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It’s early January, yes, but temperatures today were supposed to get into the 60’s. And since the next few days promise rain followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, it seemed like a good day to get out of town.

Where to go?

I have a slew of daytrip ideas stacked up, but here’s what’s bugging me: I’d really like to take my 16-year old with us on most of them, too. For example:

  • M and I went to Memphis two summers ago and had a great time – and when the older boy (who’d been at camp, I think) heard about what we’d done, he said, “I want to go next time…”
  • During World War II, there was a huge POW camp in Aliceville,Alabama. Not a scrap of it remains, but there is a museum – that’s supposed to be rather good.
  • We’ve not yet made it to the important sights in Selma or Tuskegee – again – those are trips I’d like the older boy to be on, too.

So cross those off the list (well, and Memphis is too far for a day-trip anyway). Since it was going to be pleasant, we’d want to be outdoors. But somewhere different…where to go?

How about…here?

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It didn’t take long. We left well after the older son went to school and beat him back home, but it was just enough, and it was amazing.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a large area that embraces the banks of the Tennessee River and tributaries around Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. If you’ve driven on I-65 across the Tennessee, you’ve touched the Wheeler Refuge.

Here’s the story:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established July 7, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was the first refuge ever superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment and in the early stages, considered an experiment to determine the possibility of attracting migratory waterfowl onto a multipurpose impoundment. 

 Although designated as a waterfowl refuge, Wheeler provides for a wide spectrum of wildlife. Its great diversity of habitat includes deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. This rich mix of habitats provide places for over 295 bird species to rest, nest and winter, including over 30 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and an increasing population of Sandhill cranes and a small number of Whooping cranes. 

 

I’m glad I honed in on it this week – the cranes will start migrating again soon. It had been on the edges of my radar for a while, but crept closer to the center this week because I saw a notice about a “Crane Festival” up there this weekend – I’d considered doing that, but then thought – why attack the place with thousands of others when we can just run up there during the week? I’m very glad we went.

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It was an astonishing sight that our cameras couldn’t capture – perhaps with a better telephoto lens, we could have. Also – a lot of the photos were taken through the glass of the observation building, which is, incidentally, apparently suffering from the same infestation of ladybug type beetles that we are down here.

Just know that to see, even from a bit of a distance, thousands of Sandhill Cranes hanging out, occasionally taking flight and making a lot of noise, is fascinating. There were apparently some whooping cranes in the crew as well, but I didn’t see them.

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Again – not a great photo, but just know – that mass of gray? Sandhill Cranes. Thousands. 

(If you want to hear them – or at least what I was able to capture – go check out Instagram.)

Here we are, toting our gear, poking around in the grasses, and there they are en masse, finding whatever it is they find, always together, never alone.

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There were, of course, a lot of waterfowl as well, and high up in a tree we spotted bees swarming around a cavity in the trunk.

There’s a decent little visitor’s center with exhibits to get you going. There were many other visitors, mostly older (ahem) folks as well as two school groups. It seems to be a well-used facility.

We drove north, along 565 (which takes you to Huntsville), and pulled off to walk a couple of other trails – we were told there were a lot of some type of waterfowl on a particular branch – which we saw, but from such a distance, even with binoculars, they were impossible to make out. The Beaverdam trail didn’t, unfortunately, have any beavers, or dams, but during our twenty minutes or so there, we walked through something different – a swamp populated, not by cypresses, as we usually see, but Tupelo trees.

And then back home, reading and being told about the Mayans, once again, as well as his latest read, Dune in which – he reported  – “Something happened. Finally.”

Next stop – eagles!

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Busy week. Let’s get started.

First off, Publisher’s Weekly carried a brief notice about the book I’m working on with Loyola – the exciting completion of the Loyola Kids trilogy! Well, at least the third book I’ll have "amy welborn"written under that brand. It’s simple – a collection of Bible stories, but with an angle that I hope will make them particularly helpful to Catholic children, parents, families and catechists. When I wrote the Loyola Kids Book of Saints sixteen years ago, I never thought it would still be selling as well as it does – usually one of the top two or three titles in children’s religious biography on Amazon, and really still unique in approach.

My deadline for this manuscript is early February, so I’ll be working to get that done over the next few months as well as on some smaller projects.

— 2 —

The past week has been busy, with an odd recurring theme of organization and information – or really, a lack of it.

