The Sweat Work of Creativity

For my work at Opera Modesto, I had the opportunity to speak with librettist E.M. Lewis who created Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant. The opera is commissioned by American Lyric Theater and composed by Evan Meier. It will be performed by Opera Modesto this January as part of its Story into Song Literacy Initiative.

Learning a new medium

Lewis is a playwright by trade. For her play “Song of Extinction,” Lewis worked with a composer to create an original song as an integral part of the play. She described the collaboration as “really fun” and “exciting.” It was her first glimpse into the potential of opera.

 Lewis decided to apply and attend a year-long program with American Lyric Theater (ALT). At the time, Lewis had never even seen an opera, growing up in rural Oregon as she did. She said the program, founded by Lawrence Edelson, is so important “because there really aren’t a lot of resources for people who are interested in doing this very specific art form. Music schools often don’t have anything for opera. It requires very different resources, like wordsmiths like me. Writing programs usually don’t have things like libretto writing or even lyric writing because it’s so very specialized, and you’re working with composers.”

Opera can feel like an otherworldly or foreign type of art. So many of the most famous operas were composed over a century ago in other languages in other countries. “It’s not supposed to be an away-art form but a living art form,” Lewis said.

How the opera gets made

As the program advanced, Edelson saw a natural partnership between Lewis and composer Meier. ALT commissioned them to create a family-friendly opera, which will have its world premiere in January at the State Theater in Modesto.

We talked about the rhythm of listening to the muses and putting in the hard, seemingly less-inspired effort that is part and parcel of creative work.

Lewis and Meier began first by discussing what sparked their imaginations as children. They discovered they both loved Sherlock Holmes. Meier was already familiar with “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” and saw it as an excellent fit for what they wanted to do.

Lewis continually used words like “exciting,” “delight,” and “fun” to describe the process. In speaking with her, it was clear that this opera was built step by step, first by finding the central idea with a twist, then outlining the storyline. ALT offered much support throughout the process. The outline came together as a collaborative effort. It was only when it was completed that Lewis could run with the story and begin creating the poetry of lyrics that would become the libretto. The style, tone, and mood, deciding whether to rhyme or not rhyme, still need to be decided. She said working through those decisions felt “joyful and very creative. It’s coming back to what I love to do most, telling the story of how these characters speak.”

Because of this collaboration, Lewis said Meier was already very familiar with the prepared material before beginning the next step of composing the piano score.

With ALT, the creators listened to the libretto reading, then a piano/vocal workshop, and finally heard their work performed by a full orchestra and eight singers. It was the “culmination” of “years of work together to get to that point. Composers are amazing humans,” she said, reflecting on the process.

From creative-work to sweat-work

From beginning to end, Lewis compared the creative process to a patchwork quilt. “You start with little tidbits, sticky notes or envelope,” like the name of a character or an image of “flowers, beautiful pink flowers.”

“You don’t know why yet. You’re just starting to dream things up, little pieces that are pockets full of words. That is one step of the process, that exciting part is the inspiration, but then it comes to the craft part, which is where the outline comes in.” The outline is what “you do with those pieces.”

It’s a process that comes to artists of all different stripes, moving from art to craft, “inspiration” to “sweat work.” In times when the energy wanes, it is important for those in the arts to keep in mind what it builds into.

Lewis said that by asking, “How do these pieces go together that make something useful, that goes together, that is?” the pieces begin to take their shape and form like a quilt.

“That sweat-work is actually really creative, challenging and exciting and just as artistic in its own way as any other part of the process,” Lewis said.

Eight years after the project began, Lewis and Meier will now see their work on the stage for the first time, the full fruit of their vision, not just for the usual opera-goers but as an entire school program inviting students as young as third-grade from all over Stanislaus County to experience opera for the first time.

      Although I am an employee of Opera Modesto, this column was written separately from that work. Opera Modesto did not sponsor it, nor was I compensated by Opera Modesto for my time writing it. The views expressed here are my own.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

In the Margins of Motherhood / A Review of Create Anyway

Create Anyway by Ashlee Gadd

There are few books I have read on creativity that are so absolutely satisfying, personal, and broadly practically applicable as Create Anyway: The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood. This recent release by Ashley Gadd (Bethany House, 2023) is, frankly, a remarkable book.

