Dried Orange Ornaments

Eight oranges were bagged and decanted into a wire fruit basket.

Gathering my supplies, I cleared space next to the dish drainer for my husband to put the dehydrator out of the way of other kitchen activities. I set before me a chef’s knife, a cutting board and a basket of oranges. My daughter stood at the opposite side of the counter watching with eager anticipation. “Can I help you dry the oranges?” She asked.

“I’m not really sure what you can do,” I answered with a downbeat.
Slowly, I sliced the oranges an even width laying them on the plastic perforated trays of the dehydrator. I leaned across to examine the settings, turned the dial to “Fruit 135”.

Within an hour the sweet citrus smell permeated the living room and kitchen, greeting children leaving their rooms to fetch a book or newcomers to the house. We dressed in carefully chosen outfits and changed our shoes to attend the Christmas parade. I gathered my camera supplies, notebook and pens, prepared to do the work I love best outside the home.
When we returned, the flesh the orange slices felt tacky to the touch. I turned it off for the evening. “I’m sure it will be fine,” my husband reassured me, “what could happen overnight? They’ll dry out?”

The next day resumed the drying activities.

At 135, it took about seven hours

When they were done, I called the eager young lady denied her opportunity to craft the previous night. I taught her to use her forefinger to tie a knot. With antique-style shears, I cut beige upholstery thread to relatively even lengths, threaded a needle, pierced through the orange windowpane pulled the string even on each side, and set it beside me for my daughter to pick up and tie.

As she finished, I went to hang them. The ends of string above the knot were too long. I called my son to cut the ends. He delighted in the opportunity to use Mother’s sharp scissors and participate in the craft. Another daughter helped me hang the newly fashioned ornaments on a small pine tree in our room. She loaded her fingers with loops and carried them off. Her elder sister, the first crafter mentioned, redistributed them around the tree, creating visual balance across its boughs.

We finished the tree and swags of greenery hung about the dining room.
With the same spool and scissors, I measured the length for a cranberry garland. The younger daughter collected not-quite-ripe kumquats. One, two, three cranberries, then a kumquat. The elder moved the group down the thread as I impaled the next.

We were calm, joyful and eager for the festivities to come. The slow moments, the quiet collaboration, the simple skills required to bring the decor to life with natural elements transfixed us. I marveled at the beauty of the oranges, the beauty of creation.

a needle and some thread does the trick

“Will we get to eat them?” The children ask, each in their own turn.

“Sometimes after Christmas,” I answered.

We do not save them. They are passing, like time itself. The oranges represent the traditions shared with us stories like “An Orange for Frankie” by Patricia Polacco, and the inclusion of oranges or mandarins in a child’s shoes for St. Nicholas day.

“How are you preparing for Christmas?”

A preacher asked his people. “If your answer is Christmas shopping or decorating, you might be missing out on the riches of the season.”

I am not so sure. It was a slow moment that brought us all together, all at peace. I knew the task; I knew who could participate in it and they each delighted in it. The oranges represent the delayed gratification so necessary to the well-ordered life. This season of life does not allow me to throw all the decorations up the Friday after Thanksgiving. Rather, we move, weekend by weekend, candle by candle of the Advent wreath, closer and closer to Christmas.

Thus it is not the task itself of decorating, but how we go about it, and whether or not we choose to enjoy it, embracing it as a good in itself, with riches beyond what we could possibly anticipate.

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

Reflections on Marriage and Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl”

Can an outsider break this bond?

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

The Golden Bowl by Henry James is unlike anything I have ever read. It feels like an academic read, the kind you read in graduate school, challenging, brilliant, and long. It centers around four main characters whose lives are tangled together as they sort through their relationships to live the life meant for them. A daughter and father, beautifully close, must cope with her marriage. A wife and husband must separate from old relationships to see each other, first and foremost. A former lover reemerges in a man’s life intending to be with him regardless of his marital status. A girl and her friend reunite while the friend plays the part of the friend a little too perfectly.

