Have Yourself a Festive Little Holiday.

Festivity doesn’t come to us. Festivity is Made.

I thought we would host my family on December 10.

I thought we would get out of hosting and escape to my parents’ for an easy Christmas dinner December 25.

I thought we would host my husband’s family on December 27.

I thought my husband would be working a lot around this holiday.

Instead, we got COVID-19.

“But you’re missing Christmas!” my friend said to me.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I responded, “We’re missing mass, but that happened in 2020 anyway. I’ve been in a hospital room all the way up until December 23. I’m home, all my children are with me, we have everything we need, even an organ or two or three and an organist. Our symptoms are mild. There are worse things we could face.

“The gifts are wrapped, the house decorated and quarantine is over next Wednesday, which, because we follow that Catholic tradition of the octave of Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas, Wednesday is still just as much Christmas.

“My son had a slight fever on Saturday but it stayed below 100 and broke Sunday morning. Because of his condition, we would be in the hospital right now if it had gone up just one degree.

“And we just found out my freelancing husband will be given full pay by one of his primary contracts as a gesture of love and care towards our family.

“So, I’m grateful for what I’ve got.”

How will we approach this strange turn of events?

We asked for help. It was hard to ask, but we needed to do it. We are too rural and haven’t enough resources to do grocery or meal delivery. Friends and family filled in the gap. We have more food than we can handle and there is a feeling of comfort in that.

This morning my husband and I planned our Christmas Eve dinner, our Christmas morning breakfast, and our Christmas day dinner, all of which were subject to change now that he will be home for all of it. Every holiday of great importance has been a dance around his work schedule, and this year we are just home.

The children anticipated parties galore. They anticipated their play space, a vacant barn used mostly for storing tables, to be transformed into an event space filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, Christmas lights and trees. My eldest child grappled with the loss of the opportunity to sing in the choir on Christmas Day.

We are Catholic and nothing can replace being in person at mass on Christmas Day. But things being what they are, we have to make alternative plans.

So what did we do?

I happen to have a few church pews in that barn. I purchased them thinking they could work for event seating (they do not). The children call it their mission church.

Wednesday morning before Christmas, we strung unused white string mini-lights around the rafters of the barn. We hung finger-woven garland along those rafters. My parents provided an artificial Christmas tree. I brought in extra decor I thought too risky in a house with a two-year-old. We moved a $4 brass chandelier to the center of the barn above a long row of tables and draped it with battery-powered colored lights and a silvery olive leaf garland.

This isn’t Instagram Perfect

Christmas in the storage barn

The walls are grey with aged wood. You can see the marks of water that seeped through during the storm.

The dirt turned to mud where a metal roof panel blew off in the last rain.

The cement is uneven and slopes down to the sides.

In the corner, there stands stacks and stacks of styrofoam sheeting from medical shipments and old shop lights removed when we remodeled my husband’s music studio.

It’s cold without insulation, heat or glass in the windows. There is no other lighting.

Our puppy ran away.

We hear the lambs bleating in the barn next to us. The fevers and fatigue come and go.

But we are together. We are ridiculous enough to set up a 1200 sqft place for no one at all.

Except it isn’t for no one.

It’s for us.

Festivity is made. It doesn’t come to us. It doesn’t require luxury or met expectations. It requires a bit of adventurousness. It requires a bit of silliness. It requires a childlike-enough spirit to see the world with wonder and make the choice to delight in it.

I do not know what Christmas Day will feel like. I do know that on Christmas Eve when the sun goes down, we’re going to shiver ourselves over to “the mission” with candles lit and welcome the Christ child into our hearts.

Mistakes I’ve Made Hosting

and how I learned to overcome them.

I love to host.

Freely, I admit it. These days bringing the people together to our house is easier than the alternative between planning for five children, including one of those not-very-flexible toddlers) and a slew of animals on our growing farm. But even before that, I loved to host. Whether we lived in the country, in town, in the perfect house for gathering or a smaller subdivision house with a tiny backyard, to today’s farm with its quaint farmhouse layout, generous backyard and a barn which we plan to use for a gathering for the first time this year. 