Gadd, a wife and mother of three in Northern California, founded Coffee + Crumbs, an online storytelling community for mothers. She describes her work time as “writing in the margins.” Those margins or the cracks of the day may be the only time a homeschooling or mother of young children can create.

Born that way

There are those of us with a burning desire to make something, to create, to arrange, to beautify, to put our hands to some craft or project and make something of it, whether or not the finished project is for our gratification, something consumable like a delicious cake bound to be devoured by your children, something foundational that will grow with us like a garden, or something artistic destined for the gallery walls of the local arts center. There are those of us who are incomplete without this action. Gadd recognizes this, being one of those types herself.

The 19 chapters of Create Anyway address a broad scope of heart issues related to motherhood and creativity: the doubts, insecurity, fears, challenges and obstacles of living motherhood and creative life. It targets the lie from social media or online experts that the only way to build a successful portfolio is to charge for everything, to post everything online, and to make an online following that meets the magical metrics of the gatekeepers in these fields. I’ve written before about how elusive those goals are. Gadd reminds us how little they matter.

The book is written from a Christian perspective grounded in the belief that God as the Creator has endowed human beings, made in his image, as co-creators, little creations of him who are drawn to create as a way of living out the Imago Dei. It is part of human nature to create.

Golden and Glittery Lessons

There were lessons in other chapters that I remember learning in the early days of my business as a writer: Permission to do the thing whether or not it’s paid work and that what you need is within you. The easy part is getting the words down; the hard part is turning those words into art. Creativity begets creativity.

Professionally, having moved through the lessons of “Mission over Metrics” and giving myself permission not to pursue an online following aggressively, I find myself working through those ideas in “Abundance over Scarcity” and “Throwing Glitter,” which not only address refraining from comparing ourselves to others but actively building up those around us, especially those in creative work. That I can see the writer I was ten years ago and five years ago and the writer I am today in different chapters of this book speaks to the magnitude of what Gadd is doing here.

Each chapter closes with Creative Exercises and Journaling Prompts to help the reader interact with the material personally.

Better shared than stored

I am eager to share this with others. Create Anyway is for any woman who has a passion she pursues or wants to pursue. Or shoot, even a hobby she is trying to make time for.

It’s for the artist about to deliver her first child. It is for the seasoned entrepreneur constantly readjusting her workload to make space for her family.

Or the woman who doesn’t feel all that creative, to begin with, but describes knitting as therapeutic and spends time in the evening exploring new stitches may even find permission to stop downplaying her creative contribution to the world, which she’s learned to talk down because it is not posted online.

Gadd does waste a moment.

The book itself is beautifully hardbound with a sewn binding, the pages slightly glossy, making the most of its color photographs taken by Gadd on film. These are not ornaments for a beautifully laid-out book with plenty of white space. They are illustrations of her point.

Gadd’s illustrations wove together the lesson at the heart of this book which she lays out early in the Introduction. “I used to believe motherhood and creativity were opposing forces—that my mothering was in the way of my creative work, and my creative work was in the way of my mothering,” she writes. “I’ve realized that motherhood inspires creativity, and likewise, creativity inspires motherhood.”

Create Anyway will be on my desk for a time. I hope you’ll consider adding it to yours.

I received a copy of Create Anyway for review from Bethany House. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The Making of a Documentary, Part 2 / Art and Empathy

In this two-part series, I’m sharing our strange and unexpected experience of being filmed for a documentary. In the fall of 2021, Director Dillon Hayes of All I Have, LLC, explained to us his desire to film the creative work of my husband and peer into the life of our family, our journey and our home. 

To read about Day 1, click here.

Day 2 focused primarily on my husband and his work, while I tried to hold my children back. The little ones were already smitten with Co-director Julia Grimm.

Out of the spotlight, I took the opportunity to make more conversation with the team. 

The desire to share a story

Grimm owns SLAQR Studios, a production/post-production company and lives in East Hollywood. She comes from New Jersey, where her family still operates a Christmas tree farm. Inspired by a documentary on child soldiers in Uganda she saw while at Amnesty International, Grimm went on to study film and television at Boston University. It was there she met Rill Causey who managed sound production during filming. Causey works as a freelance video/audio editor and sound designer.

When Grimm saw that documentary she said it caused her to ask, “What can I do? Can I help tell stories that might be able to help people or reach people? So that’s why I initially decided to go to film school.” She focused on documentaries. 

