Tuesday, May 23, 2017

True Old Sayings

When I hear the old saying "Home is Where the Heart is," I gag a little bit. All that comes to mind are rocking chairs piled with faded, musty-smelling pillows with that saying needlepointed on and adorned with two birds holding a heart together in their beaks, circa 1983. Icky. And I have spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of "home" and have even blogged about it before, as over the past three years I have called a lot of different places home. I've loved all the places we've lived. Each one offered something unique and each was a good fit for us in a different way. But at the end of the day, I realized that underneath all the fun of the country life, beyond the animals and the fields and the foraging, I was always a little homesick for my house downtown and the familiarity surrounding it. And tonight while I was thinking about gagalicious old sayings and hanging pictures in the bathroom of my old downtown house (where I had hung different pictures upon moving in twice before,) I thought, "You know... there's some truth to that. Home really IS where the heart is."

Let's recap:

Fall 2013: Moved from downtown to our first homestead in neighboring county south of hometown. Plan to never move again.

Spring 2015: After two brutal winters, move into cabin on the lakes homestead, back near our hometown, with the intention of fixing up the dilapidated farmhouse on the property. Plan to never move again.

Winter 2016: Shortly after the new year realize we can't stay in the cabin anymore for the cold, and that we're out of money and will never be able to fix up the big farmhouse. Make our escape in the middle of a frigid night, stay at my parents' river cottage north of hometown for one month.  No plans. No idea where we'll go.

February 2016: Move back into our downtown house after fixing some broken pipes and the furnace. Hope to return to the cabin property in the spring.

April 2016: Definitely not moving back to cabin property. After initial sadness, settle in for a fantastic summer downtown and feel (mostly) great about living in the old place, yet still hopeful that we can land ourselves back in the country at some point.

November 2016: In an unforeseen turn of events, we are given the opportunity to live at the farm of some friends, north of our hometown. It's the farthest commute to town we've had, but it's where our animals went when we needed to rehome them upon our move to town. Also at this time our friend arrives home from her five month hike on the PCT and moves in with us. We move out and she moves into our house.

Winter 2016-17: Live in an undeniably cozy and idyllically rustic farmhouse taking care of cattle, pigs, sheep, geese, etc. Lots of woods walking, first time experiencing lambing season, most beautiful setting imaginable. Hygge Central! Time of stay is undetermined.

Spring 2017: All cars have broken down. Over the winter the furnace at our downtown house needed servicing three times. Martin works one full time job, one part time job, and is carrying a full course load in grad school. No time to care for animals, no money to service vehicles, and to my surprise, we're growing more and more homesick. Simple country life is seeming less and less simple every day.

Currently: Moved back downtown to the old house we bought ten years ago. Step into it and it feels like I've come home. There is no adjustment. There's no weird feeling of "I wonder when this will feel like home," or "I wonder if we're making the right choice."  We are just exactly where we're meant to be. Plan to never move again.

And it makes me think, was my heart here all along? Did I just kind of scatter pieces of my heart at all those other places? If I went back to live at any of them, would it feel like home? And the answer is, I don't think so. I definitely left bits of my heart at every place, but none of those other houses ever felt as much like home as this one--though our first homestead is a close second. I ask the girls and they say it feels like all these moves have just been a big adventurous vacation. I hope they remember it only positively and not just as being a massively unstable time.

So now what? Now that our bodies are back where our hearts have always been, we're jumping into the "down-home downtown" lifestyle. LOTS of gardening. Beekeeping. Painting walls and refrigerators and playing music again. Farmers Markets, patio dinners at the brewery, impromptu porch gatherings, a pedestrian lifestyle. Sneaking off to the co-working studio across the street to blog while Martin puts the kids to bed. (Heh heh heh.) Not eating drive-thru food ever again, because we can always be home for dinner. Cooking everything from scratch. Walking everywhere. This is a simple, wholesome, good life.

I loved living in the country and the thing I'll miss most is keeping big animals. I will always miss my goats and sheep. I'm working on getting urban chickens legalized here, but so far my efforts have not ended in success... I really doubt urban goats will ever be allowed. But there are things about the city life that are just really, really wonderful. Things you can't get in the country.

