, sea otter, jellies (this one is mesmerizing), and more.
International Space Station with Commander Chris Hadfield: I’m choosing him because I’m Canadian and he’s Canadian. You want to find an American astronaut’s videos, have at it 🙂 This is a great collection of videos about life in space. Hadfield is a great explainer–from wringing out a wet washcloth, to crying in space, getting a haircut, clipping nails, what happens to your eyesight, and some tours of the ISS.
Quokka: Quokkas are adorable little marsupials that live mainly on Rottnest Island off the Western Coast of Australia. This is just an adorable video of a quokka eating a leaf–could inspire a whole research project 🙂
Calvin Nature Preserve’s incredibly loud frogs on 3/35/2020
Shadow Tracing: On a bright day (or inside, use a flashlight), place an item on a piece of paper so it casts a shadow, and then trace the shadow. Chunkier items will be easier for younger children. Experiment with toys, vases, food, shells–anything you have around the house! BIG OPTION: Pose one person so they cast a shadow and have everyone else trace the shadow, either on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, on a big piece of paper or cardboard if you have any on hand, or with paint on the grass (the grass will grow and it’ll get cut off eventually).
“Stained glass windows” on fences or sidewalks: If you have painter’s tape, tape off a “window” with a frame and then fill in the “lead” with the tape to make a design. Fill in the “glass” with different colors of sidewalk chalk, peel of the tape, and you have a stained glass window that will wash away in the rain 🙂
This Is Sand: Mesmerizing! Click and drag your cursor to make layered colorful sand art. You aren’t in control of what color gets laid down, but you control the shape of the mountains and mounds. And it sounds like you’re pouring sand into a box, too.
Kenneth Kraegel: Grace Church’s own author/illustrator will be sharing an illustration step by step on this site on March 30, 31, and April 1 at 11:00am. As with most Facebook Live events, the videos should remain on the Schuler Books Facebook page afterwards.
Science and Math
Demonstrating the Wonder of Chemistry: Discovering God’s Majesty in the Minuscule This is Prof. Larry Louters from Calvin University doing his big show. This was always a massively popular field trip for my kids in 5th grade, and Louters shows off all the cool stuff chemistry does. This is from a January Series, so Louters doesn’t start talking until minute 4; around minute 8 he says some cool stuff about Psalm 19 and being a caretaker of the earth; the actual demonstration starts at minute 13:30. There’s a singer, painting with weird things, bubbles, flames. It’s fantastic.
Quarantime with Science Mom and Math Dad: A daily Quarantime video about science and math concepts, about and hour and a half. Also tons of other videos to explore, including a series on Science Mom vs. Math Dad that looks entertaining.
Radio Garden: Explore radio stations from around the world! Move around the globe, click on any green dot, and you’ll get to hear a radio station from that spot. Most places give you a choice of several stations. This one is from Gouda, in the Netherlands. But you can go to the Shetland Islands, Kampala, Uganda, or Jerusalem. Also counts as a geography lesson since there are no country boundaries on this globe!
The Bible Project: Loads of animated videos, not just about stories from the Bible, but about ideas, personalities, word studies. Very solid and engaging.
Kids Corner: Produced by Reframe Media, this has a ton of audio content for kids, including Bible stories, Bible activities, printables, devotionals, and an audio series starring a group of talking lizards.
So instead of inviting general prayer items in children’s worship with, “Does anyone have anything they want to talk to God about?,” I’ve been getting more specific, both as a way of teaching the kinds of things we can do in our prayers, and of getting beyond the first things that come to kids’ minds.
What do you know about God that you think is awesome?
What do you want to ask God about?
What are you sorry about doing or not doing or saying or not saying or thinking? (I let them answer in their minds.)
What do you want to say THANK YOU to God about?
Is there anybody you know who needs help?
Yes, we’ve still spent a lot time praying about kitties, and thanking God for them, and celebrating God’s creativity in making kitties. But we’ve also asked God just how he made things out of nothing. And some kids who are always jokey and rarely chime in with a prayer item have responded to the last question with some heartfelt requests that showed that, no matter how they might talk, they love their younger siblings.
But last Sunday things went off the rails.
Miss Natalie: “What do you know about God that you think is awesome?”
Child: “That God made the whole world and the Xbox.”