Causey started in sound through music, violin to be specific. After receiving recording software and attending an after-school program through Wide Angle Youth Media, he went to film school where he met Grimm.

Ultimately the two connected with Director Dillon Hayes. The three have discussed the ideas behind this documentary for years and decided last year it was time to get it off the ground. Hayes’ studied journalism in college, but after a class in documentary film, turned towards the medium that marries audio and visual to tell a story.

Growing in empathy

I was struck by the wisdom they shared. Though telling stories in documentaries, Hayes said, “You get more of a sense of how complex everybody on earth is. It makes you have way more empathy for people.” It’s easy to create a narrative around a person by the one aspect you see, “but it’s just always so much more than that,” Hayes said.

Grimm said she has always felt a curiosity about others around her.

“I feel like you get to a certain point in your life and you start to realize, oh my existence and my experience are not the same for everybody and my point of view and my parents’ point of view is not the same as everybody else out there.”

A project like this is a “passion project” for Hayes, Grimm and Causey. Documentaries make it possible for these filmmakers to not only hear others’ stories but share them by bringing “viewpoints of how other people live, people they might not ever really get to meet and experience themselves,” into others’ lives and homes, Grimm said.

Lending an listening ear

To do this well, they each spoke to the power of empathy in storytelling. Learning someone’s story begins by listening and that act itself can open up others to share. “A lot of people don’t have many people around them, that will really listen,” Hayes said.

After five years of more overtly political work, Hayes felt “burnt out.” His shifted his work, focusing more on what people had in common, rather than their differences. Grimm agreed with how energizing the shift can be. “I don’t think that most people are as far apart as we’ve been made to think we are.”

Then sharing without judgment

So instead of bringing personal bias, Hayes and Grimm try to approach with an open mind, asking where these beliefs came from, what factors contributed to them, and asking those questions without judgment. Then by documenting these ideas, they turn around and seek to help others see the bigger picture from another’s perspective. 

This documentary is still in its early stages. While some documentaries are contracted and funded from the beginning, Hayes explained,

“Most documentaries are started off by people like us who just have an idea.”

Those with a creative vision have more options than ever to bring them to fruition. Because of the changing media landscape, making documentaries has become “a viable career field,” Hayes said. Causey agreed,

“We are lucky to be in a time where there’s more of an appetite for it than there ever has been before.”

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Winter Books When Winter Feels Long

What a winter it has been.

It’s time to get even cozier as we wait and wonder how much longer this lack of sunshine will go on. Here is a list of book recommendations for all ages to help fight the winter ennui.

Katy and the Big Snow

In Katy and the Big Snow (1974) by Virginia Lee Burton, Katy is a snow plow. And there is a big snow. And Katy helps them out. That’s the plot. The illustrations are bright and colorful and there is a great deal of hope and security, communicating that these little children will be cared for. Like Katy, we will keep working away. 

Brambly Hedge: Winter Story

Brambly Hedge: Winter Story (1984) is book 4 of 8 from the Brambly Hedge series written by British author Jill Barklem. The Brambly Hedge books, each filled with detailed, generously, stunningly lovely illustrations follow a community of mice that live in the hedge, their celebrations, traditions and some misadventures. Winter Story follows what happens after a very big snow. When the snow falls deep and heavy enough, the mice throw a winter ball. The children are amazed at what comes next and the youth and vitality they see in the grown-ups who work so hard to bring in a little festivity. We see in this little book the joy of living out traditions. They illuminate a small light in dark and difficult times.

The Long Winter

The Long Winter (1940), book 6 of 9 from the Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In winter I appreciate books like that that remind me, it could always be worse. This autobiographical novel is set in the southeastern Dakota Territory during the severe winter of 1880-1881. Blizzard after blizzard blew and by December the snow was high enough to cover one-story buildings. For months the supply trains stopped. If your family doesn’t have those generational stories that teach heroism and resilience, books like this can help fill that gap. It’s good to know that even in the hardest of times, there is a way through.

The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild by Jack London, was published in 1903 and set in Yukon, Canada during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. Strong sled dogs were in high demand. The story follows the development of its central character, a dog named Buck. More snow and the pleasure of a story so removed from the stuff of everyday life and yet reveal the truth about love, total devotion, and sacrifice described, in this case, between man and beast.