I was never good at asking people to come out to our country homes. I felt like it was too far of a drive, it seemed unfair to ask anyone to make a whole big trip just to see me.  As a result, I was alone. A lot. Even though I kind of chose not to have people out, it was an isolated sort of existence. I would go long stretches without seeing people outside of my family--sometimes up to a week without seeing anyone other than my husband and kids. That might be okay for some people, and I might have thought it was okay for me, but it wasn't. All it did was enhance my social anxiety when I would be around people. I believe that humans are social creatures, and even introverts need to have social experiences beyond caring for their family. (because I wasn't EVER actually alone--I was parenting 100% of the time.) Being back downtown, people drop by the house unannounced. I don't need to plan a day around someone visiting--we just sit in the yard for half an hour while the kids play, then go on. It's *perfect.*

Another benefit is the small space. I know, that sounds kind of ridiculous since the whole draw of country life is all the wide open space, but honestly, I find it pretty intimidating. I feel very vulnerable out in the open. Our downtown is in the river valley; we're protected from the wind, and we have so many huge, old trees all around us. It's wonderful to be able to walk outside and find what I need for dinner just steps from my kitchen door. Onions, kale, basil, lettuce.... all right outside on my patio or in the garden boxes alongside the side fence. It's really wonderful.  I don't have time to forget that I've got butter melting on the stove when I don't have far to go! Soon we will have peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, raspberries and peaches, too. All from our tiny, beloved lot.

The most amazing part for me about moving back this time around has been my total embracing of the downtown life. The last time, I still wanted the country life, at least bits of it. (Mostly the beautiful bits.) I had hard times, feeling over the urban-ness of urban life. I would feel pangs of envy when other people would post pictures to social media of their homesteads. But this time, I'm astounded by my lack of jealousy! I remember our time in the country as a really wonderful time and I look at where I am now and I feel perfectly content. It's a really good feeling.

Maybe I'll get the itch down the road. Maybe we will go back to homesteading later in our life. Never say never, as another saying goes! But for now, I think it's safe to say we're not going anywhere for a long while. We're so very happy to be home!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Worst Confirmation Ever

Recently I had the privilege of standing by a young man I've known almost his entire life, as his confirmation sponsor. Confirmation is a big deal in the Catholic church--you don't usually have a choice when you're baptized, but receiving the sacrament of confirmation is really accepting the teachings of the Church as a person capable of making big decisions. Similar to Bat Mitzvahs and Bar Mitzvahs, (not theologically, but in the coming-of-age sense,) Confirmation is kind of when you become a grown up in your religion. Baptismal promises are renewed and you receive, along with grace, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Mass was beautiful and my nephew/godson was also being confirmed, with my dad as his sponsor, which made it even more of a special event.

But what really made it "special" were my two sidekicks for the evening.

My two kicking, screaming, fighting, squirming, gas-passing, lie-down-in-the-aisle-and-refuse-to-move sidekicks named Elka and Ingrid.

I knew it was going to be a rough night. I'd been lucky the night before for being able to leave all four girls with my husband while I attended the rehearsal, but for the night-of, he was going to be at work all through the Mass with no chance of getting away. Now, you might be thinking, "Didn't you say your nephew and dad were there too? Couldn't the girls sit with other family members?" Ha-ha. Yes, that was the plan. But what is that quote from my beloved Robert Burns about the best laid plans, anyway? Oh that's right, it all ends in doom and humiliation. I think that's what he meant.

We drove into town early in order to stop by the Catholic bookstore downtown and pick up a gift for each boy, then I'd planned to swing through a drive-thru for sandwiches or something to make sure that the girls had full bellies in order to get them through the long Mass (I've noticed our bishop talks very slowly) with help from the promise of a party afterward at Aunt Sarah's house. Just as we were getting into the van after purchasing the gifts, I got a text from my bestie saying it was Jimmy John's dollar sub day! That was perfect, because as well as being nervous about the upcoming evening, I was also flat broke and dollar subs sounded like a host of angels coming specially to save my day.

I'm an idiot!

I could see the line from half a block away. Hoards of people in a line that wound clear around the building, the parking lot overflowing with vehicles all the way into half of the neighboring lot (which is huge because the neighboring lot is a Menards hardware store!) I gave the girls the bad news that we didn't have time to wait half our life for dollar subs, but I still had to wiggle my van through the parking lot mess and turn around before I could be on my way to find something else for them to eat. At this point I was already out of time. I had about twenty minutes to get food and then drive across town, battling after-school traffic and coming dangerously close to the 5 o'clock rush hour. There were three places to eat between us and our destination: McDonalds, Arby's, or Starbucks. But, as is the recurring theme of this post, I'm an idiot! And I let the kids decide.