Hosting can be hard and I have likely made all the mistakes that make it hard. Read on to learn my mistakes and the lessons learned. Maybe there will be something in there to help you, should you find yourself with one hand basting a roast beast and with the other calculating the guest list totals.

I obsessed over cleaning.

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

The ugly yelling kind of stress bubbled over as we struggled to clean up the kitchen, the floors, the toys, while still being in charge of tiny humans. 

A friend encouraged me when I shared the wish that I could clean my current house more or better. “I don’t think people really come to the country expecting it to be something other than country.” 

Now I try to keep perspective.

What is realistic cleaning?

What cleaning adds to my guests’ comfort (yes, clean the bathrooms, restock the toilet paper in a place clearly visible) and what cleaning is simply the cleaning I meant to get to in spring but feel I should do now? I do the essentials for the comfort of guests, and if we get to the rest – super, but I won’t sweat it if we don’t.

I was busy all night in the kitchen trying to get the timing just right.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

It’s a pleasure for me to have people over. I am an extrovert. It’s true, I actually want to speak to my guests. If I planned to serve a hot meal with all the fixings, that probably meant piles of pots, pans, cooking tools, dirty floor, dirty countertops and on top of trying to get it all cooked, I wanted to tidy up as I went or after it cooked to make the house look nice because the kitchen is an irresistible spot for guests to gather.

If the event is a dinner, I make ahead whatever I can.

The day before Thanksgiving, we make mashed potatoes and store them in a casserole dish. I make cranberry sauce. My husband bakes bread. We assemble the green bean casserole. On the day of Thanksgiving, we pop the mashed potatoes and casserole into the oven to reheat or cook while the stuffing bakes and the turkey rests. The number of dishes I have to make Thanksgiving Day is cut in half.

But if the party is cocktail style, I put my money on the party platter.

Hawaiian rolls, ham, pepper jelly, and a few pickled peppers. Three kinds of cheeses (one hard like aged cheddar, one soft like brie or goat, one mild like gouda), cured Italian meats (try the Costco pack), olives (Trader Joe’s medley and crackers. I assemble my platters before guests arrive. Set up a buffet. And I’m done. I can visit with the folks who came to visit with me.

I moved nonstop before the party, I moved nonstop during the party, I moved nonstop after the party.

No matter how successful or unsuccessful the party felt in the end, I was exhausted and didn’t really have fun.

So now, the thirty minutes before guests are expected, I stop what I’m doing, accept the status of the house as it is, I get a snack or small meal, and I sit down.

I rest. I relax. This way, when guests arrive, I am, both in my home and in my heart, ready to receive them.

The rest is all incidental. It doesn’t even matter if we wash all the dishes that night.

Be realistic, plan ahead to save yourself tasks later, and remember that guests come to see you and yours.

That’s the stuff that matters. The dust bunnies in the corners can wait for spring.

Photo by Waranya Mooldee on Unsplash

The heart of hospitality

Before walking out the backdoor I grabbed the pair of toddler size, navy and white spats. I circumvented the puppy, closed the gate, and escaped. All she asked was that I text when I was on my way.

She heard me open the gate at her house and make my way through their front yard gardens, one within another, something either from a leftover British sensibility of defined garden spaces or an in-town pet owner’s necessity.

Opening the door, my friend welcomed me, thus avoiding the spine-chilling parental response to a ringing doorbell in a house with a toddler or young children who set upon a houseguest like coyotes to a roaming flock of chickens. Setting the toddler shoes on top of the player piano adjacent to the entryway I observed the wooden figurine of a player piano and complimented the mini-me moment of design. After greeting the toddler, I hugged my friend.

She welcomed me into the house. On the kitchen peninsula there lay a tea set of “made in England” antique teacups, a teapot from her grandmother and a silver platter of cookies, the kinds one only sees at Christmas time: palmiers, miniature cakes, and chocolate dipped Belgium shortbread. The presence of cookies was coincidental to my visit but fortuitous.