High Point climbing gym is one of my youngest son’s favorite places. It’s a huge gym in downtown Chattanooga, notable for the outdoor climbing wall.

They’re building a branch here in Birmingham, and last weekend, they had an open house for their still-under construction facility. So we started there – it looks good, although not as large as the Chattanooga place and sadly, no outdoor climbing wall. It’s also a bit far from our house on road that is often marked by horrendous traffic, but I told my son that if got up early on Saturday mornings to go, I’d take him once in a while. He was all in. What have I done?

— 3 —

After a brief stop back at home, I headed out and up the hill behind our neighborhood to the Altamont School, which was hosting a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth. You’ll recall that he was born here in Birmingham, and it was from here that his mother moved the family after his father’s suicide. Percy attended a school that was the predecessor of Altamont, which explains the event. Unfortunately, it was barely advertised – I only knew about it because someone in my parish sent me an email saying, “Whenever I see something about Walker Percy, I think of you. Have you seen this?” No, I hadn’t. Neither had many other people, for the panel discussion part of the afternoon, which is what I attended, featured four people on stage and ten in the audience. Even with the Crimson Tide on the field at the time, that’s surprising. A few days later, I spoke with someone local who is a big Percy fan, well-connected into the local cultural scene and he was astounded that this event had occurred – he’d heard nothing about it.

Anyway, what I took away – besides marketing, people – was, first of all, how challenging it is for people to get a hold of Percy’s Catholicism, probably because hardly anyone understands Catholicism properly, not getting the fundamental point that a character who defines himself as a “Bad Catholic” is actually expressing a sort of ideal Catholicism. Secondly, I was struck again by the Percy Effect, best summarized on this occasion by the young academic on the panel who described his feeling upon first encountering Percy’s writings. “I was splayed open” – he said, and then filled with an urgent sense that Percy was onto something and that it was important, even essential, to follow and see where he led. The person I was talking to a few days later said that when he was in campus ministry he would often give The Last Gentlemen to students, and after reading three chapters, they would return to him wondering…was Walker Percy in my dorm room? How does he know?

Something I wrote about Percy for CWR a few months ago.

 — 4 —

Then it was back down the hill, fix dinner, and then my younger son and I headed out to the Alabama Theater to see Post Modern Jukebox. It was a good concert – even with a couple of dicey moments that I think went mostly over his head anyway. The talent level is amazing, which you know from watching the videos. Two of my favorites – Casey Abrams and Aubrey Logan– were both in the troupe for that performance, although a major, major disappointment was that Scot Bradlee himself was not. My 11-year old pianist son was quite let down by that – the pianist performing that night was excellent of course, but my son has really enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s stylings and style and was a little stunned that he wasn’t actually there – I wouldn’t say I was stunned, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing.

— 5 

Sunday morning – serve Mass at Casa Maria.

In the afternoon, we went to a big local state park – Oak Mountain State Park – for an advertised “reptile program.” Here’s what was advertised – come see reptiles from noon to three. Really not much more than that. We arrived at the interpretive center at 1:30 to an room empty but for refreshments. The program would be across the road in the other building, at would start at 2.

Which it did, to a full room, and with lots of interesting animals and expert educational offerings. But it was far more formal than advertised and did go on. So instead of the drop-in and see and chat about animals at your leisure during a time frame experience I thought we were getting, we sat in chairs for 90 minutes – including thirty minutes past the advertised ending time. Yes, snakes, lizards and tortoises are well worth our time – why do you think we were there? – but there was certainly a big difference between advertising and reality. Do people not even read their own copy and think about how it matches their plans?

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6–

Back to school on Monday, and then Tuesday night, Birmingham – in the form of Rev. Peter Leithert’s Theopolis Institute – welcomed Joseph Bottum to town.

I had met Jody years ago at an informal event First Things organized for me on a visit to New York. He was here from his South Dakota home to speak on “The Novel as Protestant Art” –  the article upon which his talk is based is here. It was a good talk with interesting engagement from the audience. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed that kind of in-person adult intellectual engagement, and what made it even better was that Avondale Brewery, where it was held, is about two minutes from my house. Always a plus.

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We won’t have that level of activity this weekend. What’s on tap? One kid gone Friday and much of Saturday at a robotics competition, the other serving a Saturday retreat Mass and having a make-up piano lesson (his teacher was on a short recital tour earlier in the week and had to reschedule). A family Halloween party Saturday night – almost forgot about that! – and then..it looks like Sunday is going to be what I hate most – Finish The Project Day – around here. One has an Archimedes project, the other on The Scarlet Letter.