It was a unanimous vote for Starbucks.

"Ok!" I thought, "I had halfway hoped they'd pick Arby's, but I'll make them get something somewhat filling like a big pastry or a muffin." But the problem with that logic is that pastries and muffins aren't filling at all, no matter how much you will them to be.

We got the pastries. We ate them in the car. We actually did make it to the church right exactly on time. Now, I had talked to my family about my situation for the evening, and the plan was for my girls to sit with my mom and sister and nieces. It was a perfect plan. Perfect, except for the fact that we weren't dealing with average children, we were dealing with MY children, who can't do ANYTHING as it's been planned.

Admittedly, I had expected to have Ingrid with me during the Mass. She has been especially clingy lately, not wanting to be away from me for any amount of time, and that's fine, she's only three, she's really pretty good in church, it wouldn't be a big deal. Besides, our church even has a sign out front that declares us to be "A Pro-Life, Pro-Family Parish!" so really, who's going to notice an extra three-year-old in the procession line? She'd blend right in. And I had talked to Elka about the plan. I had told her that she and Anja and Greta would be sitting with Ooma. Over and over while we were waiting, I was explaining, "We are waiting here for Ooma and when she gets here you're going to sit with her." This had been a running theme of the past few days, she was NOT in the dark about this plan.

My mom and sister arrived just a few minutes before the Mass began, and I said I'd go ahead and keep Ingrid with me, no biggie, and I tried to hand Elka off to them and.... she wouldn't budge. She wouldn't let go of my hand. She looked at me with her scrunched up face that says, "I do not feel comfortable right now, and I am not going with these people, I'm staying with you, and if you say otherwise, you'll hear about it loud and clear." This face is the equivalent of Ingrid screaming, "NO! NO! I'M STAYING WITH MAMA!" We tried gently coaxing her, we tried reminding her of the party afterward, we tried luring her with the promise of sitting in the choir loft (a very rare treat!) We tried explaining the importance of the night and my role in the occasion.... we tried it all and only got closer and closer to that brink of a meltdown. At the same moment, we all said, "not worth it!" and I took Elka and Ingrid both up to my designated seat, which was a single seat (because I'm really only one person, I just have two independently functioning appendages) between two other sponsors and wrestled them into the pew where they immediately started fighting over my lap.

I wish I could say that they soon calmed down, that they were mesmerized by the Mass, or at least interested in the trumpet and the really beautiful dresses that some of the young ladies were wearing, but no. I wish I could say that after a few minutes they were able to relax and sit with my mom after all, or at least sit with my dad who was in our same pew, just a few seats down, but no. They didn't change their minds, and they didn't calm down. In fact, things escalated.

In the time between the processional song and the actual sacrament, we had all manner of fights. Screaming, shoving, snatching each other's peg dolls. (I keep four peg dolls in my purse for Mass--they are four different saints and I use them so that people will think I'm holier than I actually am. This effort is negated by the fact that the kids drew the faces on so Mother Theresa's head is just a bunch of blue scribbles, making her largely unrecognizable, and also that I'm frequently saying very unholy things like, "don't chew on St. Francis!" and "St. Faustina doesn't make toot toot noises!") In short, it was a circus. A miserable, humiliating circus. When it was time to walk in a line up to the front for the kids--ahem, the young adults--to be confirmed, it was my job to walk behind the young man I was sponsoring with my right hand on his right shoulder. The instructions were very clear. Right hand on right shoulder. I am a rule follower! I explained to Elka ahead of time, "when we walk up to the front, you will need to hold onto my skirt because I won't be able to hold your hand."


Elka did not feel like playing along that evening.

Elka did not feel like holding onto my skirt. Elka only wanted to hold onto MY RIGHT HAND.

No problem, I have two hands. I'll just shuffle her around to the other side and have her hold my left hand (which is also the arm I'm carrying Ingrid with.)


Elka threw herself down on the floor in the middle of the church as we were processing to the front and screamed.

This is like the stuff of Catholic nightmares.

I pulled her up off the floor, switched Ingrid to my right arm, held Elka's hand with my right hand, WHICH HAD OTHER OBLIGATIONS, and I placed my left hand on the young man's right shoulder, which was not the way it was supposed to be, but I found myself thinking desperately, "Well, I supposed people who only have a left arm would have to use their left arm, and in this case it's kind of like I don't have a right arm, since it is clearly needed elsewhere, so maybe God (and the CCD teacher who will probably never speak to me again... and the bishop, whom I don't know personally, but understand is very strict...) will understand."