Miss Natalie: “I’m with you on the whole world thing, but God is not responsible for the Xbox. People made that. God made people to have creative and intelligent and curious minds so they were able to come up with the Xbox, but I don’t believe the Xbox was divinely inspired in the same way that the Bible was divinely inspired. You can’t pin the Xbox on God.”
And they were OFF.
Five kids between 4th and 6th grade tried to come up with arguments that would prove that God was responsible for one of the things they love most in the world. They tried to come it with God’s all-knowingness–“If God knows everything, then he knew that the Xbox would be invented, therefore God created it.” They tried that argument again, but louder.
I tried to come at them with an analogy: If your teacher tells you to make a clay pot and you make the clay pot, your teacher knew that you were going to make the clay pot, but you’re the one who still made it, not your teacher (or it might have been, “Your parents made you, you make a clay pot, you’re responsible for the pot, not your parents,” frankly it was so loud that I forgot what exactly my clay pot-related analogy was). They responded but the teacher/parents still knew….
When they started challenging me about what we really meant by the word “make,” I knew that the debate had essentially come to an end and they were prolonging it because it was fun. It was fun. I don’t know what the children’s worship room across the hall thought we were doing; I felt a little bad because the leader of that room always creates a calm environment, and here we were having a debate so raucous that kids were getting up and pacing.
I don’t know that I won, but I held my ground. God is not directly responsible for the Xbox. So when it came time to pray, I thanked God for creating people with such creativity, curiosity, and intelligence that they came up with the Xbox, but also thanked God that those same things lead us to debates about what God did and didn’t do, and then I had to thank God that we could laugh during prayers (because we were all laughing).
Did the kids learn anything valuable through that exchange? No idea. But I hope they took away that I will listen to them, and take them seriously, and that we can always laugh about things, and God loves us through it all. They also learned that I can be side-tracked–but they already knew that.
So, my fellow people who minister to and with children, what are some of the debates you’ve gotten into? I can’t be the only one fielding comments like that!
I am frequently very silly with the children in the church programs I run, but I also love to take them very seriously. If a kid makes a reasonable suggestion, I follow it. Thanks to one young man, we now have small recycling bins in each children’s worship room. When they ask a question, I answer it, even when the answer is, “that’s one of the hardest things for even grownups to understand and agree about,” and even when it takes us on wild tangents that I have to work to take us back from. When our Sunday school class makes a group art piece to reflect a Psalm (we’ve done Psalms 1 and 23 so far), I let the kids have pretty free rein so they feel like the product is truly theirs, even if that means there are misspelled words and it looks more messy than aesthetically pleasing.
So this year, when I received two letters from kids, it was my privilege to take both of the writers very seriously–even while I inwardly pinched their cheeks and ruffled their hair because of how adorable their young spelling and printing was (but it really doesn’t do to ever show them that).
The first letter was anonymous:
Most of the children love to sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” (which, technically is, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” but that would involve too much explaining). They line up and pretend to be the wall of Jericho while the leader sings the song and then they decide whether or not to fall at the end–falling is often dramatic, delayed, or acrobatic.
Most of the leaders do not love this song with a similar passion. With a group of 8 kids, it’s fine, but you get 10-16 and they rile each other up to further heights and no matter how many times you explain the biblical story basis of the song, it just becomes about who can get away with doing a near cartwheel.
So I’m clear with the leaders at the beginning of the year: they are free to say, “We’re not doing that one today,” or even, “We don’t do that song when I’m leading.” I frequently say no, and I’m clear why: “You all are too wound up already today. No stand-up songs.”
They must’ve had a bunch of no’s in a row for that child to write that note. Although I would weep no tears if we never did it again (and certain kids who don’t like it when things get crazy wouldn’t be upset, either), this was my response:
This felt like a good response because I was
letting the kids know that I saw them and understood what they liked to do,
treating them like they were worthy of an explanation for why the song choice system is set up like it is,
demonstrating that I’m willing to join in the fun and give them something that they love.
And 10 out of 12 kids were overjoyed–you can never please everyone.
The second letter was handed to me by the child on Easter Sunday.