My friend invited me to sit and choose a teacup and tea. I smiled, my insides skipping a little bit at the thoughtfulness and decadence of being treated to tea unexpectedly. We discussed flavors and I chose the Bengal blend. I lifted the tea pot. The water was piping hot.

She wanted me to text when I was on my way so the water could be hot and ready.

This is hospitality.

I made myself at home and recalled silently the way with another friend, who has since moved. There were always home-baked cookies, or at least dough in the ready, and a specialty milk. We did not fuss over the house, the children, but stayed in the moment of two friends together, one escaping briefly the responsibilities of home, the other escaping briefly the solitude of being the only adult in a house with children.

At an earlier date, this new friend and I discussed this idea of hospitality, a concept apart from entertaining. Entertaining seeks to impress, to dazzle, to serve an Instagram-worthy moment with a flourish. It serves the hostess more than the guests by showing her domestic prowess.

Hospitality on the other hand, in its humility, seeks to make space. To carve out a moment from the day, the house, the routine, to welcome the stranger and friend. It sets aside the cares that grow up around us and tells the other, “please, come inside.”

One week prior my aunt marveled at our home improvements, new puppy, growing children and, and after asking what I do for myself, made the oft-repeated comment, “not that you don’t have enough on your plate.”

Two days later I read a Facebook message from a local farmer offering us a bottle-fed baby lamb. We moved the old dog house into one of our barns, set up a heat lamp, and piled in some straw. My husband purchased a new bulb for the lamp, milk replacement formula for the babies and we joyfully accepted not one, but two baby lambs. It was our plan for over a year to move in this direction, we simply had not done it yet.

Hospitality sees these moments not just as one more thing to do, but the thing that matters right now. Making space, building a boundary around the moment, protecting it from the stress of the world and our lives.

We do not neglect the other very important things. The doctor appointments, the existing pets, the children who expect to eat after feeding their lambs, grading the math assignments all must still happen.

But rather than allowing all these things to the pile, one on top of another interiorly taking up space in our minds and hearts, we learn to mentally and emotionally step away, take a breath, and say,

“Hello! Come on in.”

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Autumn is Here

The Next-door Treat Map is back.

Trunk-or-Treat will park on Hughson Ave on October 29.

The Hughson Arboretum is holding its first Fall Festival on November 6.

We’ll go there after stopping at Vintage at the Yard.

The Community Thanksgiving Dinner is handing out Thanksgiving meals on November 13.

We learned some ways to cope with life as it changed in March of 2020. We learned ways to gather apart from the usual means and traditions. We experienced stress and had to find ways to cope with new stress. We found ways to support our neighbors and their businesses when they were forced to close.

I mean, I hope we learned a lot.

The strange thing for me, to be perfectly honest, is that the last two years were less of a crisis than the two years that began six years ago this month. That was the month when the path my family and I traveled altered forever. It was the day of a diagnosis. It was a day of grief and coping and processing all the changes that would take place.

I processed for 19 more weeks before I met my son. At the moment, he is riding in a borrowed pick-up with his father/my husband to pick up lumber for our kitchen shelves.

As at the beginning of 2020, the crisis in our lives began in degrees. In 2020, it was a news story here and there, inexplicable flu, or strange rumors. In 2015, We received the diagnosis, an appointment in San Francisco and found a good Facebook group for support.

But then it came and it walloped us. Our son was admitted to the hospital and things got scary. In 2020, the world shut down. It was no longer just the naturally driven crisis of a novel coronavirus running rampant across the globe, but schools were closed, businesses were closed, churches were closed. The fabric of our society was shut down. Life went digital and thanks to the social network’s algorithm, the divisions between us were heightened. All the old ways of coping were taken away.

And in 2016, I lived in the hospital beside my son, away from my other children, my husband and my home.