That was the worst of it. After the sacrament had been received, I slipped out the back of the church (not before trying once more to dump the kids with my mom, to no avail) for some air. Elka and Ingrid launched immediately into a game that involved a lot of screaming about erupting volcanoes and running up and down the stairs over and over again. They were happy, so I let them play. Eventually we returned to the church, and only for the very end of the Mass, back to our seat, where they were just as horribly behaved as they had been before. But at least then it was over.

I couldn't help but wonder during all this, WHYYYYYYY, GOD!? I came with the best of intentions, I came to do a really good thing despite difficult circumstances. And the whole sacrament is about receiving the Holy Spirit--was the Holy Spirit so preoccupied with the sacrament that no peace could be spared for my little sideshow of wild beasts? WHAT'S WITH THAT, JESUS??? If there's some kind of lesson here, I DON'T GET IT.

Afterward a family friend who has known me my whole life came up to tell me I'm a good mom and that I handled it all really well and that I'm a good lesson for parents like him who are still catching up in the parenting game. His words and kindness were such a comfort to me. Because really, I was totally mortified. It was one of those instances where on the drive home you calculate how much trouble it would be to switch parishes. I certainly didn't look or feel like a good mom and the behavior of my kids suggested they'd never been in a church before in their life, despite the contrary facts. My one sliver of hope is that Anja and Greta are perfectly behaved now, and I am not raising the littler ones any differently, so surely in a few years, they too will know how to behave in solemn situations.

I'm still trying to make out what kind of lesson or benefit could have been hiding in this whole event. Maybe it was just giving a roll-with-it example that some other parent could benefit from seeing, or solidarity with somebody else who has really poorly behaved young church attendees. Maybe witnessing such atrocious behavior from other children encouraged a parent to bring her kids to Mass. Or maybe I was just a really loud reminder for everyone in the church to appreciate their own offspring because "PTL mine aren't THAT bad!" Honestly, I can't really see how anything positive could have come from that fiasco.

But I'm trying to believe that something good came from it because, if nothing else, it does sound kind troublesome to switch parishes.

Monday, April 10, 2017

On Pee and Boogers

I'm finally getting to the point in my parenting journey where I can see that the little things that worried me a lot when my kids were little have all worked themselves out to be not a big deal, and that in some ways my big kids have become normal humans who behave in acceptable ways. This was definitely not always the case with them.

Anja and Greta are ages 9 and 8 years now and, I know, that leaves me plenty of time to mess them up. But, so far, the parenting style of my younger days that made me occasionally stress about how they were going to turn out, has proven to be an adequate style that produced two children who make their bed, say please and thank you, shut the door during AND wash their hands after using the bathroom.

They weren't always like this.

Since toddlerhood, Greta has matured into a marvelously creative individual with delightful manners. She speaks well to grownups (even if she does get a little hyper sometimes,) she is sweet and loving (though she still has a tart side that shows every once in awhile,) and even when her little sisters pull her hair or give her a little punch for no reason, she (usually) reacts by calmly ignoring and waiting for a parent to intervene. She apologizes. She (for the most part) thinks before she speaks. She's a good kid. I no longer think she's a sociopath.

But there was that one time when she was about two, that I fixed her hair and stroked her chubby little  cheeks that are a perfect complexion, and looked into those dark shiny eyes and told her, "Greta, you have the most beautiful skin." And she looked back at me with a death glare and said, "My will eat you."

Hm. That doesn't sound very loving or.... normal.

There was a time when, as toddlers, Anja and Greta would gleefully hop into the bathtub, eager for their first and favorite game of bath time, which was called, "Let's Pee on Each Other." They would stand there and pee, and see who could get the most pee on the other one. It was gross, it was weird, it was slightly concerning. I wondered vaguely, are they going to go to college and think it's okay to pee on their dorm-mates? Are they going to be forever trained to let loose in the tub? I mean, I guess that's kind of a personal decision, but it's still gross, and I don't want to be at all responsible for that kind of training. What about swimming pools? What if MY kids are the the ones who put the "P" in the neighborhood Ool?

