Carolina Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina via Wikimedia Commons, taken by Ken Thomas (Public Domain).

I walk along the red clay path past white dogwood blooms. My son spots a black and orange millipede. We stop to watch it cross the path and see a second one on the other side. My children gather rocks and throw them into the creek as I try to capture the splash with my camera. The scent on the air smells a little like sandalwood, but more than anything it smells like North Carolina, like the mountains that loom up to my left.

My mind tries out scenarios of varying degrees of ridiculousness that might bring our family here to live instead of Massachusetts. My spouse could teach at the college. I could join a writing group and maybe get my MFA. I look up homeschooling groups and flute teachers online. But I know we’re leaving the mountains tomorrow, and that living here isn’t something we can do right now. Or maybe ever.

My eyes sting and my belly feels like I’m falling, but I try to remind myself to breathe this place in, to be here now rather than missing it before we ever leave.

Back in town, street musicians—a ragged bluegrass band, a guy with a guitar and a brindle mut, a fellow smoking a cigarette while playing on a synthesizer—provide the soundtrack as we walk by book shops and head shops, art galleries and cafes. We stop by the gallery where the owner of the condo we’re renting works and exhibits her photographs. We talk about how much Asheville has changed in the eleven years since we last visited, which changes are good (an even greater commitment to green living and cleaning up the mountain waterways) and which are kind of mixed (lots and lots and lots of tourists who fill up the parking garages and restaurants but about whom we can’t complain because we’re among them and whom she can’t complain about because they rent her condo and buy her artwork).

We can’t stay long, though, because we’re meeting a friend for dinner, a friend from Salt Lake City we didn’t know was in town until my spouse bumped into him on the street. It’s just a coincidence, him being in town for work at the same time we’re in town for the first time in more than a decade, him passing our building at the same time my spouse was walking back from the ATM, but to me, this is just another bit of the magic of Asheville.

This is just what I expected when we planned this trip. The anticipation of this visit was what infused me with joy as we drove into town and what prompted my daughter to ask as we walked the few blocks to dinner that first night in town, “Mommy, would you be happy if we lived in Asheville?”

That first night when I could barely keep myself from jumping up and down with glee, my answer was an unequivocal “yes,” but now I feel less certain.

Even though I love this city and the mountains where my grandmother’s family have lived for nearly 300 years, even though I love the independent bookstore where the cashier invited me to attend a literary salon based around the book I bought and the Mexican-Caribbean restaurant where I ate transcendent fire-roasted tomato chipotle peanut salsa, would I really be happy here? Would the joy wear off? If I lived here, would the negatives start to overwhelm the positives? Would I start to hate the tourists and long for a quiet place where there are more playgrounds for my kids and where people don’t wax poetic about micro-brewed beer and locally-sourced produce? After a few months or a year, would I do like I always do and start looking for another, better place to live?

In a way it doesn’t matter. Because we’re not staying here. We’re driving back to Massachusetts and our sweet little split-level in the suburbs where we can open our windows and hear the chirping of the spring peepers as we fall asleep instead of live indie rock until 2am from the bar downstairs.

Written as part of the Weekly Writing Challenge theme, Great Expectations.


Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

Two Treatises of Government
Two Treatises of Government by John Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite my ambitious plan to at least skim the First Treatise, I only read Locke’s Second Treatise.

I was surprised at how much I liked this book, especially since I started out pretty disgusted by Locke’s viewpoint. The two main things that irritated me:

1) His opinion that the primary goal of government is to preserve property. This just felt really materialistic to me. I felt better about this one when I read the parenthetical aside in chapter XV that read, “By property I must be understood here, as in other places to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods,” which I take to mean the intangible qualities of a person as well as the material things he owns. Seems like such an important definition might have been placed a little earlier in the book, but I wasn’t Locke’s editor.

2) His chapter on slavery, in which he asserts that slavery is okay as long as the people taken as slaves first entered into a state of war, thereby forfeiting their natural rights to life and liberty. In the notes to the edition I read, it explained that Locke used this reasoning to justify the African slave trade in the Americas.  It’s a real stretch to claim that every African slave in the Americas in the 17th century was a combatant in a just war against the government enslaving them. Even if this were so, how does that justify keeping their children (and grandchildren) as slaves? In another note, I read that Locke had made part of his wealth in the slave trade, so he had a vested interest in finding a reason why slavery was okay. Unlike with property, there were no parentheticals to help me feel better about Locke’s views on slavery.