This letter was prompted by the parent due to said child’s behavior at being forced to participate in the parade of children and adults waving palm branches during the service. I’m going to guess it was an epic scowl; I was at the front of the parade, so I had no idea what was happening behind me. (I should note that we had 3 dozen or so kids in the parade that Sunday, a number of whom participated under duress, so I’m not singling out the lone scowler. I also have the child’s parent’s permission to post this.)
I accepted the note, and a couple of weeks later, gave this to the child:
I really had been in a mood Easter Sunday. Sometimes when I have heavy responsibilities on a Sunday morning I can still lose myself in worship, but that day I could not. At all.
There’s a children’s song that I have a hate-tolerate relationship with, “God loves a cheerful giver, give it all you’ve got, He loves to hear you laughing when you’re in an awkward spot.” I was not cheerfully giving or serving, and all through the service, I could not laugh. It is entirely possible that I was muttering at points. And aggressively crossing and recrossing my legs.
But still, I served.
Oh I can definitely relate to my letter writer. I’m not always cheerful about what I do for the Lord. But when I serve prayerfully–even when the prayer itself is a childish footstomp of a request/demand–and with a heart that is open, God will help me see something that will take me outside of my crankiness and will even open to door to joy.
That Easter Sunday it was so many moments: heartfelt narration, a girl playing Jesus in one scene, an anxious kid nailing his lines, the disciples doing Fortnite dances when they saw the risen Jesus in the upper room, the host of angels, and the generalized chaos that are my liturgical skits with their room for readers, nonreaders, children, adults, people with developmental disabilities, people who show up for rehearsal and people who don’t, people who are on time for church and people who are late.
Indeed, I am grateful that God not only accepted but transformed my cranky service on Easter Sunday–and I hope my letter writer gives palm waving another shot and lets God transform it, if not into something joyful and fun, then at least to something not horrible and torturous.
The people putting on The University Wits‘ (TUW) presentation of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, might be many years past kindergarten, but there are enough firsts among them to keep things feeling almost as electric as that first year of school.
This production is Richard Mulligan’s directorial debut in Grand Rapids community theatre, Colleen Thompson’s first appearance on a stage in downtown Grand Rapids, Jonathan Levine’s first role in scripted theatre in Grand Rapids, David Wood’s first time in a University Wits production, Dave Benson’s first time singing and dancing on stage, and CJ Namenye Wood’s first time dancing on stage with her husband (David Wood).
Mulligan was sitting in the audience of TUW’s presentation of Jeffrey last year when he saw that they were looking for directors and that Kindergarten was on their schedule–a play he’d twice directed as head of the drama ministry at Genesis United Methodist Church. He’d been drawn to the play in the mid-2000s after seeing the Kindergarten Creed (a poem that appears in the play) in one of his son’s classrooms:
“It’s about how people should treat each other, how to treat the world, how to be a good person. The basis of the poem makes sense.”
The cast is finding a lot to relate to in the play on that basic, how to be a good person, level. When asked about their favorite pieces, Levine and David Wood both mentioned “Pigeons” (although Wood isn’t in that piece), which is about a grandfather watching his granddaughter chasing pigeons at the zoo. He wonders what she’d do if she caught them, and concludes that possessing the pigeons isn’t the point of it for her, just as possessing her isn’t the point of their relationship. Levine said, “Having two daughters that are very much their own persons and don’t belong to anyone, who are going to do what they want to do, I appreciate ‘Pigeons.'” David Wood finds spiritual meaning in the piece:
To love something and to possess it is not the same thing. This is true in human relationships and between us and God–we’re not just puppets. When you love something, it isn’t that you set it free, but you allow it to love you back on its own terms.
Like David Wood, Thompson’s favorite piece is also one she’s not in, “The Bench.” In particular, there’s one line that really speaks to her, about things going exactly as they’re supposed to go. Thompson said that, in her life, during times of change she often gets that feeling of rightness with what she called “waves of enlightenment” that encourage the change she’s making. She recently made the big life change of moving to a small apartment downtown, and is enjoying ticking off “appear at Dog Story Theater” from her bucket list.
For Namenye Wood it isn’t that she has a favorite piece, because “there are none I don’t relate to. There’s something in every vignette,” but when pressed, she, too named one she wasn’t in, “Problems and Inconveniences”:
There are problems, and there are inconveniences, and learning to know the difference between them is meaningful and necessary. Learn about the things that really matter and then recognize what is fleeting and let that go, because our energy is fleeting and we should put it into things that are meaningful and purposeful.