With God in Russia

And for some non-fiction, With God in Russia (1964), a memoir by Fr. Walter Ciszek, a Polish-American Jesuit priest known for his clandestine missionary work in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1963. Ciszek tells his story with remarkable clarity, and through his journey. We learn the inner strength and orientation that can help us maintain hope and courage. Rather than despair, Ciszek takes practical stock of his situation, asking, if I am to survive, what do I need to do? He develops a routine of prayer, exercise, and mental work to keep his mind and body strong despite the solitary prison cell around him.

Self-help books

The weather might just open us up for reflection on the world, its challenges, and how we approach them. So if there is a self-help or spiritual book you’ve had on your help for some time, now might be the time to pick it up. Saints and poets have long seen the dormancy of winter as a ripe time to deepen our roots and prune out the overgrowth. 

For myself I am reading Healing through Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair (2004) by Miriam Greenspan. In it, Greenspan invites the reader to consider that so-called negative emotions may actually be a vital part of our growth and healing.


If the rain has you stuck indoors, transform your environment with the Danish and Norwegian concept of hygge. There isn’t an exact word for it in English but it indicates a mood of coziness and “comfortable conviviality”. Think candles, evergreens, blankets, cozy fires, cups of hot tea and warm baked bread. It’s the sort of sensory experience that makes you feel wrapped up and safe, like your home itself is a place of refuge.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

For two books on hygge see The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well (2016) by Meik Wiking and Hygge: The Secrets of the Hygge art towards a Stress-Free and Happier Life (2021) by Danielle Kristiansen.

Happy Reading!

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Like a picture print by Currier and Ives.

Currier and Ives: A brief history

As part of my son’s birthday wish, we visited Yesterday’s Books again. There, I found a hardback copy of Currier and Ives: Chronicles of America (1974). Currier and Ives was a New York City printmaking business that operated between 1835 and 1907. We know them best from their winter scenes and the shout-out in the song “Sleigh Ride” composed by Leroy Anderson in 1948 with lyrics by Mitchell Parish (1950).

The Road Winter by Currier and Ives

Currier and Ives prints were so popular The Royal China Company produced a line of dinnerware featuring various popular images of Currier and Ives. The Royal China Company manufactured dinnerware in Sebring, Ohio from 1934 to 1986.

Currier and Ives dishes by Royal China

Royal China sold dinnerware through retail department stores, catalog mail order houses and supermarket chains. Many a housewife collected her dishes through supermarket rewards programs. I found them first at a yard sale in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Currier and Ives dishes by Royal China

With the Americana nature of the artwork, it was fitting I should find them the week of Thanksgiving along with a book about Norman Rockwell.

And now, an art lesson

This is not the sort of art I will find in my 5th grader’s art textbook for school. There, we see prints of remarkable fine art. Below the image, the textbook directs me to ask him questions such as:

Where does your eye go first?

Where is the painting brighter?

Where is it darker?

Where is the light coming from?

If you were in this painting, where would you be standing?

We learn about “chiaroscuro in that book, that is, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. Currier and Ives lack that quality. 

Central Park in Winter by Currier and Ives

Art that imitates life or life that imitates art

And yet, the artwork and the song came to mind Thanksgiving Day as I looked out from a chaotic kitchen and saw an 11-year-old guest teach my 12-year-old a Jane Austenesque dance to the song “Simple Gifts”, while my 8-year-old daughter played the tune on the piano. It was a Little Women moment, a Currier and Ives moment. 

The light shined on my eldest that day. As I perused my Thanksgiving binder of magazine clippings and recipes, I told her the stories of Thanksgiving past, from my childhood to our first Thanksgiving as a married couple. On the morning of the holiday, while the littles watched the parade, she joined me in the kitchen, prepping vegetables, washing and clearing dishes. I explained why we worked the way we did, always making space for more festive preparations. She listened attentively, her eyes bright and her smile proud that she was numbered among those needed in the kitchen to make the feast possible.

After the brief dance lesson was over, after the dinner was served and eaten, the pie plated and shared, I asked her to play piano. She played beautifully, showing growth in the skill since we finally made regular practice and lessons a part of our daily and weekly routine.

Where does your eye go first?

I scan the room and rest my eyes on each of the bright little ones we brought into the world.

Where is the light coming from?