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Have a Happy Halloween, Slash.

— 7 —

Oh, I did do a bit of television watching, aside from Rectify. I have been poking around for a show to binge on – I missed the Stranger Things fad. By the time it had cycled through from New Hotness to Old and Almost Busted, I lost interest. But then I started hearing about this Australian show called Glitch just come to Netflix, so I thought I’d try it out.

And I did, and I watched the whole thing, sort of hating myself by hour four. Not exactly hating, but knowing by that point that this was going to be a Lost kind of experience in which an initial intriguing hook ends up taking you for a fairly contrived ride. And Lost was a lot better than Glitch.

The conceit is that several people have risen from the dead, crawling out of their graves in the cemetery in a small Australian town. Those first scenes are quite arresting, and a couple of the story lines are affecting, but the writing is formulaic and stiff, serious questions are glossed over and really, it all comes down to the fact that the reaction of a widower to his once dead, now-standing-in-front-of-him wife is not much more intense than if she had surprised him by arriving  home early from work. It’s clear by the end that this event has not been caused – as the devout Catholic among the resuscitated exclaims – by any miracle – but by pharmaceutical hijinks of one sort or another, and there’s a major twist at the end of the series that makes the, er, dead affect of one of the non-risen characters finally understandable – and so that’s where this first season ends. So yes, I kept watching for that dumb reason we all do – just to see what happens – but I’m not proud, especially in light of the intelligent, nuanced experience of Rectify a couple of nights later. I should have spent those six hours reading a book instead. Walker Percy, probably.

“Yes. Death is winning, life is losing.”
“Ah, you mean the wars and the crime and violence and so on?”
“Not only that. I mean the living too.”
“The living? Do you mean the living are dead?”
“Yes.”
“How can that be, Father? How can the living be dead?”
“I mean their souls, of course.”
“You mean their souls are dead,” says Max with the liveliest sympathy.
“Yes,” says Father Smith tonelessly. “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.

 

— 2 —

 

I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.

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I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —

 

When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.

 

6–

I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.

And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.

I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:

School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.

In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.

And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.

In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.

The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?

But today, background:

My parents were both educators.

My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.

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(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.

My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.

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Deep in study at Paris Junior College

His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.

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Between them, they taught thousands.

There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, aEPSON MFP imagend his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.

(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)

Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else.  Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.

All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th

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If you look at the next image..you’ll see the same picture. Almost 50 years later.  

through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.

Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.

But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.

No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.

We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.

Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.

So what am I saying?

My  family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.

My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.

Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.

And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.

 

So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject.  I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

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50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways. 

 

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We spent the weekend at the pool (and serving at Mass), and by last night the natives were just a little restless, so today became a road trip day.

As much of my life I have lived in or near Tennessee, one place I had never been was the Shiloh Battlefield Park. I have an excuse – well, two. Battlefields are not really my thing, and secondly, if you look at a map, you see that Shiloh is a bit out of the way – at least from the places I’ve lived and the regular driving routes that took me through and around the state – between Nashville and Knoxville, from Indiana to Knoxville, from Florida to Knoxville and back.

So today became the day to check it off the list.

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We left a little after 8 and a bit before 11 rolled into Corinth, MS. Corinth was the actual reason and excuse for the Battle of Shiloh, being the major rail junction for the Confederacy’s hold in what they then called the West.  The Confederates needed to hold on to it, and the Union wanted to break it down, a goal that seemed quite possible after two important victories in northern middle Tennessee in March, 1862.

Corinth had only existed since 1854, and now, just a few years later, it would be inundated with troops from both sides, troops alive, wounded and dead.

So that’s where we began.

The NPS runs an excellent Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth. The museum part is superior to what we saw at Shiloh, the 18-minute film on the role of Corinth in the war is excellent, fair and moving, and there are design features of the facility that deepen the experience.

 

The path from the parking lot to the Center features sculpted remnants of battle strewn about on the ground and embedded in the sidewalk. 

The fountain feature behind the center is quite striking. You can read more about it here. It’s a good visual representation of the course of American history from the formulation of the ideals in the Declaration and the Constitution through the Civil War. 