Benson likes his favorite piece, “Charles Boyer,” not because he had an immediate connection to it, but because he’s working with it as an actor in a different way: “Richard is having me talk more personally and picture my wife and make it personal to me and be more emotional than I’ve done in a play before.”
This aspect of bringing in the personal highlights something interesting about Kindergarten for the actors: it’s not a play with a beginning, middle, and end, and they are not each playing one character who only speaks to other characters while ignoring the audience. Kindergarten consists of about two dozen individual stories that the actors tell to the audience. Namenye Wood explains it this way:
We’re narrating, talking to the audience, sharing with them. We’re not characters, we’re who we are, telling stories–someone else’s stories, but we’re ourselves.
There are times when there are multiple actors on stage, acting out and telling a story, but their focus is on the audience. Thompson said that it reminds her of the Moth Radio Hour and other NPR storytelling shows.
It’s been over 10 years since Mulligan last directed this play, and he’s found different takeaways than he did the last time. The piece, “Christmas/Valentine’s Day,” which centers around how a wife deals with her aging husband’s repeated forgetting, is more poignant because, in those intervening years, his mother developed dementia and then Alzheimer’s. And these days he sees one of the pieces as nothing less than a rallying cry:
What resonates with me now is the story and song, “Reflect the Light.” One of our cast members is knocking the song out of the park, but more than that, it’s an important message for our times. If you think of light as being knowledge and truth and compassion and all the good–if you have a mirror, you can reflect that light into dark crevices of the world, dark places in people’s minds and hearts. It comes from the true story of a philosopher and theologian after World War II who was asked about the meaning of life. People laughed at the question, but he answered sincerely that the meaning of his life was to be a mirror and reflect light into dark places.
This makes it sound like the show is nonstop heartwarming. It definitely has pull-out-the-tissues moments, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, too; Levine describes it as “touching-funny.” There’s a man who ties balloons to a lawn chair and manages to take off, another who mishears “hallowed be your name” as “Howard be your name” in the Lord’s Prayer, and there’s an entire song made up of different iterations of the phrase, “uh oh.”
The University Wits’ presentation of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten is playing at Dog Story Theater at 7:30pm on April 19, 20, 25, 26, and 27, with matinee performances on April 27 and 28. Go to dogstorytheater.com for ticket information.
Last week I did something wonderful and marvelous: at the tail-end of a polar vortex and in the middle of an ice storm, I went to Florida. It was the first time in my adult life that I’d gone somewhere warm during the winter–a glorious cliche–and I made the most of it.
Since I work four jobs, one of which takes place on Sunday mornings, I rarely have an entire day off, and I have to plan in advance for any weekends off. I hadn’t missed a Sunday since Labor Day weekend, and I was capital-t Tired. More than that, I was teetering on the edge of Burned Out. Even so, it was hard to commit to taking five whole days away. But I needed it.
Proof of how badly I needed it: I swore at my gentlest child when he objected to how I was driving when we were late to the airport. I’d never sworn at anyone like that before, and I never will again. It upset me to the very core of my being and dramatically showed me how I need to build in more time for rest and spiritual renewal so I can better manage stressors.
Once he granted me forgiveness (and thought it was funny how upset I was), I could bask in the sunshine and settle into all the new things I got to see and learn in Naples.
Like how prehistoric pelicans look. They are so pterodactylish.
Ever cooler: a group of pelicans is called a squadron.
That’s exactly what they looked like! I didn’t manage to get a photo of it, but I watched them fly low over the beach in a tight V, their big bodies, huge wingspans, and long beaks making them more imposing than other birds that fly in the same formation. And there’s just something about that folded-up neck when they fly that makes them look more aggressive. A squadron. Perfect.
Speaking of cool birds: the anhinga swims underwater to find food, poking its head up now and then to breathe. My boyfriend, his niece, and I spent several minutes at the Corkscrew Swamp watching one in a pond thick with water lettuce, squealing every time we spotted it coming up for air. Okay, maybe it was just me making the high-pitched noises, but I am not ashamed of how enthusiastic I get about things like this.