Charlotte marries Maggie’s father but keeps her eyes on Maggie’s husband. Maggie keeps the familial bond with her father unchanged even as she delights in married life and motherhood. The husband, Amerigo, begins with good intentions, but his passivity steers him wrong in the face of a determined woman.

The author takes us deep inside the reflective thoughts of the characters who employ more thought than action on the pages of the book. I cannot recommend it to everyone, but I do believe it is a masterpiece.

In the end, I was surprised to realize this book is so much more about the transition to married life and the challenge of breaking old bonds than it was about the bad characters doing bad things, sinning against the innocent.

The Tasks of Marriage: Separating from the Family of Origin

“I think it will be good that you move to Virginia,” a mentor told me as I prepared for marriage and the aforementioned move for graduate school. She explained that it would be an opportunity to turn towards my new husband, and he to me, away from the family and friends we knew so well. Isolated in that way, we would learn the heart of married life, which is to travel together on this journey.

We are a people made for ties, made for connections and bonds. Whether our commitment to work, to friendship, to aging parents, to nieces and nephews, we are made for relationships.

When that one such relationship comes along with its public declaration of marriage, saying, “I will be for you and you will be first for me,” then everything must readjust. Judith Wallerstein, author of “The Good Marriage,” identifies nine tasks to a successful marriage. The first begins with separating from the family of origin as one of the foundational tasks in making a marriage successful.

Adjust then Readjust

The successful marriage readjusts again if children come along, and again and again, as the space of relationship makes more space for more children or contracts back as the children grow and leave home or when the curves of life put the entire balance of life into question. It is always adjusting, always changing, always asking the question, where do we fit? Do we fit together? How can we fit together with these new challenges?

Whether we realize it or not, an answer arises and we begin to shift our weight to adjust to the arrangement we have fallen into. This is risky, especially when the demands of life make it harder and harder to give primacy to those primary relationships.

Therefore, we must take the time to think about it, and after thinking, to talk, and after talking, to make plans on how to get it right, straighter and in better order. That is the thing I learned from 12 years of marriage, my reflection for this year’s anniversary, and it will likely be the lesson I have to learn again in six months or a year or ten years. We have to keep learning the most important lessons over and over again because each time we learn them, we lay those lessons deeper into the foundation of who we are.

And sometimes, it happens that we are in a worse place. Then, we learn them from our rock bottom, from our weakness, looking with forced humility at how fragile we are. The more painful part of growing happens. Wounds will have to be healed and bonded, restored, but each time, when we follow this path, when both parties aim to maintain that relationship, the successful marriage come back stronger and more bonded than ever, and that is how it lasts forever.

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

Moments of Wonder – Better than Clicks

Our moments matter.

I look out the window to check on the garden and anticipate its blooms for the day, making a plan for the early hours of the day. Opening the window, I think of the potential cross breeze now that our bed is pulled away from the window on the adjacent wall.

As I was approached the large window, I see Black Widow between the glass and screen. Not to worry, pest control comes regularly to keep these little creatures from entering our humble abode. Still, we must not let the moment pass. I call the children over to give them the opportunity to examine it and what appears to be its former mate up close, safely behind the glass, before my husband crushes the life out of it. We enjoy the moment even if it leads to the “heebee jeebies.”

I try to take stock of these moments.

The moments are fragments of time woven together to create a tapestry of how my children see and understand the world. My response to the world around us shows them what they will perceive as a standard in the potential ways to proceed.

Homeschooling means the environment I create for them is the one they know best.

Homeschool room in the living room with fall decor

They do not have access to technology or social media. After watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix it became clear how our society could become as polarized as it has. The more you search for something, click on something, look at something, the more the algorithms tailor the content you are shown on social media or through Google to that which has attracted your attention in the past. The more you see something, the more normalized it seems, the more it seems a regular part of the world on you inhabit, the more freedom you have to express the ideas that were previously spoken of more carefully, tactfully, cautiously.