From a soft light shining within them, revealing more and more the young men and women they will become. Shockingly wholesome and innocent in a world that makes that status more and more challenging to maintain. 

If you were in this painting, where would you be standing?

I stand outside a little bit, now that she is older. I step back, making space for what will come, ready to jump in to answer questions, eager for a chance to share, praying her heart does not break too soon in this difficult world. 

The act of parenting unfolds one day at a time, one interaction at a time. We learn as we go. And if all goes well, our children will have something beautiful to grow from and aspire to. They will live a flourishing life, a good life, not built on instant gratification, individualism, or selfishness, but on goodness, generosity, and love.

These moments are simple gifts.

Staying with me like a picture print by Currier and Ives.

Considering a Toddler’s Trust

The toddler nestled into my lap on the 1940s, green artificial leather chair with brass nail head trim. Her head rested in the crook of my left arm. Across my lap, her legs dangled past the right chair arm as I cradled her. Her deep brown eyes, so dark the pupil is nearly indistinguishable from the iris, look up at me unblinking. Sometimes she moves her lips a little as I move mine, with mirror neurons firing in her brain at my speech patterns. At times, her brow scrunches a little as if her heart is taking in what I am telling her.

“Because I’m leavin’ on a jet plane/On Friday, I’ll be back again/Oh baby, I hate to go.”

view from an airplane

Now I board a plane without them, a distance that is not easily overcome should an emergency arise. I trust my spouse to carry on, the meals, the chores, the school lessons, the love. When they snuggle me and say out of nowhere, “I love you, mommy,” I sometimes wonder, why? Why do children give their love so easily? Why do they love so recklessly? They are the ones willing to jump off a dresser because you stand there, knowing you will catch them because you will.

My daughter feels utterly safe with me.

How strange.

Life tells us, eventually, that human beings are imperfect beings, and that we make mistakes. We learn eventually that forgiveness is not as simple as mumbling out some words to your siblings even as you are still mad because your mother asks you to do so.

Hopefully, eventually, we even learn that forgiveness and reconciliation can make a relationship grow. It somehow cements the bond into something altogether stronger. You wounded that person or he wounded you and when the circumstances were right when both parties were ready to grow and heal, someone apologized and someone shared what it did to them and then forgave.

Forgiveness is something unearned.

The one who did the wounding does not deserve it. It is a gift offered on the part of the wounded one in which the one wounded says she will no longer hold onto this hurt. It is not forgetting, it is letting go. It gives the one who is wounded freedom, whether or not the other receives the gift.

Reconciliation is the thing that can mend the relationship.

Reconciliation is mutual. It is a desire to learn from what has happened, and receive each other again.

Repeat apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliations move a relationship forward. It comes naturally enough in the course of a marriage, or, at least, there will be opportunities for it, I should say.

mended bowl

Friendship is trickier.

I find the older I get the more it helps to follow the gesture of my young friend ten years ago and declare my desire to be friends with a person. The older I get, the more it helps me to stop guessing and realize, okay, I can try to trust this person. I open up about how hard it is to trust, and how hard it is to jump, and she listens.

As we age, there is less advice given, less insight is given, because life on the one hand seems so settled and on the other hand, those differences that were but hints in the newlywed stage now make ruts in the road. There aren’t many who tread the same path.

We become more of who we are as we age, and the field narrows on whose company we’ll enjoy, or who will enjoy our company. We find we need someone to fit a little better into those grooves. Someone who can anticipate when we plan to jump.

Maybe, in a way, as we age we begin to understand better what matters and what we need.

It doesn’t help much if someone offers advice unless there is a helping hand behind it unless they are willing to catch us just a little bit, at least as much as they can. Maybe that is why it grows harder to trust, words are cheap, and by now we need more behind them, the need is greater. The need is physical, intellectual, and emotional, and as we dig deeper into the path we’re on, it is harder to fill it.

But when we do, when we hear the friend anticipate exactly what we would enjoy, it feels all the more sweeter, because you knew how hard it was to get there.

The Wonder of Homeschooling and Books

Hello Autumn Books

September ushers in autumn and apple season for many parts of the United States. Therefore, the Read-Aloud-Revival book list for September includes a full lineup of apple related books. For those of us raised in the cultural element of commercialism, September lacks form and beauty. Read-Aloud-Revival filled that sentimental gap. 