But the anhinga has no protective oils on its feathers so it needs to dry off after it dives. Happily, this drying off is done by lengthy posing for photos.
I know, I know. The bird is a wild animal and not puposefully posing for photos, but it sure seemed that way: of all the places to sit and ways to face, it chose to face people and their cameras in a tree less than 10 feet from the boardwalk.
Of course, this being Florida, right near the bird was an alligator. According to the sign, this was a smiling alligator, but we saw no evidence of said grin.
Besides learning new things and seeing all kinds of wildlife (black rat snake, water moccasin, otters, limpkin, pileated woodpecker, egrets, little blue heron, racoons, lizards), we took time for whimsy. We watched two little lizards, a brown one and a green anole, and made up stories about why the green one was dancing around so much while the brown one stayed so still; we were unprepared for when the brown one pounced, but luckily the anole was, and skittered away safe and sound.
And look at these lovely ladies in the swamp. They reminded me of debutantes in their cinched-waist dresses, so I call it the Cypress Swamp Cotillion. The tree in the foreground on the left wins poofiest skirt. At least two of those trees near the center don’t like each other at all and are gossiping about each other to the other trees. And the one in the right foreground is holding herself so straight and tall despite her low level of pouf, going for dignity instead of fashionableness, but winding up by herself. So much drama.
Nature and learning and whimsy restore my soul, but so does doing nothing. I made sure I got that in, too.
I highly recommend the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary if you are in the Everglades. It’s a three-or-so mile walk, all on a boardwalk, with ample opportunities for rest, and some great viewing platforms.
I also highly recommend not waiting until you are hovering on burn-out to take a serious rest. For heaven’s sake, I’ve written about the need for people in ministry to take rest seriously, both in terms of Sabbath and vacations, but I stopped being intentional about it. Which was a mistake.
So in January I joined a gym. I February I went to Florida. What cliche thing should I do in March?
It’s relatively simple to make a picture book for children out of the stories in the Old Testament–Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. Likewise, the life of Jesus contains a wealth of simple, visual stories–Zaccheus climbing into the tree, feeding the 5,000, calming the storm, walking on water. But there’s not as much scope for child-level storytelling in the early years of the followers of The Way. Those letters from the apostles get pretty theological, and don’t lend themselves to visual storytelling.
But Chris Raschka has made a wonderful picture book out of all the letters of Paul! Each two-page spread contains a distillation of one letter along with an illustration of Paul writing, as well as some items he might typically have around him as he wrote. In some images he’s eating or drinking, in some he looks pleased and in others down,
in some he’s in jail,
in others he’s got company.
Usually, the messages are uplifting.
Sometimes, Raschka chooses one that scolds.
But his distillation shows something that I never noticed about Paul: how important friendship was to him. In many of the two-page spreads, Raschka takes room to note who Paul sends greetings from, and who he wants the readers to greet for him: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila. Come see me soon. Only Luke is still with me” (II Timothy). “Luke, the doctor, and Demas say hello” (Colossians). It makes Paul feel so human, and less like a Big Theologian. He was a person who travelled around and relied on his friends in this very young faith. And he was writing to friends, to people he knew and who knew him. The letters feel more intimate.
Which reminded me of listening to a friend read the entire letter to the Ephesians at a Bible study. Paul’s letters are so meaty that we rarely hear them as the early church did: out loud in one sitting. I was surprised at how positive the letter felt, and how cared for I felt after listening. The letter seemed like a long prayer, like Paul was pouring out his hopes and prayers for his friends in Ephesus, and telling them what they needed to hear in order to be encouraged and keep going. Raschka’s book inspires that same feeling.
My Opa (Dutch for grandfather) worked in an underground/resistance group in German-occupied Netherlands during World War II. I’ve known this all my life, but I am still learning new stories and seeing new evidence as my uncles dig through their papers and unearth some gems.
At this year’s family reunion, my Uncle Henk pulled out some war-era papers that left me awed. He laid out this dark history on a peeling picnic table on a warm and sunny day. I am now even more grateful that Opa undermined the occupying Nazis any way he could–and that he survived. Here is the story in brief, told by my uncle:
The leader was our family doctor, Oostenbrink. This work was already beginning when our family arrived in Velp in September of 1941 and Rev. Klaas Hart joined in soon after arriving. As a result at some time he also became a wanted person and had to find a safe place to live. In July of 1944 the Germans entered Oostenbrink’s and our home to search for evidence of illegal activity, which resulted in the dismantling of the resistance group and that, in turn, led to our flight by horse and wagon to the safer home of the Holtrusts in Ermelo in September of 1944. His work was utterly dangerous and a number of his group’s co-workers were arrested and either executed or sent to a concentration camp where they died.