Thus women feel freer to talk about household chore distribution, babies who do not sleep, pregnancy woes, and the desire to work or not to work. And thus others find a place to voice their political ideas, to find a political community they may not otherwise have found, for good or ill.

The moments matter.

We affect the environment we live in.

There are many sources fighting for our attention these days and in diving in, the environment we live in begins to distort into something that is not a true representation of the people who live around us, but a magnification and exaggeration created by an engine selling advertising space.

The end of “The Social Dilemma” is quite dire. The only viable solution seen by the documentary interviewees, early influencers of social media, is regulation of the companies that survey our usage. The other solution, less discussed, is to turn off the computer, store the iPad, turn off notifications and put away the phone.

The distance from these noise-producing objects creates silence for our minds. Our minds are searching for occupation. What we need in this world is not more noise, but more wonder.

I call the children over to see the Black Widow. We discuss the nature of her name, which only one child knew before. We can simultaneously not want to know this Widow well and wonder at its creation.

In the act of wonder, I sit back and behold, I marvel, I observe and I learn.

The act is not flashy and will not bait the clicks, but it enriches my heart. We share a moment as a family. The moment passes. The Black Widow is killed. We go about our day.

Until we see a caterpillar.

Almond orchard at sunset

Sick of 2020? Take this Medicine

It is September.

Online I observe sighs of relief as decor and craft enthusiasts bring out the pumpkins, the harvest colors, and scents of the season. Like Christmas time, autumn is filled with sensory triggers that invite us to take a moment just to be.

How does this work?

Our bodies are wired for habituation. The more we experience a sensation, the more normal it is to us, and eventually, the less we sense it. We hardly notice our clothes after a while, unless they fit uncomfortably. That special flavor coffee or pancake or cocktail ceases to feel so novel after it has been indulged in regularly enough. Then our brains begin to look for something new. Something new reads as exciting because of its newness. It initiates firing throughout the brain as a novel stimulus.

And if there are past positive mental associations with this stimulus, we get a dose of nostalgia. Nostalgia can work as something spontaneous and unpredictable. I have a thing for wooden kitchen carts because my grandmother had and used one throughout my childhood. I have it now in my office. One day I hope to have it in my kitchen. Or nostalgia can be created intentionally, as when stores play Christmas music, hang tinsel and twinkling lights. Less commercially, I read of individuals delighting in the change from August to September because this means bringing out fall things and fall things feel beautiful, good and comforting to them.

Festive fall table setting with pumpkin soup bowls

It is a return of tradition.

Golden yellow living room with "Beatus Autumnum" banner

It is a season rich with unique elements that we only allow ourselves once a year. I grant that other than pumpkins and a dusty harvest, it is somewhat manufactured here in California’s Central Valley, but nevertheless, plenty of us indulge in it as we do listening to songs about snow in wintertime.

With our brains noticing all these new smells when the past smells were simply neutral and unnoticed, or warm color palates replace the bright palates of summer, there is a movement within us to pause and delight in this change.

Maybe this is not for you. Maybe instead, it means the annual moment to mock all things pumpkin spice. That too acts as a tradition.

The risk is in having it neither way.

The risk is letting one day pass into another and never stopping to savor or let your senses feel the thing that is different right now at this moment.

Being mindful of the present moment is a calming moment of silence for our more frequently agitated brains. Technology bombards us with an overload of sights and sounds, but being virtual, without taste, touch and smell, it lacks the realness and, I believe, stresses our systems out. You may have felt that after one Zoom meeting too many.

This year in particular, after so much uncertainty, after hope that things would be better, anger at the current state of things, fear at the potential fall out if we do this thing or do not this thing or if others around us do it or do not do it, after the strain of distrusting our neighboring, wanting to see our neighbor against, stressing over whether or not we or our neighbors should wear masks, facing the inability to control the situation before us, wondering if today it is even safe to breathe the air…after all this, to settle into something familiar, to look at the past rather than the future, may be the medicine we need right now.