As I read on, I focussed more on how Locke’s philosophy fits in with the political situation in England at the time (from James I through Charles I and the civil war, about which I read in David Hume’s The History of England, Volume V; my classics reading is already paying off, even if it is primarily helpful when I’m reading other classics) and on just how much United States government is based on Locke’s philosophy. This really increased my enjoyment of this treatise.

Some of the chapters triggered some very patriotic feelings in me (in my notes about chapter XIX, section 228, I’ve written, “This section ROCKS!”), and I found myself relating many of Locke’s points back to modern situations, like Bush v. Gore, second amendment arguments, and the confiscation of personal property when individuals are charged with drug violations (not convicted of; charged with. And the property isn’t returned if the individual is cleared of the charges, either).

While it’s tempting (for me, at least) to read Locke as a kind of test for our current government, there’s always that memory of his take on slavery. There’s a kind of lingering feeling that he’s taken step by reasonable step and come out past the point of reason, and I worry that I’m missing something important and letting myself be led along because I can’t quite think through all of this as critically as I’d like to. I can’t trust that using his “government must always protect the property of its people” litmus test will lead me to the right conclusions about what our government ought to be doing today.

Still, there was a lot in this book that got me thinking.

One specific question the book provoked was, what is the rule of law during a situation like the American Revolution or the Civil War when the old order has been overthrown but things are still in flux and a new legislative has yet to be put in place? When the legislative structure is dissolved by rebellion, what laws exist among non-combatants until the conflict is resolved? Do people just revert to a state of nature, with no government to which to appeal in cases of unlawful violence or theft?

There were also some awesome quotes. The section I said rocked had this one, in response to those who argue that keeping the peace is more important than fighting against arbitrary power asserted by the government:

“Who would not think it an admirable peace betwix the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?”

And one more, for good measure:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm.”

I thought this one would make a good e-mail signature, but I have a feeling that by putting John Locke at the bottom of all of my e-mail messages I would be saying more than I intend.

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A Birth in Fifty Words

When my sobs subsided I steeled myself, and we closed the door on the birth tub and our home birth and entered a world of monitors and medications, threats and confusion. The triumph behind us, I could finally look into my daughter’s eyes; we were the first people on Earth.

Written for The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge theme, “Fifty.”


The Starry Afternoon: An Artistic Victory

My kids love crafts, but for the past couple of years, my eight-year-old has been very resistant to anything labeled “art,” especially drawing. I think it has to do with perfectionism. No idea where she got that.

My efforts to get her on speaking terms with the world of art have only increased her resistance, which left me feeling awful. But I didn’t despair and have continued to look for programs that might bring the joy of art back to my girl.

Recently I discovered a series of free online art lessons by Sharon Jeffus called Art Through the Year.

The program and the projects looked fun and different from the other things we’d tried, so the kids and I gave it a whirl.

Each lesson consists of a ~30-minute video about a certain period in art history, or a certain technique, with printable instructions for projects that go along with the lesson.

The topic for Lesson 1 was “Post-Impressionism and Line.” Jeffus showed and talked about paintings by Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, and we learned about pointillism, line, and techniques for using oil pastels.

My four-year-old son's lion (his sister did the one on the right).

My four-year-old son’s lion (his sister did the one on the right).

There were two projects for this lesson, a lion drawn with lines and our own mixed-media rendition of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

My eight-year-old daughter's lions.

My eight-year-old daughter’s lions.

My children liked the lesson, and they loved the projects.

My lions.

My lions (I’m thirty-seven, since I told the kids’ ages).

I think it helped that the lesson was a video—my kids are so video-deprived, they’re happy to watch anything on a screen, but I was impressed with the quality of this video, especially since it was free. Jeffus used some different pronunciations for Seurat and Cézanne than I’ve heard before, but since I embarrassed myself by saying “facade” with a hard “C” more than 20 years ago, I don’t feel confident about the pronunciation of any French-derived words anymore. I knew who she was talking about, so no biggie.

My son's Starry Night.

My son’s Starry Night.

The pacing of the video was good for us, and I liked that Jeffus left a spot after she described the first project for the kids and me to pause the video and do that project before watching the explanation for the next.

While doing the projects, my kids didn’t lose their cool, they didn’t hit each other, and they worked on their projects for longer than I expected, given their prior irritability around any directed art projects. Our thirteen-year-old neighbor came over and did the Starry Night project with us, but she left before I had a chance to photograph her picture.

Top: Van Gogh's Starry Night. Bottom left: My daughter's. Bottom right: mine.