And here is the story of a resistance worker, told in a series of permissions, notes, and newspapers.
A Google translation: “Our country sits, let’s just confess it, at the moment heavy in the stuffy hero. The whole life of every day bears witness to it. Also many articles in this issue of our magazine talk about it. We are overwhelmed, we are heavily enslaved and we can not resist it. Such is the conclusion of many. And others think and share their opinions in the misery of this during the striking hand of God. However, it is not good to stand by. Nothing is more dangerous than Lydelykhied. Lydelyke people, they are just the kind that the [Germans] can use.” (In Africaans, Lyde means suffering and lyke means corpses, but beyond that, Google translate cannot go.)
Seeing these tiny permission slips really brought home how restricted any movement was during occupation: being on the road, owning a bicycle, and trying to help people were all grounds for arrest. They needed permission for every little thing, and often double permission: once from a Dutch authority, once from the Germans. Their home could be taken. From other family stories, we know their food and livestock were confiscated by the German soldiers, and they were left with fish heads and oats to turn into a barely edible gruel that final winter of the war.
With all of these permissions, he would have travelled as himself: Rev. Klaas Hart. At least one of the permissions said it only counted if the person also had their ID on them. However, he also traveled under a different identification card, that my father has (my only image of it is on a CD and my computer has no CD drive). When they moved from Velp to a relative’s house in Ermelo, it meant a two-day walk for the family of 7, including a newborn. They had to beg a farmer for a place to sleep–everyone slept on fresh hay in the barn except for my Oma and the baby, who were welcomed into the house.
Yes, this was dangerous work. My Opa used his status as a minister to enable his wartime activities. He left the Netherlands for Canada after the war because there was no work for him, and no prospects for his six sons and one daughter.
I am the daughter of an immigrant, and granddaughter of a resistance worker. I descended from people who had to flee for their lives. The pull of the family legacy of working for justice and against injustice is strong and I answer it as best I can by writing letters and emails and calling my elected representatives, writing blog posts for myself and for the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, and attending prayer vigils. It doesn’t feel like much when compared to what my family went through in the 1940s, but it’s something. #Resist
A friend of mine used to share an orange every day with a co-worker, and they did not each eat half of the flesh. No, my friend ate the flesh and the co-worker ate the pith–the white spongy stuff between the flesh and the rind. This started a conversation about the word “pith.”
My friend remembered it from his high school biology class, when they had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Let me repeat, there was a time when American high school students had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Now, I’ve enjoyed all the dissections I’ve done, in both high school and college, but I don’t know that I could’ve done that. Anyway, they were told to pith their frogs: to push a spike through the back of the amphibian neck and down the spinal column. I’d never heard that use of the word, but, indeed: pith is an archaic noun for spinal marrow, and a verb for severing or piercing said spinal column to kill or immobilize an animal.
So as a noun, pith is the spongy tissue inside the rind of citrus plants and spinal marrow. But that’s not all.
It also refers to the spongy cellular tissue inside the stems of vascular plants: the stuff that draws up and stores water and nutrients from the soil.
It is also used in the writing world. It can refer to the essence, the most important point of an argument, as well as a concise way of of writing, “a pithy saying.”
As a verb, it’s a term for removing pith from citrus fruits and for severing the spinal column to kill an animal.
And let us not forget the pith helmet. I saw an elderly man paying for his groceries last week who was wearing a pith helmet, and it made me happy. They are made of the pith of the sola plant.
What on earth do all these uses have in common? Cores; things that bring life/liveliness.
In the plant world it distributes and stores what is needed for that plant to live (citrus pith apparently contains many nutrients). An alternative name for the pith in vascular plants: the medulla. Which makes me think of the pithing my friend had to do to the poor frog–the medulla oblongata being located at the base of the skull, right where he was directed to stick the spike.