Festive fall shirts that read "Beatus Autumnum"

Because we do need medicine. Whether or not a vaccine prompts political leaders and health experts to open the doors to normal living, we need to find a salve that will carry us forward without breaking us.

And for many, right now, it’s Fall.

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

Is HomeSchooling the Right Path?

For me it is, right now. How do I know?

This week, the baby decided nighttime sleep was overrated. As a result, my mental capacity for homeschool management waned. In this limited state, I called upon one of the overlooked benefits of schooling multiple children at home – making use of readers.

In high school and college, the local learning authorities on education told me, “if you want to really understand something, try to teach it to someone else.” This lesson gave me the boost I needed to initiate this experiment.

Unable to get my words straight that morning, I employed the help of my readers to act as teaching assistants for the day. Without me, their vocal leader, my readers learned why they should not use their music sheet as a prop while we sang the German folk tune, “Autumn Leaves.”

The eldest reader led story time at the end of our morning basket. My third-grade reader, more interested in reading independently than listening, read his history assignment on his own, answered questions orally, than went on to read the geography text to the first grader. The first-grader used her limited phonetic knowledge to read to the preschool student at nap time. The readers explained math problems, led the art discussion, and checked on each other throughout the morning. Remarkably, we finished most academic work in slightly less time than a normal day.

I was rejuvenated enough to conduct the drawing lesson, after which readers and non-readers draw for another thirty minutes before breaking for the day or finishing up their leftover lessons.

It worked

And it was a refreshing break. Throughout the day I overheard exchanges of banter, competition, comparison, help, excitement and praise over the diverse interests among my children. Sent out for recess, they have a friendship that supersedes the drama of intermittent friends because they know they are stuck with each other. We train them to work out their problems, to take the complaints to each other rather than us, to “use their words,” learn to apologize in a meaningful way, forgive, shake hands, and move on.

This hands-on education makes it possible, when needed, to pass the baton, and passing the baton teaches responsibility for the baton.

For us, it is working.

With all of life’s chaos and challenges, with sleep deprivation, personal weaknesses and imperfections, it is still working.

 It is a sign to me of the idea I have leaned on for several years now, parenting is not each individual moment, but the sum of those moments added together.

I am not defined by my bad days, and neither are you, whether with work, parenting or relationships. We are more than our individual moments, just as you are more than a bundle of traits. To know you is not just to know your favorite candle scent or coffee order, but to know what makes you tick, laugh, get offended and cool off.

When we can understand the deeper things that make us go, that is when we can begin to fully discern where is the right place for us, where we will best learn, where we will thrive and to read the bad days for what they are – simply a bad day.

What this means for you

I talk a lot about our homeschool days not because it is right for everyone, but because I found it right for us. On the path from the first inkling that we wanted to do this to four years later now that my heart is on board and fully engaged, I think there is some wisdom to be gained for other areas of life.

We may know it is the right path intellectually. Maybe not the most socially acceptable, logical or easiest path, but right for us right now. Time will tell. It either will work or it will not. If it does not work, it is okay to turn and begin a new path. When it does work, that means it’s time to celebrate.

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

Navigate the Homeschool day

The setting

A fifth-grader, third-grader, first grader and preschooler began their school year in my house August 17. The fifth-grader dove into the myriad of subjects, well-rested from a summer of exploring the fields, imagining stories of fine and heroic ladies, horseback riding and adding braces and glasses to her ensemble. Despite the order of subjects presented, she continues to pursue math sooner than directed and to blow through her history books without consideration for the questions she must answer. The former may be from a sense of getting the worst over first. The latter from an aggressive love of reading.