One of the most interesting things I learned concerned the Corinth Contraband Camp. After the victory at Shiloh, the Union eventually moved south and took Corinth. During the months of occupation, area slaves began to move into what was now Union territory, hoping for eventual permanent freedom.  Many of the men joined the Union army, and those that didn’t, along with the families of those who did, lived and worked in Corinth. They formed a community, were paid for their labors for the first time, had a church and schools. Abolitionists and Protestant missionaries arrived from the North to minister to them. When the Union pulled out in 1863, most of the inhabitants of the camp followed them to Memphis.

We spent about an hour at the Center, then ate lunch at Borroum’s Drug Store – the oldest in Mississippi. My younger son declared the hamburger to be the second best he’d ever eaten. (First? Nope, not mine. Five Guys.) It was a fun experience, but if you go…they don’t take credit cards, only cash or checks. Luckily I had my checkbook!

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The park on the site of the Contraband Camp was a bit east of downtown, so we made a quick stop there – it is just open land with various statues scattered about – and then set off for Shiloh. It’s a bit more than twenty miles north, but the drive takes about 35 minutes.

Historical markers begin to appear far before the park boundaries because, of course, the battles raged and troops moved all along the land between Corinth and what we now call Shiloh. (Named for a Methodist meeting house in the area of the battle)

We arrived and decided to go ahead and watch the film, even though at first I said we’d only watch part of it – it was 45 minutes.  But, well..it was so well done and so riveting, no one moved, and after one of my sons declared that it had not seemed to last that long at all. Perhaps some of you have seen similar films at other NPS-run battleground sites and they are all equally good. I don’t know. But I was impressed, not only with the professional quality, but with the smooth integration of explanation of tactics and movement along with personal narratives. I always, of course, have my eye out for the treatment of religion and while of course it was not central, it did enter the picture as soldiers were depicted praying, reading the Bible and singing a hymn.

Now, if you are not deeply into the history of a particular battle, the question arises…what now? The battlefield is huge, markers delineating troop position and movement are everywhere and obviously if you are into that, it’s a day-long excursion or more and you’re ecstatic. But if you can’t get interested in what the Indiana 30th did at 10 AM on April 6th…what next?

Well, we hit the high points. We drove to Pittsburgh Landing, then circled around to some of the high points on the driving tour, and happened upon another Ranger talk near the site of where Johnston – the CSA commanding officer – was killed during the battle. The Ranger was animated, clear in his descriptions and picked just the right anecdotes to keep everyone interested in the aspect of the battle he was describing – not as memorable as our favorite, Ranger Jake from the Grand Canyon, but a not-distant second.

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So we listened to that, got back into the car, drove around to some more of the major landmarks..and well, that was it for us. Even though we’re not interested in a lot of detail, the experience of being on the battlefield, the landscape of which remains much the same as it was 150 years ago, internalizing the struggle, sacrifice and carnage and comparing it with the peaceful scene of the present, is important. The ranger emphasized the history of the battlefield park: that it had been veterans from both sides of the conflict who had spearheaded the effort at the end of the 19th century, veterans who wanted to send a message to future generations: let this not happen again.

As I’ve said before, I am a major fan of federal and state parks and historical sites, and so grateful to the enthusiasts whose energy, knowledge and commitment is so evident in the quality of every one that I’ve ever visited. If you’re in the area, do visit Shiloh, but I would definitely incorporate Corinth into the visit as well.

***

As I’d quickly “planned” the day, I’d noted a Tennessee state park near Corinth – Pickwick Dam. It advertised “swimming.” Oh, what a fabulous way to wrap up the day, I thought – some time in the water! Nice try. We drove down that way (it’s on the way back to Alabama) and found that both swimming areas were very, very circumscribed. A small beach with a roped-in area on the water that was nice and safe for all the five-year olds, but uninteresting to anyone older. So we passed, but did drive across to the other side to take a look at the dam and its workings.

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***

By that time it was almost five, but with a few hours of daylight left, I thought we might try to hit another state park, this one in Mississippi. It would take us a bit out of the way, but we were in no hurry to return. I thought this park would be a good choice for an hour or so stop because it had an interesting CCC construction and a trail with rock outcroppings – always popular with Someone in our group.

We took a ten minute detour on the way south through fabulous Iuka, home of mineral waters that won first place! In the 1904 World’s Fair! 

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Well, that wasn’t very exciting. But we’re spoiled. It’s hard to top our 1904 World’s Fair contribution. Sorry, Iuka! 

