Sunday, December 23, 2012

Grief, Despair, and Bells of Hope: Reflections at Christmas 2012

I haven't been able to get the folks in Newtown, Connecticut off my mind during this holiday season, especially during these last few days before Christmas. As I relish the joys of celebrating with my 6-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, I find myself wondering how on earth the parents of those slaughtered little ones--or the families of the many others killed in mass shootings in our country this year--are going to make it through these days. And over and over again in my head, I keep hearing the first verses of the old Christmas Carol that my father taught me to love when I was just 6 or 8 myself:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those words as a poem on Christmas Day, 1864, while the Civil War was still raging. He wrote them in the midst not only of the widespread pain and loss of war, but in the aftermath of several personal tragedies. Just three years and a few months earlier, Longfellow's wife had died an excruciating death after several drops of hot wax had spattered her dress and caught it on fire while she was curling her daughter's hair. In his effort to extinguish the flames by throwing his own body upon hers, Longfellow suffered severe burns to his face, arms and hands.
As is documented here, the following Christmases were deeply sad ones for Longfellow:
In his journal that first Christmas after his wife’s death Longfellow wrote: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays" . . .  For Christmas, 1862, Longfellow writes: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
In 1863, Longfellow made no journal entry. Just a few weeks earlier, he had gotten word that his oldest son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, had been severely wounded in battle and left crippled.

But something happened between Christmas of 1863 and Christmas of 1864, for the final verse of his poem reads
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

What was it that happened? What changed in his heart? In his mind? Perhaps if I knew, I could convince my own heart and mind to recite this final verse again this Christmas.

I wonder how many others in our society today are finding that final verse a challenge.

Significantly, it was not that verse that bothered John Baptiste Calkin when he set about the task of putting Longfellow's poem to music in 1872, but rather the fourth and the fifth verses--the ones that turn us face-to-face with the grim realities of our society, that decry the ugliness of the violence we do to one another and its far-reaching impacts. I hope that this year, our society will not do as Calkin did, and choose to ignore those verses, politely dropping them from the hymn. For we need to sing them, too; we need to admit to ourselves their relevance today.

But I hope we will not succumb to bowing our heads in despair, either. Let us instead allow Longfellow's poem to inspire us to finally say "Enough!" "No more thundering cannons!" "No more hearth-rending earthquakes!" Let us this Christmas decide to do the hard work it will take to make our society one in which our children--no matter their color, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, or zip code--have no reason to fear going to school, and where those who suffer mental and emotional illnesses find effective and affordable help instead of scorn and neglect. Maybe it is only through that sort of work that we can ultimately ensure that "the Wrong will fall, the Right prevail," and that the God of Peace and Goodwill will not perish in our midst.

If you would like to provide support to the families of the victims of the Newtown Shooting, you may send a check to:
Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street
Newtown, CT 06470. 
To help those who are working to decrease gun violence in our society, consider supporting one of the following organization:
  • The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (
  • The Violence Policy Center (
  • Join Together (
  • One of the many local groups spread throughout the country--possibly in your own backyard.
To help those who are working to meet the needs of those suffering from mental and emotional problems, consider supporting:
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (
  • Mental Health America (

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Real-Life (and -Death) Learning

Warning: The images and text in this blog might be disturbing to some readers, particularly children. Please read with caution!

"I never let schooling interfere with my education." 
--Mark Twain 

The girls and I had an even less-conventional-than-usual week of school last week. Our schedule specified that our science lessons would focus on animal identification and classification. Instead, we ended up studying the innards and orneriness of roosters.

What happened was this: Over the previous couple of weeks, one of our Delaware roosters, Obadiah Slope, had been getting more and more aggressive, both with the hens and with Segi and Simi.  He hadn't attacked anyone yet, but we were concerned enough to start keeping a close eye on him. Then Monday morning as the girls and I were wrapping up our chores, he cornered Simi, circling her and chasing her into the barn. (Luckily she made it inside before he flew at her.) I knew then that this guy was going into the roasting pan--and soon. That night, I told G-P that the girls and I would set aside our school schedule the next day so we could butcher our erstwhile friend. G-P graciously volunteered to go into work late so that he could catch and dispatch of Obadiah himself. (I have to admit that although I'd talked real big about taking care of everything on my own,  I was immensely relieved not to have to actually wield the machete blow.) To my surprise, the girls walked with their dad through the whole process and never turned their heads. Looks like they really are turning into farm girls!
Bringing in the Carcass 

By 7:30 a.m., our carcass was ready to go. We spent the morning, scalding, plucking, gutting, and chopping. And learning! I invited the girls to participate much more actively in the butchering process this time. And because we had set aside all our plans for the day, we had plenty time to inspect how the feathers attached to the skin; to study what joints look like and how they work; to identify most of the internal organs and discuss their functions; and even to conduct some research into why roosters "turn mean." (We learned, of course, that what humans interpret as roosters turning mean is often a rooster simply being especially devoted to doing his most important jobs: protecting and defending his flock.)

Examining the Internal Organs
Examining the Joints
A Major Perk of Our Rooster Practicum: Dinner!

The crisis we faced at the beginning of last week highlighted the fact that if there is one thing homesteading homeschoolers can count on, it is that circumstances will sometimes get in the way of even the best-laid lesson plans.  Luckily, one of the perks of homeschooling is that a derailed schedule can be a just as much an opportunity as it is challenge! That was certainly the case for us in this instance. Indeed, I think I can safely say that the girls and I both learned more from our hands-on exploration of the ill-fated Obadiah than we could have gotten from several textbook chapters on chicken anatomy and behavior.

A key to getting a good education, it seems to me, is being open to "learning where we're planted"-- taking advantage of the learning opportunities that come up in everyday life, even (or perhaps especially) when they interfere with our formal education.

Thank you, Obadiah, for our tutorial. And for dinner!