The third-grader, less enthusiastic, is navigating the idea of the servitude that comes with a new and more challenging grade. Being rational, now that he is past the age of seven, as the days go by slowly does the realization grow that the quicker he works the more time in the day there will be for Legos.

There sits a first-grader, diligently copying her letters and stories, drawing solar systems, requesting coloring pages that include an [anatomically correct] heart and a brain, and reminding her mother-teacher that it is time for phonics.

A preschooler’s time is best spent in play, drawing upon the hard lessons of life and competition, to develop his sense of the world and how to move within it without hitting his head on doorknobs. Nevertheless, when I can put him off no longer, I guide him through his art book, shape identification and letter tracing.

Bouncing between all these is a chubby seven-month-old not quite sure why her mouth hurts, why her mother keeps setting her down despite her protests and who this punk four-year-old is who continually piles toys around her while she learns to crawl.

The Honest Fact

I was nervous about beginning this year, and I was right to be nervous. This is hard.

A Plan of Attack

When I know something will be difficult, the first matter I must address is my mindset. We used our first week to determine our ideal schedule and make changes. The day ended at a set time without or without completing all the subjects. More time may have been spent with me running back and forth from the printer than was necessary, but in a way, I needed to dive in and see what I was up against before I could concretize a plan of attack.

Consistency is king and despite the baby’s insistence on unpredictability, we have achieved some sense of normalcy with almost two weeks under our belt. I keep very busy. This is the first year I found our schedule better set by the hours of the day than generalized blocks of time. We begin at 8 a.m., break for lunch at noon whether or not the current subject is completed, resume instruction at 1 p.m. With a drawing lesson and drawing time and end the day at 3 or 4 p.m. End times depend entirely on the student’s age and willingness to engage in one’s lessons without great lapses of wandering into space.

My temptation is to plow through, like my daughter and her math lessons, not to get lost in the act of savoring, like my son and his drawing. But I knew in my heart that our mornings beginning with prayer, songs and stories, and our afternoons beginning with a drawing lesson, were linchpins on which our whole day rested.

But do I apply this to myself?

But I haven’t quite learned that for myself yet. My nights are irregular, or maybe, regularly rough, and I am trying to find that secret ingredient at 4 p.m. that will reset my mind and prevent me from turning into a gargoyle. I’ll let you know when I find it. I have a feeling that, like the balance I seek for my children, the tools for preventing my 4 p.m. meltdown will come from what happens earlier in the day.

Possibly and probably the list includes good sleep, good nutrition, a walk, and midday break away from the kids before the beloved drawing lesson. We shall see.

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

This Hard Thing is Worth Doing

The Setting

I write this on Thursday, four days after the lightening siege, the aftermath of which we are still witness to.

Yesterday, a red sun rose as ash slowly sifted through the air landing on our flowers, our furniture and our concerns. I called my aunt to see if they were already evacuated. Light filtered through the smoke and harvest dust until the late morning, creating a yellow glow in each of the windows, moving our moods closer and closer to their edge. Though there was no smell of smoke, my head began to ache after the necessary time outside watering the garden and clipping ripe flowers.

Today the sky is a white mass, clouded over with smoke. The scent hangs heavy burning eyes and itching throats. Individuals rake the almonds away from the trees, sending tufts of light brown dust around their heavily clothed bodies and covered faces.

Though the window I see my husband move the last wheelbarrow of fungal-infested garden cuttings, which amounted to most of the annuals. I cut the plants down to their bases, above the nodes, hoping they will grow again. After a weekend of mental preparation, I found myself able to let it go.

We await news from family members, news outlets and the Cal Fire map. The governor declared a state of emergency. We seem to live in a perpetual state of emergency this year.

When the year began, I felt moved more and more to turn my gaze from facing out the windows, to inward where my children are.

Pressing Forward On the Journey

COVID or not, life must continue.

Smoke in the air or not, harvest must continue.

Headache or not, the school day must continue.