The hospital chaplain at the time, now a family friend came to visit us last week. He shared that he could see now why I was so homesick back then, what I was homesick for. Not just the home, but the responsibilities. I was homesick for the pattern of life built into my heart, stretched across relationships and duties to my children. I am a wife and a mother and I was homesick for the loss of all that as I sat beside my son in a place that was not my home, learning to be a mother in new and terrifying ways.

But I learned.

In 2020, we learned to gather outside more often, to embrace the good weather. We learned to use curbside pick-up. We learned to forgive when anxiety got the best of the people we love.

After two years, our storm calmed, and in 2017, I took the lessons I learned from the hospital and brought them home. Our lives changed forever. My mothering changed forever. And I am better for it.

Right now, the world wavers a little as it opens back up. We navigate the ways between those who wish to keep caution and closures and those who are ready for a new phase, any phase, to begin.

What lessons are you going to bring with you? What memories can you keep that reveal that in all the crises, some good can be found? What relationships have grown, been healed or are now restored that you can see differently?

It would be so easy to just “go back to normal” but we’re called to more than that.

Autumn is a time of tradition and reflection. In this particular neck of the woods, we see our farms haul in their harvest while our gardens revive after the scorching summer. Fire seasons wanes and we wake to blue skies again.

Hold on to what you have learned. Savor the return of things you lost. And take it into this next season of life.

Photo by Oliver Hihn on Unsplash

What We’re Up To

She turned a year old in January. I find cloth napkins strewn throughout the child-friendly area of the living room and dining room because she grabs whatever she can at the edge of the dining table. We manage hurtles to get past the baby gates to cross the house. I think to myself that someone else must be spreading her toys so far and wide, but no, it is she.

The mornings begin at 6 a.m. when she has borne the sorrow of sleeping long enough and will rejoice in the coming day, though the room is still clothed in darkness except for the flickering light of a battery-powered candle. I change her diaper, dress her, and stagger into the living room. At 6:30 a.m. the next child emerges, with a similar temperament, too alert to movements of the house to sleep longer. He takes a spoonful of peanut butter and settles onto the couch with a Thomas the Train blanket to read under the light of a vintage lamp.

By 7 a.m. the rest of the children have awoken. I open the curtains of our bedroom because even though we woke every two hours, it is best to start the day. Coffee brewed, cereal poured, table set. The day begins.

With breakfast consumed, I set out three library books of various word counts and hand one to each reader. They read to each other while bickering about who can see, who is touching the book, who is making noise, and when the reader should pause and when the reader should read. Morning prayer follows, then lessons.

Recess is the current anchor of the day.

Lunch happens around noon when the youngest among them have completed their subjects and the 5th grader alone remains. After that, a limited routine follows until 5 p.m. The weather has influenced how much attention the 5th grader receives as the warmth and sunshine draws me out to my garden, impatient to begin the new cut flower garden.

In between our steps roams the toddler, demanding attention, diaper changes, feedings, playtime, rescue from choking hazards. Finally, in the afternoon, she is done with the boundaries of her little castle and would roam outside. I open the gate and then the backdoor. She runs as fast as her toddling legs will take her. The next hour passed, following her, telling her “yucky” when she puts a rock or dirt in her mouth and longing to cross the yard with a hoe and spade and go to work.

I call in the crowd at 5 p.m. to direct them to clean. We eat at 6 or 6:30 p.m. The toddler-baby goes to sleep around that time having not taken a long enough nap, ever.

In the evening, I settle with my books to reset my mind, complain to my husband of what difficulties were had. I both look forward to sleep and dread it, all the same, knowing it will be long and interrupted. The nights were short when I woke only once.

On the weekends, we make plans. I take Saturday for myself. Sundays are spent in a quiet routine while my husband plays organ at our parish in Turlock. We attend outdoor mass in the afternoon. The rest of the day is spent in relaxation and play, usually with a movie.

I practice patience (with 3rd-grade math), letting go of the things I want to do for the things I must do (read, write and decorate), caring about the things I would rather not care about (evening dishes), and finding ways to stimulate my mind without making my angry lectures too high-brow. It is a different season, a quiet season, like winter, fallow, starting seeds, seeing them grow inch by inch, waiting to be transplanted into the wider world and warmer weather.

