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.

Why Little League?

During my 7th grade year, I joined the track team, embracing the daring-do of the long and triple jump. It was my first foray into the world of sports beyond the usual Physical Education requirements. As a child I spent my time climbing trees, throwing a tennis ball against the side of the barn and catching it, bike riding and roller skating. Away from town, sidewalks and crosswalks, team sports held little appeal. My sister rode her bike into Hughson to swim under the supervision of Brenda Henley, eventually joining the swim teams of Turlock Schools where we attended. I was more content with my books, my daydreams, and my world of pretend. 

I like baseball.

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

I like the idea of baseball and I find, as an adult, I like the pace of baseball. It is America’s pastime, the America I still dream exists beyond the quibbling of party lines, the media hysteria, the bleak and negative news cycle. 

At last year’s Hughson Youth Baseball and Softball season-opening and anniversary, I saw my ideal goes beyond imagination. David Spears spoke poetically of the power of the team sport, the engagement, the fathers and sons, the daughters, the history and tradition. It is a world that does exist when we continue to put in our effort and make it happen with open hearts, minds, and sportsmanlike attitudes.

So when registration opened, I signed up the two children most intrigued whenever we ventured to the baseball fields of Lebright Park, a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, neither of whom knew how to bat, catch, properly throw, or how to play the game. As we waited for tryouts, excitement and anticipation turned to fear and self-consciousness. Neither wanted to do it. 

My musician-husband also preferred track to team sports as a youth made the call:

Try it first.

Wise words.                   

I knew a tryout date of January 25 posed problems with my January 23 due date. It was time to enlist the help of grandparents. After a few conversations about committing to something the days and times of which we knew not, they were on board. Away they whisked the kids to Bilson’s to buy the gear, back and forth my mother emailed with the accommodating organizers, patient with us country folk who never played on a team.

Stella Chiara came into the world before tryouts, two weeks earlier than planned. My mind clouded in the fog of sleep deprivation, my husband running long hours after squirrelly children and meal planning (a change from his intellectual work of teaching and playing the arts), the grandparents came to the rescue. They confirmed all the times and picked up the kids on tryout day, one to try out, the other to watch.

She sent me photos throughout the afternoon. My sweet child whose athleticism has been primarily geared toward archery, tree climbing, rope swinging and moving logs stood out a bit in his khakis and hiking-style tennis shoes against the cleats, baseball caps and athletic pants of the more professional seven and eight-year-olds among him. It was unfamiliar territory.

There were other children the kids knew and other mothers my mother knew who both advised, informed and warned about the pleasures and perils of team sports. As David Spears had promised, there would be other mothers to look after my boy while I stayed home caring for those who by age or medical condition, cannot handle the heat.

Final score

Upon returning home, the report was positive. “Great!” he said, “it was super fun.”

“What did you like about it?” I asked.

He answered, “The catching and the batting.”

“What do you think about playing baseball now?”

“Good. I do really want to play it.”

Pretty poetic, I’d say. We are ready for a new experience to begin both in our adventures of raising five children and doing our best to give those less fragile in health than others, who might fly under the radar, those experiences that were so definitive for others and part of our cultural tradition.

Five Family Rules for Happy TV Watching

It started with Christmas movies in Advent. They almost all anticipate the holiday to come. Christmas in Connecticut, Santa Claus is coming to Town, Miracle on 34th Street, A Muppet’s Christmas Carol.

Then we were hit with violent colds, putting some kids to bed with fevers, stocking up on honey and lemons for the magical “medicine water” that soothes throats and keeps my water averse 5-year-old hydrated. We watched episodes of Bewitched, Sleeping Beauty and an old Western with a youthful Gary Cooper so forgettable, I forgot its name.

Now, I recline on my bed at 8 a.m., dancing the fingers of my right hand across the keyboard while my left arm rests wholly occupied in the snuggling of a baby, one week old.

Stella Chiara came into our lives 12 days early. Would we have broken the television habit had she been born on time? I doubt it. Here are my rules for keeping regular movie watching from turning my children into sleepy-eyed, sharp-tongued, short-on-nerves, couched potato monsters.

First, I pick the movie

The more they ask and request a particular flick, the less likely I am to play it. We repeat many films annually by holiday, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and repeat some by the weather, Winnie the Pooh on particularly blustery days.