Just when we had made the most of outdoor gatherings, a haze settled in around us. Just as a sense of safety creeped in, the news headlines burst.

This time, with all its light-filtering distortion, is one moment of the journey, one chapter in the book, one season of our lives.

You Can Decide

With an external locus of control an individual sees the power of things as outside his control, it is done to him. An internal local of control means I am the agent. I can decide, not what happens, but how I respond to it, and my response to it changes the narrative. You can determine how this story will play out. The hero is the ordinary player in the story who faces a challenge, faces it bravely and continues his journey. He is heroic not because he is extraordinary, but because has found a way through extraordinary circumstances.

Four years ago, the business of my life felt like the global circumstances now, one crisis after another. Facing family illness and tragedy it was the same matter. What could I have control over? I could not stop the events we faced. Despite the temptation that inevitably comes with heartache, it does no good to look for who to blame. Guilt and shame have no place in crisis management. We must face the world as it is now, and decide what are we going to do about it.

You can Get Stuck

Opening our eyes, we look around and see the potential paths before us. I can waste time looking back. I can waste time thinking, “what if this had never happened?” I can waste time thinking, “what could I have done differently?”

Those thought exercises could be done as productive reflections to better whatever outcome comes next, or they could be done in a sorrowful mood, regretful, anxious, mourning what cannot be again. It is only then that they waste time.

You Can Be The Hero

What comes next for you as you walk through these extraordinary circumstances? How will you embrace your role as the hero of your story, carrying out your duty, faithfully supporting those who rely on you, making the world a better, more beautiful place? The answer to this question becomes your legacy, where even the lives that seem smallest are stories worth telling.

Falling Is Part of Learning

Within a span of thirty minutes, each child needed something on demand, urgently and time-consuming.

What’s next? I wondered.

After lacing my tennis shoes, I walked out to the garden and observed the powdery mildew spreading among my plants wondering if I spread it myself when I thought maybe they were just dirty. I remembered my reaction to the mushroom growing in seed trays in the spring: I felt a failure.

Two days ago, I cut my four-foot dahlia way back which means a while to wait before enough flowers will bloom for an arrangement. Making pesto today is out of the question.

The garden needs to rest.

I see powdery mildew on the dahlias, the basil, the pincushions, the coreopsis. The mildew forces my decision to slow down, focus back and reinvest.

Our spring garden honeymoon is over. Now it begs for more attention and labor. As the thought simmers, my four-year-old pulls his tricycle out of the garden of ornamental grasses. My older son tells of the time he rode his bike without training wheels and fell, hurting his knee.

“Falling is part of learning,” I said both automatically and with a glimmer of nostalgia for the days the children tried to teach themselves to roller skate.

The phrase applies to my life as it is now.

“Falling is part of learning.”

The baby reaches trying to grasp at the desired toy just one inch too far away. She rolls to the ground undeterred in her mission to get the blue plastic cup. The baby wriggles and rotates, seeking to move closer and closer, her frustration growing from the delayed gratification and never-ending struggle. A sympathetic sibling hoists her into a seated position and thrusts the toy into her lap.

Her mouth relaxes and her voice softens, cooing in her delight. She promptly moves the object to her mouth exploring it with her tongue. The cup slips from her unpracticed grasp. Quick as a cat after a mouse she darts, grasps and returns the object to her mouth.

That falling is part of learning applies to the smallest things, the insignificant things, the growing things, the living things, the global things.

Falling is part of learning. but what do we do when we have stopped thinking of it in this way? When we think that falling is not part of learning but a description of who we are at our core?

If I fall, then I have failed. I am a failure in…fill in the blank. I cannot do it.

Failure is simply a fall off the bicycle without training wheels, a season with a battle against powdery mildew, a malfunction in machinery that sends you to the ER with a potentially broken finger because the safety piece was missing but you didn’t know that because this was your first time doing drywall.

