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.

What Community Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Can Do for You

“All of California is burning,” she said.

Photograph of car driving out of smoke from wildfire
Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

As I write this, we are on the second “red flag warning,” the second roll of PG&E blackouts that in this area in October affect us but little.

There is an impeachment inquiry.

New revelations every day.

Far away, confusing, conflicting and alarming events in Turkey and Syria with allies and enemies.

There are waves of social media outrage, one after another.

I are concerned, but my energy burns out as well.
“Are you following the fires?” she asked.
“I can’t,” I answered, “Not this year.”

When she left, I checked the maps and compared the Kincade fire to previous fires.
Last year my aunt’s house was threatened.
The year before we fundraised for a branch of our women’s organization whose boundaries were affected.

Every year. One event after another affects us. Are we callous to turn the cellphone over, turn off the computer, and put aside the mainstream news?

To not care one bit about fellow human beings across the globe, the state, the county, bears examination.

In empathy, you put yourself in the other person’s place. We imagine ourselves in a similar situation. The movement of emotion can spur us to action, to fundraise, to prayer, to assess our values.

We need empathy because we are, in reality, connected.

But the truth is, no matter how boundless we would like to be in our connections and love of neighbor, our heart has limited resources. There is only so much space for those connecting strings.

The internet connects us in unimaginable ways around the world. That is good. In Hong Kong, protestors relied on social media to help break through the firewall of internet censorship run by the Chinese government. The Me-too movement gave a voice to women who never before spoke out about treatment received and dismissed by others as “boys just being boys.” What effect would social media have played in the Nazi concentration camps, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the cold war?

But the constant stream of information overloads us. Unable to act, in response to a sense of powerlessness in the face of evil or what feels like global chaos, anxiety ensues. And anxiety takes up even more heart space. As does the Twitter-style outrage that waxes and wanes so quickly. The quick turn of the emotions drains our resources.

The answer is not to forget about the world, dig into Christmas shopped (advertisements began arriving at my house the week before Halloween) and hope for a better world we can just have a new rendition “Santa Baby” to welcome new decade in this strange millennia.

The choice to turn inward, into your home, your community, does not mean you are choosing to forget about the stranger in a strange land.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”

This is what we can do. The answer lies in front of us. It does not seem heroic or particularly romantic, but it begins with the dishes. With saying, as Pope Francis and elementary school teachers remind, the words, “please, thank you, and I’m sorry.”

It is the conversation about empathy and bullying with a school-age child.
It is the bouquet of flowers and hot soup delivered at a neighbors door.
It is the 8 o’clock gathering at the kitchen at St. Anthony’s Family Center in Hughson to prepare Thanksgiving meals for hundreds of people November 16.

Photograph of two people cooking
Photo by Brandless on Unsplash

There is so much we can do.

When our own lives become overwhelmed with the legitimate worries and cares that we must turn the news off to get through the day, the best thing we can do is that which we can do right here. Locally, your impact is greater. Your reach more personal and, because of that, more powerful.

We cannot control gas prices (even though we may vote) or federal regulations (again the voting) but we can build a network of relationships so that when that local single parent struggles to buy groceries because of gas prices, she has a Thanksgiving meal waiting for her and her children. We can hear their stories so they know they are not alone.

And, in turn, they can hear our stories.

I often write as if I or the reader are the ones able and ready to give it out, but as the more sentimental holidays approach, we may find ourselves deeply in need of that sense of connection.

Helping with Thanksgiving dinner can help that, too. Because in donating your time, you not only benefit whoever is on the receiving end, but you have an opportunity to meet a few people, to join in some banter, to be known, to be seen, and to be loved.

California may be burning once again, so along with watching the fire-maps and keeping vigil for those in danger, let us consider the relational infrastructure we have right here, reach out, and connect this season, because no one is ever really alone.

Our Halloween Plan this Season

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

The autumnal festivities are quickly approaching

Hughson’s Truck-or-Treat event at Lebright Fields on Halloween night, the Trunk-or-Treat generally held at the Assemblies of God Church, the Harvest Festival at the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This year, we have to consider our schedule carefully as we are no longer residents within city limits. 

Halloween decor on a brick fireplace

We are planning an early dinner-snack of fruit, veggies, and possibly some homemade butternut squash soup before donning costumes. The costumes this year are simple and nearly complete. My four children will dress as Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and with the star, our youngest, Peter Rabbit. We have bunny ears leftover from Easter, khaki pants, white shirts, red capes for the older three and a blue shirt with brass buttons for Peter, hoping it fares better than it did in the Beatrix Potter classic. 

The greatest challenge to costumes for us is inspiring them to pick a theme and stick with it. We’ve had failed pumpkins in the past, a train conductor accompanying Cinderella, and a missing Macbeth because he needed to go to bed. 

Boy in Halloween Jack-o-Lantern costume

This year, everyone is on board, though I question if their ears will last the night.

Our Plan

We plan to hit the Harvest Festival for free corn dogs, chili, and games. Then haunt our old neighborhood, frightening old neighbors with how much our children have grown in the six months since we left. 

As my tolerance for sugar-drugged children is low, we are not too strategic about Trick-or-Treating. We will hold as out as long as the youngest can, and with a young, bearded version of Mr. McGregor by my side, I feel we will make great strides this year. 

After dark, when toddlers go to bed, we will build a bonfire outside and try to focus our littles on why we celebrate Halloween: that death and darkness have no power over us.

In the morning we attend mass for All Saints Day to celebrate the souls who have gone to Heaven. During the following day, All Souls’ Day (also known as “Dia de Los Muertos”) we visit the cemetery to honor and pray for our loved ones who have died.

Life is cyclical

Small black kitten on a table with wheat in pitchers just in time for Halloween

As I plan all this, we have a little black kitten prowling about our house, looking for a piece of furniture, a set of toes, or a baby blanket to attack. In the front, a tree company cuts down an 80-year-old Deodar cedar perilously close to the power lines and road. We have a daughter whose gravestone decorates St. Stanislaus Cemetery, and I feel the pulsing kicks of a 27-week old baby inside me. Our garden bed now teems with bulbs and our mulberry trees’ overgrown branches look at us ominously. All around us, there is new life and life passing away.

Photograph of tree being cut down

It is sad, but it is as it should be. There is something cyclical to all things nature. The seasons change, circling back. The earth turns. The moon waxes and wanes. We grow older and new babies arrive. 

I like this stage of life when I live with both realities. Death is real but does not crash into my world the way it did when I was 13. As parents of a child with a chronic medical condition, we live with an elevated level of risk every day. 

Yet he grows taller and more willful and wilder. 

If we isolate ourselves with only those in our circle, only those with whom our lives mirror, who are in our age group, marital status, have the same number of kids or same career responsibilities, I fear we miss something of the richness available to us.

So what do we do?

For our part, we’ll knock on strangers’ doors Thursday night, say trick-or-treat, thank you, and explain our costumes. We will drive carefully, mindful of the children dashing across the street, enjoying the independence we had as children. We will smile at parents hanging back on the sidewalk because we are not ready to let our littles loose (because of that whole “dashing” risk). Halloween is not a spiritual event for everyone but it is a community event, a valuable event, and an event I wouldn’t want to miss.

Children sitting on a felled cedar log