Top: Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Bottom left: My daughter’s Starry Night. Bottom right: my Starry Night.

We didn’t produce any amazing works of art, but we all had a blast, which is all I was hoping for.

My daughter’s review: “I hated art before because then I felt like I had to do something exact, but this art class has you do something general. I like art now.”

Both kids can’t wait for Lesson 2, “Shape & Shading with Pumpkins”!

Sunday in Spring

This afternoon we went on a family hike during which we heard spring peepers, proving that spring has, in fact, arrived in New England (or at least in our corner of New England).

Spring peepers audio:

All during the hike, I thought about transcendence and how not only is there so much experience that’s below the level of thought, there’s so much experience that defies efforts to corral it into thoughts, words, or pictures. I long to put into words the feeling of watching my children run through the woods, of listening to the peeping of little frogs, and of knowing that spring is finally here. I long to capture these experiences, and although I know I’ll fail, I welcome that longing.

Knowing I’ll fail, I still try.


Love Dogs

by Jelaluddin Rumi


One night a man was crying,

Allah! Allah!

His lips grew sweet with the praising,

until a cynic said, “So I have heard you calling out,

but have you ever gotten any response?”


The man had no answer to that.

He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.


He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,

in a thick green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?”

“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express is the return message.”


The grief you cry from

draws you toward union.


Your pure sadness

that wants help

is the secret cup.


Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.

That whining is the connection.


There are love dogs

no one knows the names of.

Give your life to be one of them.

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald

The Great Brain
The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were listening to this audiobook today during lunch when it hit me: my kids are listening to a story about assisted suicide. My kids didn’t seem to be upset by the story, and it was written from a kid’s perspective and seemed totally realistic in that light, but it still set off lashing lights and danger signals for me, and I couldn’t pinpoint why exactly it did.

I wondered (and still wonder): Is it okay for kids to read books about pre-teens contemplating suicide? What about books about an entire town that basically lets a man starve to death in their midst because he’s an outsider?

I feel uncomfortable with my kids reading (or in this case, hearing) about these things, but I’m not sure why I do. Because kids do deal with these things. Well, maybe not literally letting a man starve to death, but they certainly observe the prejudices of others, and they experience being on the outside of a group and the fear that they might never live up to the expectations of their parents and their communities. Why not explore these things in fiction? Couldn’t doing so prepare them by giving them a test run for dealing with things in reality?

And I can definitely see how Fitzgerald’s take on young boys’ complicated and often convoluted moral reasoning could be helpful to a child, and the book is certainly engaging and fun to read (although why voice actors insist on giving New York accents to kids from places out West is a mystery to me).

We’ve had some good conversations, too, about whether someone who’s afraid to jump off a diving board is a coward or if someone’s parents would really stop loving them for it. And I got to answer questions like, “Mommy, what’s gangrene?” (A more pleasant one was, “Mommy, what’s charity?” which I think was more confusing for them than it might have been if their mom’s name weren’t “Charity.”) And man, do I feel grateful for vaccines after reading this book.

But still, I feel a little uncomfortable talking about these things with my kids, and maybe that’s the crux of the matter. I feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, therefore they must be “bad” for my kids to hear about, or so goes my knee-jerk reasoning. Well, I’m also not keen on having my four-year-old adopt the language of children who lived more than 100 years ago, calling people “crybabies” and “cowards.” He did dig a “pretend grave” yesterday, but so far he’s not asked to explore any caves or abandoned barns. With any luck, if the book encourages bad behavior it will also influence my kids to do more chores (I’m not holding my breath on that one).

Clearly I have conflicting emotions about this book. Overall it’s a good one, but I don’t think we’ll race out to get the next one in the series.

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Bookends: March 2014

The first day of each month, I’m posting a summary of what I read the previous month and what I plan to read in the coming month. I would love if this could become a conversation in the comments about what’s on your reading list, too!

First things first: This is my 1,000th post on Imperfect Happiness! Sure, the blog will be four years old this July and that’s plenty of time to write a lot of posts, but still—did I really write all of these posts?

Okay, enough reflecting on the collective effect of 1,000 grains of sand. Let’s talk about books!

It turns out my five-books-a-month plan is a little ambitious. There are five finished grown-up books in the March list, but two were left over from February’s overly-ambitious reading plan. I didn’t finish all of the books I set out to read in March (and didn’t even start the Locke I assigned myself), but I did pretty well.

Here’s what I finished in March:

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