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.

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.

Take on the possibilities

When good possibilities seem endless, how do we discern what choices to make? How can we approach these periods of joy and hustle?

I sat on the patio looking out over my year. Instead of the dead grass and growing weeds, my eyes focused on the three folding tables covered in paper and pencils, surrounded by children. They sat, intently listening to a gently soft-spoken and methodical teacher, guiding them in a Toucan’s portraiture. A three-year-old toddler sits beside his big brother, scribbling on paper, imitating one of the “big kids” as surely as art imitates life. A little girl motors on a push car through the art class, bumping the teacher’s legs before her mother retrieves her.

Beyond the tables, in the giant mulberry tree, swarmed a group of boys less interested in art. They climbed, they swung, the created the typical brouhaha as one male student looked on longingly, wishing to join the fray.

With a group of mothers, I sat, sipping water, exchanging homeschool-curriculum ideas, asking questions of the veterans among us. On the table, I set a vase of dahlias, the only successful flower grown in the garden beds of our new house.

Surveying the activity, I sense in my heart, this is why we live here. I aim to host more classes, more parties. My husband continues construction on his music studio to teach more students, offer classes, maybe even host a music lounge.

Life feels full and good.

It is only when I look at my calendar or a phone call breaks into the navigation around children at home, or when I manage bickering children during a work event, that I feel flustered. It is only when my toddler wants to keep “calling me” on the rotary-style phone or I get carried away editing my website or scheduling speaking gigs when I should be focusing on second-grade math, that life feels, maybe, just a little too full.

Then the phone call ends, the appointment is scheduled, the article turned in and I sit back and think how good it all feels.

I took the advice to hold onto the life-giving things

and say “no” to the extras that sap the energy required to do what I must. I looked for ministries that fed my soul as well as offered something to others. Our reasons to homeschool were enough motivation to build our daily grind into an obstacle course. The job was a dream job. I came home excited and stimulated from book club.

“Discern with your feet,” I told a young mom. You keep on walking the path (the path itself determined by your principles and priorities). There will be bends in the road that are neither good nor bad. They do not go against your values, beliefs, morals, responsibilities or commitments. How do you decide what to take on or what to put aside?

Tuition, informed by reason, helps. You keep stepping forward until you feel the thing is not right.

But what happens when everything seems good, fitting, fun and fulfilling?

I do not know.

Because this thing I experience is a rarity.

All I know is I take it on with a willingness to let it go. This may only be a season in our lives, just as our period of crisis was but a season.

Usually, there are more limitations imposed by commitments, time and ability. Those parameters often guide our decisions more than anything else. Next January we will welcome one of those blessed limitations. I have no idea how the rest will change. It will not be until the time comes that I will be able to discern it, practicing this method of discerning with my feet.

I believe in planning. I believe in being prepared. But I have also learned through the trials of life the glory in being detached from our routines, expectations, even the work we do. In an instant, it can change. The instant may be tragic or terrific, but I have found our willingness to love the moment while we have it, and let it go when it leaves us, to be one of the greatest tools used to experience the joy offered to us in this life.