Among my favorites, Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak, Flora’s Very Windy Day by Jeanne Birdsall, Autumn Story by Jill Barklem, and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, on this list of 22 books, a very simple, rather silly book stands out called Orange Pear Apple Bear by Lucie Félix.

The book plays with arrangements of the four words of the title. The watercolor illustrations are soft, sweet and playful as the concepts change with the word order. I would not be drawn to it one bit, except for this fact, it was the first book three of my three readers ever read independently.

Books at School

Today, my 1st grader completed lesson 73 of “Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons”. The title is a misnomer as far as the easy part goes and the book does not work for every student, but it has worked for mine and today’s lesson marks the change from their strange way of indicating sounds to the “new way” that is, the Helvetica way of reading words. 

This milestone corresponded with September when Orange Pear Apple Bear finds its way into my hold list, then my library bag, and into my home to the hands of my little and mid-size readers on our living room couch. The questions come to mind.

Will this be it?

Will he read this book?

Will the world of books open up before him like my eight-year-old who lowers The Ghost in the Third Row by Bruce Coville from her face to tell me with her amazed voice about how she is reading books more and more and seeing more and more how she likes them? My nine-year-old says his brain gets a little fuzzy when he reads for a long time. He looks at me between math problems with that far-a-way look behind his eyes, telling me his brain is anywhere but on the math page. It may be in George Washington’s World, in Ancient Greece, on Leif the Lucky’s Viking ship or solving mysteries with The Hardy Boys. My nearly 12-year-old is long gone, lost to the love of horses in The Saddle Club and the world of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblins.

How remarkable that world is!

I find myself at sea with John Henry Newman memorizing “The Pillar of the Cloud” and at Barnard, eavesdropping on Zora Neal Hurston’s letters.

In Miracle on 34th Street written by Valentine Davies, Kris invites Susan to consider a world beyond her own.

“Do you know what the imagination is, Susan?”

The child nodded sagely. “That’s when you see things that aren’t really there.”

“Well, not exactly,” said Kris with a smile. “No — to me the imagination is a place all by itself. A very wonderful country. You’ve heard of the British Nation and the French Nation?”

Susan nodded again.

“Well, this is the Imagination. And once you get there you can do almost anything you want.” 

My son is our fourth born, and as such, he has grown up in a world surrounded by children. He does not often play alone. When the older kids are occupied with school, he wanders around uncertain of what to do with his boredom. 

“Books are our friends,” I tell my children, having heard it somewhere else before. 

Is my son on the threshold of this world, of these friendships?

As a homeschooling mother, this happens right before me. I know it will happen, though I know not when. Having not intentionally chosen teaching as a profession, the excitement, the anticipation, and the joy of education is something I still have to learn myself.

So I guess we’re both on the threshold of something incredible, student and teacher together.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Our One Room Schoolhouse

Homeschool supplies

And just like that, life changes. We move back to our schoolhouse.

“I’m strangely happy today,” my husband said just before he realized the source of this joy came from shorter days, cooler mornings and the sweet relief and hope that comes with the closing of summer and the beginning of fall.

I have many books on hold at the Hughson branch of the Stanislaus County library, picture books telling stories that sneak math into the lives of unsuspecting children, and books about apples and harvest and fall festivals. 

There are pencils everywhere, in every corner of every room. On every surface, stacks of books form a chaotic organizational system of a new school year. 

Kendra Tierney, author of the “Catholic All-Year Compendium” reposted an early post on homeschool choices that lightly characterized the types of people who choose these various homeschool paths. After a handful, she wrote, “And then there was Mother of Divine Grace which seemed like it was made for someone who would prefer a one-room schoolhouse at the turn of the last century.”

That is our curriculum.

That is my world. I even have the turn-of-the-century desks to prove it. My husband points out our schooling happens in one room, in a house, a perfect school house.

The method these past two weeks are to ring the bell, invite the children into the school area (a row of desks along one side of our living room) and say, “Good morning, children.”

desks in the living room

It tickles them to respond, “Good morning, Mrs. Casey.” We begin with a prayer, the pledge of allegiance and start our day. 

We have our plans and work through our day, sending the kids outside for freedom and recess or freedom and lunch. We ring the bell again.