And they will, my pen pal reminds me. One day, I will not need to follow a toddler around, braid hair or soothe frayed nerves. One day, my time will be my own. While that is beautiful, a certain strange loneliness will follow. Taking her advice, I will accept the fallow field in its potential and hope, trusting that the work is done here and now will bear fruit in due season.

Good Gifts, Charlie Brown

Gift Giving 101

The Best Guide for Gift-giving This Year

Between the Christmas Basket Toy Drive and the upcoming Christmas festivities, there was a good deal of talk about gift-giving (and getting) in our house. It was time to take matters into hand and offer a gift-giving lesson as part of our school day. Sitting at the dining table, I got out the flimsy Target dollar section whiteboard and blue dry erase marker and printed the words, “Good Gifts Charlie Brown.”

In our home, gifts may be purchased, made, or given from what one already owns, but all these options must meet particular criteria to be a good gift. Note, this lecture was given to a six, eight and ten-year-old.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Criteria #1: a good gift is not broken.

Mainly applicable when regifting something from around the house or an item you’ve loved. You may not mind the chip in the dish, the snag in the blanket, the missing doll foot, the crack in the toy teapot, but unless this is a hot collector item and you know the recipient has a yen for it, skip any pieces that are broken.

Criteria #2: a good gift is complete.

Sugar bowls without creamers, a nearly complete Lego set (unless your thing is giving bags of miscellaneous pieces, this one is flexible), a crocheted project you just did not feel like finishing (even if you call it a blanket for a doll). The gift should be whole and complete, whatever that means for its given category.

Criteria #3: a good gift is (mostly) recognizable.

It is okay if as your recipient pulls out item after item from the gift box if you exclaim out of unbridled excitement, “it’s a bedding set!” or if you need to explain how something works, but if your recipient could end up with a face expression implying “what do I do with this?” your gift may need some work. It is okay to introduce someone to something new, but the less recognizable the more uncomfortable the recipient may be in attempting to show gratitude.

Criteria #4: a good gift is a thoughtful gift.

The best gifts are ones that are selected by asking oneself what does the recipient (1) want, (2) use, or (3) need? We should not choose gifts based on what we want, but what we think will best please the recipient.

How do we know what the person will want, my son asked, or more accurately, complained, “but I don’t know what Ace likes…”

How do we know what a person will like? We ask what does this person do, use or say?

How does he spend his time? How did you pass the time when you were last together? In what projects have you seen him engaged? What toys did you two play with (in the case of Ace)? Knowing all this, what’s something you could buy? Legos!

What do we see Grandma doing? Baking! What does she use? Cookie sheets! Cookie cutters! Baking things! What should we buy her? Baking things!

Planning to make something instead of buying something? Excellent! The effort that goes into homemade items shows great thought. But just because I can make white linen pillowcases doesn’t mean that Farmer Tom wants a set. Thoughtfulness wins over the effort in this case.

And lastly, Criteria #5: a good gift does not empty the bank account.

If I want to buy a flask for Farmer Tom, Legos for Ace and cookie cutters for Grandma and after picking all my items I find that they will cost $30 and I have $20, I need to pick something else. There isn’t more money. I should not purchase on credit hoping I can work it off pulling branches for my parents.

If I add up all the items and they cost $30 and I have $30, great! Hold it, it should not empty the bank.

I should decrease my budget of what I can spend so I am prepared in the case of future emergencies (like an opportunity to buy a cookie when we are out shopping). Plan your budget ahead of time and adjust the gift-giving plan accordingly.

I hope this tutorial has been helpful, either in your own gift-giving or prepping the smaller ones among you for the future.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What Feels More Real?

Now that that’s over

The election is finally nearing an end (as of this writing) and I can hear the celebrations and sighs of relief on one side and the cries of injustice, stolen elections, fear and trembling for the future on the other. I could write that same sentence had it gone the other way.