Second, we vary the decade in which the film was made.

This means my children will view silent films from the 1920s, slapstick comedies from the 1930s, Westerns, war movies, and romantic comedies from the 1940s, cartoons from the 1950s (earlier and later), ambitious cinematic epics from the 1960s, and worthwhile cartoons from the decades between then and now. Black and white is not a novelty. Movies in which characters primarily talk instead of run around are not a novelty. Live-action movies with few children are not a novelty. In this, I seek to avoid the attitude I recall among my peers, “black and white is boring!”

Third, we aim for low stimulation cinema.

There is something about the repeated explosions of a Michael Bay film that I do not think is good for children. The fast-paced film, rapid cutting and scene changes challenge the later ability to focus even for adults. Compare that to Mr. Roger’s slow-paced, slow-talking goodness. Even television, which is not necessary for a good childhood, can be enjoyed like a sweet without artificial flavors.

Fourth, we aim for a variety of mediums.

My children may watch a filmed play, a ballet, a film adaptation of a story, or a television show, sometimes vintage-like Zorro, sometimes new like Puffin Rock. My children are eager to watch anything. That is the lure of technology.

Using that to my advantage, we come to the fifth rule.

We require their rooms to be cleaned and pajamas are worn to watch.

We do not watch television in the morning. This acts as motivation for the work to be done. It will backfire when we want them to clean their room just out of obedience, but we shall cross that bridge when we get there. New babies require some compromises in running the household.

Knowing we will need to keep calm in the home a while yet before normal day-to-day functioning returns, instead of picking the easiest thing to watch, I have planned an intentionally diverse line-up that will include The Tempest, performed at the Globe Theater; Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, a little California history that way; a Charlie Brown special that has football in it, it being Super Bowl season; and later on, Horse Feathers by the Marx Brothers, another football flick.

Our movies are found on DVD sets, Netflix and most often, requested from the library system and delivered to Hughson from all over the County.

It is not for everyone.

But the day we were bedridden with colds, fevers and, in my case, full-term pregnancy and played The Nutcracker ballet back-to-back and I found my children not-so-rotten when it was over, I felt I hit upon a secret worth practicing in my home, and sharing with others.

2020 Resolutions: Lemon trees, the present moment, and change

By all accounts, the world kept turning for one more year.

The dark clouds at dawn grow slowly illuminated as the secondhand tick along our analog clock. The cars race down the road, the noise of their engines cut through by the sound of water as they pass through puddles on our soggy corner.

The world outside seems bleaker than it did a year ago.

In the slow movement and growth of my third trimester, I oscillate between reading the news daily, commenting in abundance on social media, and realizing how happier I am when I withdraw from both.

We send money and pray for victims of natural disasters, but our efficacy in the world of Washington, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Nigeria, seems small. What can I do as those around me continue to receive dismal diagnoses? Is any change possible as I observe the tents moving from place to place across the bigger cities that surround us?

My generation was raised to believe we could be anything, do anything, we could change the world.

In the dawn of new millennia, John Paul II preached from Denver, Paris, and Rome telling the youth of the world to put out into the deep and be not afraid.

Our sights turned across the world and  Mother Teresa said it starts at home, in our own living room, and to change the world drop by drop.

The goals still matter. Have in mind a vision of what you would like to achieve. Consider the short-term goals necessary to get there.

Allow these plans to hover over the thing that matters most now: the present moment.

Adjusting to, accepting, embracing and utilizing the present moment in its unpredictability, chaos and otherness take primacy over the other things. It is in the present moment that what we can do to make a change takes effect.

Virtue is the habit of practicing the good, the things that makes more human, less-animal like. It is the moment I choose not to snap at those around me when my work is interrupted.

The moments add up

but like the tasks of gardening, it takes a long time before we can see the fruit. Little shoots sprout up, but it is the photograph after multiple springs that show us how things have changed with all this practice.

At home, we hold a winter and spring recital. The children showcase their accomplishments for the year to the delight of family and friends.

In my heart, I consider what reflection to make this New Year.