Falling is part of learning and as Greta Eskridge discussed with Sarah Mackenzie in a recent Read-Aloud Revival podcast episode, the misadventures make the best stories.

I do not regret these falls in my life.

Where my path turned, the drastic changes might look like a failure but, really, they were one more step along the journey.

When we fall, we learn new things.

We learn not to move like that or step in that spot or pull in that direction. We learn about how the machinery works; we learn better how to balance on the bicycle; we learn better how to move and breathe in these aging bodies of ours.

Learning is not simply a means to an end but a core part of the journey itself. The memories of a baby rolling around the floor losing her mind over the frustration of that toy just out of reach, the moments of comfort after falling off the bicycle, the excitement of a new venture, the sympathy we offer those just starting out in the process of falling. Falling is part of learning. And learning is part of life. And this life is worth living.

Learning Routines – The Morning Basket

Routine is Beauty

“Routine is Beauty,” Mark Berchum, founder of NET Ministries told his trainees before they begin a year-long work as missionaries around the country. For the length of a school year, the 8-11 young adults compiling a variety of teams were given the keys to a van, a schedule and hit the road. Generally, a team spent no more than one to two nights in their host homes. Occasionally, they stayed a luxurious three nights. Each day presented a new home, new sleeping arrangement, a new combination of roommates from the team, a new church where the work would be done and new personalities to encounter during that work.

It was many years ago when I spent a year doing this work. Despite the sleep deprivation and unexpectedness of what our days would look like, I took the advice to heart and developed a morning routine to ground myself and maintain a sense of familiarity when all else seemed uncertain or out my control. Routine is Beauty.

I revisited this advice during my son’s days in the hospitals when based in his hospital room in a strange city. His day might be uncertain, but mine, away from the tasks of home and needs of my other children, felt terribly empty. The routine gave me something to do, something to expect, rely on, plan on during days when I could have lost myself through social media, television shows and movies.

Learning Routines

In the face of a new school year, I come to it once more. With the encouragement of Denair Unified School District Superintendent Terry Metzger to local parents to develop learning routines with their children who are facing another year of distance learning, I thought this a golden opportunity to discuss one example of a learning routine.

The Morning Basket

It has been my experience that the routine expectation by children of what is coming next saves a lot of words. Words take thought and thought takes energy, so word-saving devices are essential to my parenting practice. If after every meal, we do “after-meal chores” and after every after-breakfast chore session, school commences, the children are mentally and emotionally prepared. I have to keep on my toes to makes sure my little hooligans do not escape into the world of fantasy and play at that moment instead, the interruption of which causes untold volumes of emotion (rage, disappointment) to sputter from their innocent hearts through their mouths in the form of complaining.

Assuming I have kept a leash on them, successfully tidied after the meal without losing my own thoughts into the world of projects, we begin our learning routine with group work commonly called The Morning Basket. In my home, this includes morning prayers, a hymn, a seasonal folk song, poetry (memorization) a read-aloud picture book. The older grades are then dismissed to work independently (some days more successfully than others) while I combine subjects with the younger grades.

For myself this routine at the outset of the day is not only pleasant for the children, but helps to focus my mind to my commitment as their teacher when I am apt to prefer to “get things done” on my own around the house. The children are not the only ones to wander off after a meal.

From there, my involvement with the subjects shift based on the student’s needs and work to be done. I cannot quite yet predict what this school year will look like but I do know the morning routine of togetherness gets us off on the right foot.

If you are parent you may be a returning homeschool parents, have made the choice to homeschool for the first time, or be starting the school year with the still-unpredictable distance-learning program from your brick-and-mortar school.

Every method is a challenge.

Photo of antique desks in a homeschool room

Every method carries with it a sense that we are not giving enough, that what we give is not given well enough or what we are is not enough.  Schooling from home, in whatever format, becomes a bootcamp working on our perspective of ourselves, our world, our view of education, our ability to commit to a task we might not choose for ourselves, and our feelings towards our children.