The reality is a lot of people staked much in this election. I used to feel that way about politics until I was old enough to pay attention. There was the governor and then there was a president about whom I regarded the future in dread. The term passed. The world survived. The country survived. The state survived.

Whether your savior or your mortal enemy became president, this too shall pass.

I guess that is the good thing about the four-year term limit.

I do not have the emotional resources to wring my hands about this election, the week-long during or after. It is in Washington D.C. And I am here, on our little corner of rural America.

Will we be affected by the politics and baby-is bickering taking place on this hill? Yes. Is there anything I can do about it?

What do I have control over?

I can do my civic duty, vote, follow casually what’s happening, but know that ultimately, I will likely live and die without being majorly affected by what is happening over there. What matters here is the actual happening here and around me, the noise in my garage by children who made a playroom with my stored-for-winter outdoor furniture, the field mouse that ran out from under a pile of plants I gathered up while putting my garden to sleep for our short winter, the cat that went missing, the sounds of coyotes around the chicken coop, seeing my name in print in a weekly newspaper, and nursing my infant to sleep.

This is within my control and if I allow myself the time to focus on it, it is actually quite good, moves fast, and is a lot more pleasant than thinking about a bunch of politicians who have forgotten their mothers’ lessons on how to compromise.

This life around us, the things we can see, hear, touch, and smell are the things that should matter most to us, the things that give us the greatest elation, the deepest dread, the biggest relief, the things on which our lives are really staked.

Today is the first day for a new medication.

Tonight is an outdoor gathering for a friend’s birthday.

Tomorrow we finalize plans for the outdoor market we plan to host on December 5.

Thanksgiving is coming. Christmas is coming.

There are traditions to be lived.

Memories to be made.

And in the midst of that, in my home at least, there are a lot of little people whose reality is shaped by the environment we give them, whose perception of that reality is affected by the way we preset it, whose response is guided by how they see us respond to the current events that affect us.

I want to give them the best. I want them to know a world that is secure in the things that matter, where things change but only big things require tears and only unjust things require anger. I want them to know they are loved; that unconditional love is possible to give and to receive; that we can all rise above the temptation to be petty, to gloat, to be envious of what others have; and that even in a world where no matter who you are, there is something in the news and social media to be angry about; that we all can slow down, refocus, be grateful for the life in which we live, and make a difference, right here and now.

Now, for the perspective

I want these lessons and events to be more real, deeper and closer to my heart than what happens over there. What happens over there matters. But what happens here matters more.

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Are You Up For the Challenge?

The Journey

We drove six hours to Southern California, then another hour east, driving up, up, up along the rim of the world in the San Bernardino Mountains to Thousand Pines, a Baptist Retreat Center, to stay in a one-bedroom cabin packed with seven bunk beds. Outside the cabin, down the hill, a little to the right, there leaned a picnic table with benches and a sign pinned to its side. “Casey Family,” it read.

The children immediately began gathering sticks for an imaginary fire, sticks we transferred throughout the weekend as kindling for the fire my husband was quick to ignite come supper time.

The cuisine included hog dogs roasted over the open fire, followed by beans boiling in a cast iron pot and marshmallows smashed between chocolate bars and graham crackers. After a sleepless night, we ate food packed from home that travels easily, hard-boiled eggs and overnight oats with chia seeds served in Crate and Barrel indigo blue melamine bowls.

The Challenge

It was time to begin the day. We made our way to a ropes course, the likes of which I had never seen or attempted.

It begins with a tightrope walk, with plenty of rope along the sides to hold onto. Then along another wire. If tall enough, one may grab the ropes hanging overhead. Next came railroad ties planted upright, set far apart forcing the participant to walk, left, right, left, right. “You have to commit. You can’t hesitate,” the children were advised.

Three more challenges followed involved boards, tires, and a shifty balance beam connected to two trees with giant I-hooks.