But yes, we did …drink to our health.

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*****

We got to Tishomingo State Park a little before six, drove to the CCC-constructed swinging bridge, crossed it and walked much of the Outcropping Trail.

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I’ll shove this into the Roadschooling category, so let’s recount some of what was discussed: General Civil War history. Corinth and Shiloh in particular, before (I’d studied up on it last night), during and after the visits. What “contraband” means. What a slugburger is. The role of Catholic clergy and especially sisters in ministering to the wounded of Shiloh and Corinth – details here (again, I’d read up on it last night). Remembering Hoover Dam. Talking about National Parks, especially Zion, Grand Canyon and Bryce. Someone really wants to go to Arches. How people with perhaps 8th grade educations – the non-officer “ordinary” soldiers and citizens whose words were used in the films we saw –  wrote so beautifully, and what that means in regard to our definition of “education.” Lew Wallace, the author of the novel Ben-Hur, the movie of which we watched a couple of months ago, was a Union general at Shiloh. John Wesley Powell, about whom we talked a lot last year for his role in exploring the Grand Canyon, lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Connections, always connections. The Sixth Sense (we watched it last night). How some people hate all football teams from Mississippi and Alabama. Why World Fairs were a thing. The TVA. Elvis.

****

Back home by 9:15. Not bad for 11 hours.

***

A couple more pool days..then Charleston bound.

Remember….Instagram & Snapchat (amywelborn2)  for more current travel images.

 

 

 

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Is it strange that the real purpose of this trip was to do the Jack Daniel Distillery Tour? 

Especially since I don’t even drink it or anything like it?

Well, see, I find the production of any kind of alcohol – fermentation, distillation, viticulture, what have you – so fascinating from both a chemical and historical perspective.  I can’t help but wonder how people stumbled upon and then developed these processes, and the great care and precision that goes into making any of it on a high level.

It’s such a contrast to my slovenly, “that’ll do” way of life, I suppose…it’s like visiting another country for me…

(I read good things about the George Dickel tour as well, but I didn’t really want to take that extra jog up  to Tullahoma, so Jack it was).

It’s a very good tour.  I’ve done a few of these factory-type tours – Golden Flake here in town, Blue Bell down in Sylacauga, etc.. – and this one ranks.  The guide we got was an older guy, confident, at ease, knowledgeable and there was a refreshing paucity of awkward jokes. The history was thorough, the chemistry was clearly explained – those big bubbling vats of fermenting mash won’t be forgotten, the hard sell was at a minimum, and limited to the unattainable “single barrel” club.

The tour is free (there’s another two-hour tasting tour that costs $10), and today, a summer weekday, we were able to get on a tour that left within 10 minutes of our arrival, no problem.  You ride a bus up to the  charcoal-burning yard, and then walk back down, going into the original offices, the fermentation building and the distillation building on the way, as well as the cave spring, of course.  It was really interesting to see the mash bubbling away – not the greatest scent, but interesting to have the kids pick out the yeast smell…

A few images (no photos allowed indoors)

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Vintage Texaco in Cowan, TN.  We went to Lynchburg via Sewanee.  (“Mom, what does that mean?”  “What?” “What you just said…’pretentious.'”  “Oh….that….”)

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Back roads

Jack Daniels Distillery

Charcoal being made from sugar maple. Very hot!

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The way home took us through Huntsville, so I thought about stopping for the “Robot Zoo” exhibit at the Space Center (free admission because of membership in our science museum), but time got away from us, we had to be back in town for a meeting tonight, so not this time.  I did, however, take a 10-mile detour off the interstate to visit the Mennonite-run bakery.  Very good! With chickens out front who got away before I could dig my camera out of my purse.

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Close up of the Scripture text on the wrapper:

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…is our land.

Day trip…well, overnight.  More to come.  But so far:

Cloudland Canyon State Park in west Georgia:

Lookout Mountain, Tennessee/Georgia.

High Point Climbing, Chattanooga. Again.  This time with the brother who missed it last time.

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One of the riverside parks in Chattanooga.  Pedestrian bridge in background.  Every time I come to Chattanooga and experience what they have accomplished with their downtown, I think, Poor Birmingham.  I mean…without that cooling, ever-moving water, it’s so hard to create this kind of space:

Get. Out. Of. The House. 

It’s SUMMERTIME!

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