This year it may be easy to fall into wishful thinking or resentment, regret and displeasure. Those moments are bound to crop up, but need not define the sum of the year. This year is also an invitation to practice acceptance, patience and grit. If I am on board, my children are more likely to be on board, too. If I am willing to tackle hard things, maybe they will be, too.

Maybe we can Love

I love my office.

Photograph of writer's office
Photograph of home library and reading nook

It is a conglomerate of antiques and hand-me-downs. The desk cost $20, bought on my birthday and takes four men to carry. On it stands a paper organizer thought to have come from a newspaper office. On that sits cast iron keys and a miniature basket on a crocheted tea towel I swiped from my mother’s house.

Photograph of home office, cast iron keys, miniature basket and vintage fabric

Just behind my computer screen is a shadow box with my daughter’s dress and other keepsakes from her short life.

Photograph of home office, pencils, paintbrushes and keepsakes

There is an indigo ceramic vase filed with art pencils and a miniature tabletop dresser filled with brass nail heads and screws.

Vintage miniature blue dresser

Finishing off the corner stands a yard sale lamp without a light bulb, a book stand purchased to assist in research and a telephone that could work if I had a phone line but gets better used by my four-year-old to call me a million times an hour to say, “Hi, how ya doin’?”

I like things. I am no minimalist.

Photograph of home office with dress form and vintage desk organizer

The only unifying feature of these items is that I love them; they give me joy. I can see past the coupon card, worn-out pencil, plastic bag, used envelopes, packing materials, goods to donate and spring decorations that really need to get packed back in their box.

I know how these items came into my life, and I keep them as mementos.

I could reject the place for its salvaged carpet and mismatched rugs covering stains on the brown cement floor. I could fret over the unpainted rectangle on the ceiling where a fluorescent light once hung. I could lament the overwhelming amount of furniture that finds its way into this place because I am a collector of big things.

I could hate it for all those reasons. But I don’t.

Maybe a part of me even likes it like this.

I find peace in uncovering the beautiful I set out in the room’s design when I tidy it. Walking in here, sorting and putting things away set my frame of mind for the work I will sit down to accomplish.

I put aside the cares of the house across the patio and settle into the new, admittedly imperfect environment of my office, my little haven from home at home.

I planned a rousing column in response to the church fires that occurred around the country, some arson, some unknown, all of them hitting me personally, stinging my heart, fanning into flame the anger I feel about a world that refuses to see the gray.

Some things are black and white. Some things are right or wrong.

But not people.

People’s actions or ideas can be right or wrong, but at the essence, the person is a not right or a wrong. He is good. He has free will. He is complicated.

When we learned in adolescence that our parents were not perfect did we then reject them or “cancel” them? Did we reject friends who failed to remember our birthday for the third year in a row? Did we yell and scream when an aunt or uncle misspells our name? Arbitrary examples, I know, but the last two are ones we are more likely to brush off unless we are already angry about something else.

Resentment holds onto the wound, allowing it to reopen and be relived each time we recall it. So instead of an injury once, we are injured a thousand times.

We can shove down the feelings, put them aside or wait for circumstances to improve or we can deal with it, face it, and come through it, learning to love through the clutter not by ignoring it. We can understand that the clutter, the imperfections, might be part of what makes the good things about it so good.

If I remember right, the best friends are the ones who actually allow us to fail, who allow us to be fragile, and will still love us as if we were incredible.

That love is not a love in spite of our problems. The right and the wrong come in the package, because we are all in a state of becoming, moving one day at a time closer to the destination. The loving parent sees it. The lifelong friend sees it. The faithful spouse sees it.

Maybe instead of “love is blind” love actually sees the fuller, bigger picture.

Maybe we can think of that when we encounter someone, their belief, their practices, their mask-wearing or not wearing, their Trump-now or never-Trump.

Maybe, just maybe…