I attempted the course only once. My husband completed it twice. The children went again and again focusing both on the areas where they felt the greatest success and the areas where they met the greatest challenge. The older the child, the greater she challenged herself, climbing up on the balance beam, again and again, determined to do it all and do it well, one foot in front of the other.

The chorus sang.

“Mommy, look at me!”

“Daddy, did you see me?”

“Watch this!”

“I finished it five times!”

“Mommy said I did this really well!”

Cheers rang out again and again. Children who were helped along at first found their way. Children we followed, arms around their little bodies without making contact, to catch them if they fell, found they could do it on their own once they conquered the fear of falling and saw how capable they were.

Falling is part of learning,” we repeated as feet scrambled back up the balance beam.

Two hours later, the baby had nursed to sleep, the toddler was tired of kicking rocks and the children were finally worn out. They walked away with the greatest satisfaction having met a challenge and conquered, even if imperfectly.

The Lesson

Fear occurs when we face something unknown or unfamiliar that seems bigger than ourselves. Despair occurs when it seems impossible. Hope believes in a way out, a way through, a possibility.

But how will you know unless you try? How will you know unless you embarrass yourself a little, climb up there, struggle through, even while that able-bodied youngsters pass you by?

The thing that seems so big, so insurmountable will always seem so until you are willing to look it in the eye and size it up for what it really is, not just judge by how it looks on the ground.

These activities train us for life. We move through with all our emotions and our limitations. We process the failures. We fall. We get up. We try again.

It’s safer to practice here than when the stakes are high, like in the world outside the camp.

In the end, after challenging ourselves, we are better for it. We are a little stronger, a little braver, a little tougher. We are a little more ready to face life as it comes.

Find a way. Challenge yourself.

Learning Routines: Accounting for Weakness

Set the scene

There is a scene in “The Gilmore Girls” in which Rory at Yale finds the perfect study tree. It fits her back perfectly with an atmosphere or not too loud and not to quiet. In the end, she is willing even to pay someone to vacate its trunk so she can enter that ideal state of mind for focused study.

Continuing the focus on learning routines, whether homeschooling or working from home, it works much the same way. I am not in the office I wrote about so lovingly as I type this. I am at a desk, set temporarily against a window in the living room to make space for a baby in my bedroom.

On this desk sits alpaca yarn in a tangled mess, a doll that needs repair, roses dying in a vase of murky water, and a library book that cannot be renewed. Coos and questions and crying draw my attention every minute or so. There is little about this setting conducive to that ideal state of mind.

Our location matters a great deal for focus.

The art of homeschooling or working from home means taking into account my weaknesses as well as the ideal I aim for. It is only by being honest but not fatalist about my weaknesses that I can begin to approach the ideal.

Over the past year, with a fourth grader, second grader and kindergartener to teach, I had to learn to focus and sit still.

My weakness: I want to act.

With so much to be done around the house, a tidy room mattered for how our day was to begin. If some tasks for the day were not completed the distraction of them would tempt me during one of the quieter moments of the day to break away from the work of waiting patiently for the student to work out 5+7.

My focus was the glue that kept the homeschool day together. With technology, social media, and so many opportunities for instant gratification in this world, it has become very difficult to focus. It is easier to respond to every interruption, to check out briefly and occupy myself with an email, a social media check, a scroll through Instagram.

Patience is hard. Yet homeschooling demands it.

Luckily, patience is a virtue and virtues are learned through practice. Suffering from impatience early in the school year does not spell disaster for the next nine months. One bad day does not mean this is a terrible idea, that we were crazy to embark on this plan, that the world around us obviously doesn’t realize how much our kids need to be in traditional school and we need to not be their teachers.

Teaching or working from home calls for its own skill sets. It can be learned, grown into and maybe even mastered in its own way.

Because I know this about myself, our commute to school is the task of tidying the room to prepare to begin the school day. In this way, we switch gears from breakfast and home to work.

Practical parts of the routine

On the counter I write out my daughter’s subjects and their order for the day, setting the list beside her stack of books. She will work independently after the morning basket. I put my phone on my desk, out of sight, and set out another ordered stacks of books.