Should I bother setting a resolution when the only thing I know for sure is that things will change? When so much uncertainly lies around the corner, the best resolution may be the smallest one. We shall plant a fruit tree, one that was gifted to me and grows surprisingly well in its little pot. We will transplant it to the garden bed outside my window. Perhaps in its next bloom, we will smell the delicate, sweet scent of lemon blossoms wafting through the window. Maybe we will add two more that could use a dose more TLC than they receive in their present location.

For my children, I resolve to seek more slow moments, moments of being, moments of conversation. Those conversations are rarely spontaneous. I must be engaged and willing to ask a question and listen for the answer.

My youngest reached our greatest goal and hope for the year, one we especially had no control over. All of 2019 passed without hospital admission. We once thought things would never change. Yet they do. They always change.

The sun is up but we cannot see it through these rainy days of winter.

It lingers there, quietly illuminating the world around us, faithful enough for those who choose to remember, offering from time to time a rainbow. The rainy season is a great time to pull weeds from the garden, my mother taught me. And when the days look bleak, we can still sew seeds of hope and change in the world around us bit by bit, moment by moment.

Photo of light coming thrugh clouds by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Stark-Style Gratitude

As the air cuts through my coat with a chill, I breathe, then cough the growing thickness. It is heavy with snow. The wind whips the powdery snow circling my imagination.

For that is the only place it could be.

It does not look a lot like Christmas here in Northern California with days in the high seventies and nights in the mid-forties.

What does look festive are the storefronts, the Christmas barrels outside Bank of America and at every school and Church in Hughson, the event announcements and the rapidly filling calendar begging for special planning and celebration.

Our Thanksgiving is quiet and simple with a tried and true menu

Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

Garlic mashed potatoes, sourdough and sage stuffing, a home-made loaf of challah, classic cranberry sauce, the traditional turkey with bourbon gravy and pumpkin pie. The day before we prepare the potatoes (they are better reheated), the bread and the cranberry sauce. The stuffing is cut and prepped as much as possible. My mother supplies the pie (because why mess with perfection?). Thanksgiving Day is spent basting the turkey, watching “Miracle on 34th Street,” and when we sit, reviewing not just our blessings from the day, but offering thanks for blessings from the year.

Blessings this year

The year brought a new home, a published book, a successful homeschool routine (unlike last year), a new position with this newspaper (Assignment Editor) and a new baby (not yet seen but felt regularly by me). For my husband, new and expanded work.

My nine-year-old prepares her answer, “I’m glad we got a new home which is in the country.”

My seven-year-old quickly offers, “my Legos.”

My five-year-old coos, “my treasures.”

All three realize they have forgotten to express their thankfulness for the tiny black kitten bounding about the house.

My three-year-old resists answering the question until he has finished playing. His quietly says his simple answer, “Daddy.”

To think of this child, what could be greater than looking at a year past and realizing in just a few short weeks, he could reach an entire year without illness, this child who once was admitted to the hospital every other week, sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes with life-threatening concerns.

A reflective look

Feeling reflective, it is only now that I can look back and see how the events of my early life are connected to life right now. Personality does not change that much, but I can see more clearly than ever the foundations laid in my thinking and faith that created the stability we needed to pursue the present.

My husband and I reconnect with our roots as we reconnect to the land of our new home. In writing long-form works, I return to the stuff of my childhood, pounding away at an archaic Macintosh. My work for this newspaper becomes an opportunity to do good by promoting those better able to be out in the world caring for the stranger. A new baby reminds us of the hope and peace we experienced in earlier pregnancies before our world was rocked again…and again.

Nathan Stark in Concert

I have no doubt this reflection will carry over as I journey out of our snug home, down the rushing Whitmore Avenue to the familiarity of Hughson High School to see opera singer Nathan Stark returning to his roots, to work with, encourage, and perform with students at his alma mater in the Hughson High School Auditorium, December 6 at 7 p.m.

The “Stark Raving Concert” shows the connections of small-town Hughson in all its best ways: an international opera star offers workshops to dedicated high school students in a small town, taught by Brad Thompson, one of Stark’s mentors and inspirations. Proceeds from the concert with them will benefit the local food bank.

Tickets are available at the door for this unique event, celebrating the return to one’s roots, gratitude for the good things of the season, and a look ahead to all the potential of tomorrow.