It was not until adulthood that I read “The Little House” series with its images of a remote claim shanty, a country walk to school, games of tag or catch outside a school house, adapted education for the daughter who can no longer see, a husband at home on the farm coming in for meals, a wife whose work is tied to those around her. Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts this fictionalized version of life as a pioneer and early settler from the eyes of a children, when parents could do no wrong and as long as Pa and their dog was there, they were safe.

It is not that I think we should turn back the clock.

I do not glory nostalgically in all that was before antibiotics or good dental care. The evils of that age are not hidden from me. 

And yet there is good that I take from it, that appeals to me, that I incorporate into our modern lives whether aesthetically through wooden desks and a primitive Hoosier cupboard or educationally through memorizing poetry and Shakespeare, playing piano, singing folk songs, and reading classics. 

They say the division of the man’s work outside the home and the women’s work inside the home made more sense when the man worked outside the home nearby, still connected to the world he supports through his work. The two worked as partners in complementary spheres. The situations around COVID-19 moved our lives more and more home-based as work from home became the norm, and our lives have been better for it.

My husband works in his music studio teaching then rehearsing. I work in my office and drive away from our homestead to the world to report on events important to the community. We all travel to the next town over to attend church on Sundays.

It’s the life we live right now.

Never do I feel its strange, other-worldly, old-timey-ness more than at the beginning of the school year. At Michaelmas, we host friends and family for an outdoor dinner celebrating the bounty of fall. We haven’t quite raised a barn yet but if invited, we’d be more than willing. That’s what neighbors are for, after all.

I know what goes on in the world outside this little slip of land. Yet I’m so grateful for events that have fallen such as they are to lead us to this point. We tone our muscles and learn what our bodies can do through labor on the land. We learn something similar about relationships and love when children can run next door to a neighbor’s house and when fruit and vegetables are shared. 

It is not for everyone, indeed. There’s a privilege even in the difficulty of what brought us to this point. 

I take the gift of it now, treasure it, appreciate it, and stand amazed that the architecture of life that strikes me as particularly beautiful is within our grasp, even if it isn’t perfect. It’s the lack of perfection that makes it real.

Our one room schoolhouse

The End of Summer Has Come

The summer days peaked and climbed to their highest degrees yet.

With my right hand, I pull the curtain across the cheap metal rod and turn a hand-tied macrame loop around it to fix it in place. My eyes travel across the story of my garden stopping first at the pitiful Café Au Lait dahlia I did not cut back, weeping, drying, no longer moving from bud to bloom. Is its tuber rotting away under the too frequent watering the zinnias love so much? Has a gopher eaten its way across the tubal base, destroying its source of life? Its bright emerald green takes on a dullish hue. Moving to the left, I survey the healthy growth on the dahlias I cut back. These are still alive. These have not been eaten. The new leaves betray a deep pine vibrancy so surprising in these August days. As I look closer, the plants still stretching upward carry the same contrast, new growth reaching out and up amongst the old.

The Mulberry tree leaves are dry and dusty, but not so much as our van is now or will be after a few more days of harvest. The air itself is a little cloudy today, the sunset is a little more radiant.

As the activities wind down, the most passionate of my children shudder at the thought of missing the last practice, the last class, the last opportunity for summer fun. Even a canceled cabin trip fails to elicit disappointment in them to match my own because this means they can see friends one more time at the folklore practice at the church leading up to the festa days.

We attend a Portuguese parish.

We are not Portuguese by birth or family or heritage, yet by finding a home here we are somewhat, adopted Portuguese. Without awkwardness, my children join in the folklore. They sign up to lead games. I will be a chauffeur and experience the festa through my camera lens for the newspaper, which although technically a form of work, helps me to see and experience the event in a deeper way than I might otherwise do. It offers a place for me to set all my reflections.

Last year I began to learn about these traditions. This year I commit them to print. I have these hopes but time will tell.

Whatever the festa will mean culturally or spiritually, for us it marks the end of summer as Labor Day marks the end of summer for fashion and home decor magazines. The almonds will be harvested, the gardens change their tune. What began in abundance will wear out from tiredness. It dries out. It dies. And with some sweet relief, one day in autumn, the cool days return, only long after we gave up on summer and began to pretend we have more distinct seasons here in Central California.

This is a unique place and a beautiful place.