Once the oldest is dismissed, we begin a careful balance as I flit from one child to the next, while reminding those not receiving attention to refrain from interrupting.

When I see they are distracted we move locations. Our primary spots are the couch, the dining table, and desks in one of the bedrooms. This line of desks is set up to remove the distraction of siblings’ faces. I sit to the side, where I can work one-on-one as needed and still call out idle hands, wandering eyes or daydreaming minds.

Be realistic

I should not expect them to focus without me present, which is why I cannot escape during the day. I know their weaknesses along with my own. Homeschooling makes it possible to adjust to both.

Distractions and interruptions will happen. Acknowledging this is the key to progress. We do our best, begin with a plan, find areas where it needs work, problem solve and adjust often, sometimes weekly, to find a better fit.

I’m Taking a Cultural Stand

A bit of history

My father tells me he used to dance the polka with his mother in the kitchen. Growing up, if we ever drank tea, it was green tea without milk or sugar. And no parish dinner was quite so important as the Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner.

Family Photo at St. Anthony's Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner

Because you see, I am a quarter German, a quarter Chinese, an eighth Greek, and eighth Bohemian, and, as my Mexican friends called it, a quarter cup cream – that cream being a mix of English, Irish and Scottish hailed from the fair isles a few hundred years ago. An ancestor of mine, Charles Pinckney, signed the Declaration of Independence. Another, Thomas Pinckney, was Governor of South Carolina and was John Adams running mate in 1796 (Pinckney lost).

The Declaration of Independence

My Chinese grandmother, Pat, grew up in Shanghai and attended a British boarding school there. While working on the Chinese side of the embassy, she married a good-looking American who worked on the American side. Soon after they were forced to leave when the People’s Republic of China was declared on October 1, 1949. She arrived by plane, at night, on Christmas Eve with her firstborn son in tow. My grandfather (the Greek and German one) would follow later on.

Through an American lens

For an American of mixed heritage, stories abound of all shapes and color, some of privilege, some of hardship. We have our pick of cultural traditions, not always recognizing the strength of culture within our own country.
When I was 18 and on a train in Italy, a group of young Poles was surprised we knew their saints. Americans may not know the geographic make-up of their Canadian neighbors to the north, but we have celebrations throughout the year built by recent and past immigrants as a way of cherishing, celebrating and passing on their culture.

In the summer, there are Portuguese festas and bullfights. In December, mañanitas for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Tuesday before Lent, Marti Gras or Carnivale. And in March, stuck right in the middle of a season of sobriety, there stands St. Patrick’s Day.

Banner celebrating St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick’s Day, originally, is a Catholic feast celebrating a bishop who brought Catholicism to Ireland. The Day, we know it in the United States, is a celebration of Irish-American heritage.

Like other festivities in the United States more than 100 years old, some reverence is lost in translation. Commercialism abounds. Those unrelated to its origin take the fun elements they like and leave the rest. It is easy to forget what it means at its heart and how it can be a good for those who participate. But like Trick-or-Treating, shared experiences and traditions build community. It matters.

We are Irish

“We are Irish,” I told my children. Their numbers are minuscule compared to my already small fractions of what heritage I can count as my own beyond “American.”

To the casual observer and census forms, we are white, but I want my children to know what goes on beyond color labels. Brown is not just brown, no black just black. Our familial backgrounds mean something and we honor those who came before us by trying our best to learn a little something about them.

We are Irish, I say. Our last name is Casey. My maiden name is McGuire. And no cultural celebration was ever as steady in my life as the Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner.

This is the year we kick it up, by hosting festivities in our home, by continuing the tradition of attending the aforementioned dinner at St. Anthony’s, by reading stories recommended by Sarah MacKenzie of Read-Aloud Revival about Ireland, St. Patrick and Leprechauns, by watching “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” by singing traditional Irish folk tunes and praying traditional Irish prayers.

We are Irish. We may never have been to the old country, but our people came from there, and their journeys and struggles, we will hold dear.