In the animal world (in its archaic use) it was probably believed to be the core of the spine that transmitted important stuff (nutrients? information?) to and from the brain. I have since learned that we no longer talk of spinal marrow at all; that the soft tissue inside our bones is mainly found in the hip bones, breast bone, and skull.
In the writing world it is the core, the center of an argument, or a way of making the argument lively and memorable.
So that’s the little rabbit hole I went down after a brief conversation this weekend. Aren’t words fun? Do you know any other words with a variety of entertaining meanings?
No whales will be harmed in this post, and there will be no photos of the insides of actual whales. I’m talking about about the Samuel D. Hunter play, The Whale, that I saw at Actor’s Theatre last night–“dissecting” the story by analyzing it like a writer, as we do in an online book club I’m part of.
The performance I saw last night gave me that rare experience of being in an audience that is completely silent: no coughing, no rustling of playbills or crinkling of candy wrappers, no shifting in their seats. Silent isn’t even the right word. It was a heavy stillness, a quiet that we couldn’t release ourselves from. The only other time I’d experienced that was when I watched a Holocaust survivor tell his story to middle schoolers.
The Whale is about Charlie, a 600-pound man who is about to die and reaches out to Ellie, the angry daughter he hasn’t seen in 17 years. Charlie’s friend and nurse, Liz, tries in vain to keep him alive. Mormon missionary Elder Thomas keeps showing up to talk about God, and Charlie’s ex-wife Mary comes in as an avenging truth-teller. It is funny, until about half-way through, and then it’s compelling and devastating, can’t-turn-away theater.
Hunter does something incredibly well that writers are told to do, but is tough to commit to: every character is the center and star of their own story. Yes, the play revolves around Charlie’s decision to eat himself to death in his crappy apartment, but each character is enacting his or her own drama within this. Their actions are so well motivated by their own pasts. It’s impressive storytelling.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to detail each character’s story below, so if you want to see this play and have it be a surprise, then you should stop reading right now. Also, this post is crazy long. I’m mostly writing it for my own learning, but you may share in that if you like.
The center of the play does not want to be the center of his own life. His most common line is, “I’m sorry.” He’s constantly apologizing for being who he is. The entire play takes place in his lousy apartment: walls are mildewed, food garbage spills out of the kitchen, covering the table, and onto the floor. His couch is a gold plush couch that looks like it came from the curb. Charlie is in his last week of life due to congestive heart failure, but he refuses all attempts to get him to go to the hospital, or to even call a doctor. He works as an online writing teacher, but because of his surroundings, we assume he has little money (but just enough money that he doesn’t qualify for county services).
As the play goes on, we see him interact with Liz, his nurse-friend, and Elder Thomas, the Mormon missionary who comes to the door when Charlie is in a medical crisis. We see him recording lessons to his students. We see him with his cruel, foul-mouthed daughter who keeps a hate blog and calls him “disgusting” to his face. And he is kind to everyone. He’s clearly not doing well, but he doesn’t reject connection with people. I held out some small amount of hope that this was the kind of story where human connection draws somebody out of their destructive behavior, but no.
He tells his story to Elder Thomas, and it is sad. He had been married with a child, but then met Alan, one of his students. They became lovers, his marriage ended, and he and Alan become partners. Alan had been Mormon, but was rejected by the church and his family. At one point, Alan’s father invites him to church one last time and he goes. Whatever happens there so devastates him that he gives up on life, refusing to eat or drink or sleep. He is dead within months. Charlie wants Elder Thomas to find out what happened to Alan at that church.
Ellie doesn’t hold still long enough to hear anything of her father’s past. She’s angry. So angry. When she was younger, she was able to admit to feeling sadness, but now all her emotions have ossified into rage. She lashes out at literally everyone, whether in the story or not. This isn’t some charmingly mouthy teenager: she drugs her father–a man who is clearly having breathing troubles–with crushed-up Ambien (that she’d stolen from her mother) in his sandwich just so he’d be quiet. She finds out Elder Thomas’s real name and posts photos of him smoking pot, making sure his family finds out. But Charlie thinks she’s amazing and wonderful, mostly based on her essay from 8th grade about Moby Dick that is honest and had vibrant writing. His ex-wife Mary calls him out, saying something like, “There you go with the positivity thing. It’s so annoying,” and detailing the cruelty she sees in their daughter. But he never admits to it, even insisting that she was only trying to help Elder Thomas by making sure he went back home.