I pick up an old novel by John Steinbeck, the same edition I sold long ago, and poke through its pages, hating and loving it at the same time. The best of the moments is the understanding of the soil in California. There is life here, although quite different than anything else in the world. It is a unique place and a strange place.

In my newspaper writing, I celebrate the community and church activities as efforts that work to continue traditions and connect people. Tonight I met a man who knew me, from high school or church, he could not place me either. Slowly a picture of a young, scrawny high schooler with curly black hair sitting at a drum set came to mind, but only slowly. He moved here after leaving 14 years ago. I expressed my wonder as most people seem to be saying goodbye to this state. “Moving here from Orange County,” he said, “is kind of like moving out of California.”

How very true.

I lived in Minnesota for a time and I lived in Virginia for a time. There, summer gives way to a burst of firelight in the trees before dropping to the ground in the sleep of winter snow. Here we have late summer, that stretched into most of those months we call fall. Here, some of us long for winter and cold and sweaters, but we wait.

It’s the world where birds fly to in the winter. It’s the bread basket.

It’s home.

painting of our home in summer
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Make Children Essential

The biggest thing to happen around here this week to my children is wood chips. 

This is the time of year when my garden begins to look sad, tired, and dried out. Last year I learned that when this happens, this is the time to cut back. Literally, cut the plants back, keep on watering, don’t give up and, here in California, we will be rewarded with another flush of growth when the temperatures cool ever so slightly in the fall.

California perennial garden in summer

The past two years were focused on the growth of a cut flower garden, flower stand building and bouquet arranging for roadside sales. This year, writing took precedence and the focus of the flowers transitioned to cultivating the landscape and the pleasure of the place in which we live. 

Monty Don and his book, “The Complete Gardener” are my inspiration. As is @blossomandbranchfarm on Instagram and her regenerative growing practices. 

As I pull an endless series of wild grasses from my garden beds, I think of the lessons I’ve learned. The soil is poor. The wind blows away the topsoil. I rant at the land left fallow because of water restrictions and erosion it causes. The soil must be improved around my home. 

I posted the question on a local moms’ group requesting recommendations on how to get wood chips., one mother responded. I went online and filled out the form. The next day I had a truckload of wood chips. 

“Let it sit a couple of days,” Andrew from The Tree Guys, Inc., explained, “to kill the bugs or any seeds that might be in there.” That was Friday. 

On Tuesday it was time.

I prepped my husband and my children. Wear your farm clothes, all shirts should already be stained, gather your work gloves, and get some buckets. This is a family project.

Therein lies the focus. A family project means it is for the whole family, it will be taxing, and focused, and there will be treats after. 

The plan must accommodate different age levels. Some parties will push wheelbarrows, some will fill buckets, and others will empty buckets in garden spots where wheelbarrows cannot go. One child will make a special request to our neighbor to borrow his wheelbarrow so we can maximize the time of the man shoveling woodchips. 

My husband said, “I feel like the sugar bowl in ‘The Sword and the Stone’” as he tossed shovelful after shovelful in a rotating series of wheelbarrows.

Energy waned.

We took water breaks. Slowly but surely we finished off the third garden bed. Time to stop for the day.

The kids were sent inside to shower, eat snacks and then finish a movie they asked after each day. It is hard, especially in a world where it’s easy not to ask too much of children. How far away the days of “Little House on the Prairie” seem when, as the family or farm grew larger, children were essential to running a household and farm. It builds muscle, character and a strong work ethic. For our home, the most important part is to tell our children, “we need you.”

Flower Girl Zinnias in a cut flower garden. The children dumped buckets of woodchips around the base of the plants.

And so they learn to step up.

When we finished the last wheelbarrow load, we chatted with the UPS driver, whose delivery drop-spot is conveniently located near the wood chip pile. He asked the kids questions about the garden and as he climbed back into his truck said, “listen to your parents, kids, they know what’s up.”

Cafe au Lait dahlias in a cut flower garden with wood chips set out by my children

It was a little moment of affirmation that I needed to hear. Not every adult supports the idea of children working hard. As a child, I most definitely did not work hard, as my parents will attest. 

I want our children to know the value of it all. I hope that they grow up being able to look back and say, “Things weren’t always easy. It was hard, but they needed us.”

I hope they grow up and understand that we are a family. We are here for each other. We need each other. We cannot do it without them.

They are irreplaceable.

Marionberry milkshake dahlia