And then we find out that he has plenty of money–over $100,000 in the bank. All for Ellie. He could have bought himself health insurance and avoided the situation we find him in. Which meant that he had decided to die. Just as his boyfriend Alan decided to erase himself, Charlie decided to blow himself up. With the excuse that he was providing for his daughter. Besides “sorry,” one of his other repeated words is “devastating,” and that’s just what his story is.
Charlie is so cruel to Liz, even while we see him being kind and apologetic: Liz is Alan’s sister. She assumes Charlie has no money and that’s how he got himself into this trouble. She argues with every single character who comes into contact with Charlie, telling them to leave, or challenging their desire to be with him, because she wants to be the one to save him. Eventually, she admits this in an argument with Elder Thomas, “You’re not going to be the one who saves him. I’m going to save him.”
It’s hard to watch her constantly trying to get him to go to the doctor; she brings him monitors and wheelchairs to help him manage his stress and be more mobile, because we know long before she does that Charlie has no intention of being saved. And when his ex-wife tells her how much money Charlie has…so heavy.
Liz has one of the most heartbreaking lines in the play: “Don’t you put me through this again.” She had to watch her brother die by degrees, and is so hurt that he’s been doing the same thing, but by the opposite method. In every interaction with him, she’s acting as the center of her own drama of trying to keep him alive; her status as his only friend is a key part of her self-image.
At first, he’s in the story as a foil to Liz, and as a bit of comic relief. But he keeps showing up, clearly wanting to help Charlie. That his chosen method is to talk about how amazing the Mormon church is when both Charlie and Liz have been crushed by it, is misguided, but earnest. Oh so very earnest. But then he gets into Ellie’s clutches, and she worms his story out of him: he isn’t on an official mission to Idaho, and Thomas isn’t his last name. His official mission had been the year before, to Oregon, but when he figured out that his mission partner didn’t care whether they helped anyone or connected with anyone in any way, he exploded one night, and beat the kid up. After that, he’d run away and wound up there in Idaho, determined to help at least one person.
“Elder Thomas” is as positive-thinking as Charlie, always looking for the best in the stories in the Book of Mormon, and the history of the church. And he’s always nonplussed when nobody else shares that positive outlook. But he keeps at it, because he’s the center of his story.
She arrives in every scene as a tornado, not caring about any consequences. She assumes she knows everything there is to know, whether about a person, or a situation, and doesn’t waver from it, even when given evidence to the contrary. Even the fact that she keeps coming to see her father doesn’t redeem her because he offered her all his money to do so, and told her how much it was–she mentions the money a lot. Her words are hurtful, her attitude is dismissive, and she manipulates everyone to suit herself. Yes, her father left when she was 2, and her mother is an alcoholic who never talked about her father and never let her see Charlie, so she’s understandably hurt and angry, but her armor is so thick, there isn’t a glimmer of a hairline crack until the very last minute of the play. She is so much the star of her own story that she barely admits that any other person has any value at all.
We don’t see much of Mary, but we see how Ellie’s absence from Charlie’s life after their divorce is pretty much her doing: at first, she was probably hurt and angry from being with someone who was living a lie and also possibly a wash of disgust and shame because of the homosexuality issue. She’d fought hard for full custody and gotten it. But then she kept Ellie from her father (despite the fact that not only was Charlie paying child support, but also supporting her financially, since she was an unemployed alcoholic) because she didn’t want him to think she was a bad mother, because Ellie was such a shit.
It was so sad to watch her interactions with Charlie, because he was so gentle with her; it was clear that he was the only person in her life who had ever been gentle with her, and she’d been without that for 15 years. No matter how much she needed that kindness (at one point she puts her head on his chest to listen to his breathing, and she turns it into an embrace, the expression on her face a mix of longing and grief), she lashed out at him, too, destroying his relationship with Liz by telling her the truth about the money. Mary piled shame upon shame on herself and interacted with everyone from within that spiral.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, thanks! This was brilliant storytelling, and I’m not even talking about the repeated symbolism of the whale, and all the God stuff that was debated, and the theme of whether people are disgusting or beautiful. If you ever get a chance to see the play, do it!