The phase didn't last forever. I told them it was gross, they continued to do it anyway (and find it absolutely hysterical,) and then eventually (probably after only a few weeks) they stopped doing it. I don't remember them ENDING the game, I only laugh when I remember that they did it.

Also the big fits, the massive meltdowns, the absolutely colossal tantrums thrown both in public and privately, over things like "I want to touch that pink balloon tied to the car at the dealership we just drove by," or, "You squirted my soap from the dispenser on the left and I wanted soap from the dispenser on the right AND I WANTED TO DO IT MYSELF, YOU MONSTER." Things like this pass. And it's weird, because even though everyone loves balloons, eventually kids become less passionate about balloons and you can look back at how they really would have given their life just to touch that one balloon that in that tiny moment they loved with their whole itty bitty toddler heart, and when you remember that day and see them now as an 8 year old (or older) doing things that normal, average 8 year olds do... there's a little tug. There's just a tiny bit of sadness that she's not two anymore. And even though that whole balloon phase had it's challenges (do you realize how many balloons are floating around the world in locations that make them completely untouchable?!) it was also full of sweetness and innocence... and now it's over.

The reason I bring all this up is that now my big girls are big and my little girls are at that age where they do some concerning things. Ingrid and Elka are now 3 and 4 years old, and they partake in their fair share of concerning antics. Many are the exact same things Anja and Greta did at the same ages. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my parenting hasn't really changed much and I take heart seeing how Anja and Greta have turned out (relatively) normal so far. It only makes sense that these weird little idiosyncrasies of the younger two will work themselves out in time.

This afternoon the two little ones and I were snuggled up on the couch reading storybooks together. Really, it was an image of parenting perfection. They've both had a little bit of a cold this past week and have had some "backup" in the nasal region, so I wasn't really surprised when Ingrid started digging and pulled out a large specimen.

I was surprised, however, at Elka's reaction, which was to lick her lips, say, "I want it!" with a big smile, reach over and pluck it straight off her sister's finger and pop it into her own mouth.


I was even more surprised when, from the neighboring nostril, Ingrid produced a second big find, and said to me, "You want it?" And before I could answer, she had shoved it into my mouth.




So, here I am now, at the end of the day, looking back at their little antics with laughter (and a side of nausea) and I think of how tenderly I remember the weird, wild, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants days of raising the older two and see how similar these days are. I know these days filled with challenges and "interesting" anecdotes won't last forever. It makes me appreciate them so much more. I have to wonder though, will I someday look back on these current days and shed a sentimental tear over the memory of somebody else's booger being placed in my mouth?

And then I worry that I might, and I think my kids really are doomed after all.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What do we DO all day?!

Our homeschool year started out rocky at best this year. Actually, it was awful. We ended last year on a desperate note and I spent the summer dreading the start of our homeschool semester. I glanced at my curriculum a few times, but put off buying books or making plans until the weekend before our start date. And then our first day arrived and I decided, no no, we'll start the next week instead. Shameful! I just could not get moving.

But I did buy some books and we did begin and it was sluggish and involved daily battles over every detail of our day. We were so far from the vision of a happy, organic, homeschooling family that I talked daily about just putting the kids in school. I felt like such a huge failure. (Which is silly--nobody should ever feel like a failure for putting their kids in school. School is great, homeschool is great, both choices have their pros and cons, just like every other decision in the world.) But in the pit of my disastrous homeschooling hell, the idea of throwing them into public school and running away from my problems made me feel like a failure.

We chugged along. We made it to winter break. They'd learned some stuff. (Maybe. I hope.) And I thought to myself, "The next semester will be better. It will be a fresh start. I will finally find my groove. IT HAS TO GO BETTER THIS TIME." One benefit at this point was that we had moved to where we're living now, which is a home that is very conducive to homeschool. The layout of this house is marvelous and there's so much natural light. It is a small house, but the little girls can be nearby, yet playing on their own, because the floor plan is pretty open. It's not like at our downtown house where we mostly did schooling at the kitchen table, and the little ones wanted to be involved but they'd just end up fighting, or falling off their chairs, or eating our experiment supplies, or pooping on school books. (Or on a really stellar day, all of the above.) So starting the second semester was already better than before. AND, we were back in the country with animals about to be born and a great sledding hill, so everyone was getting adequate outside time, which was an immediate improvement upon our days. All of these were benefits, but the real turning point came about rather unexpectedly.

I documented this fairly well on my Instagram account right when it happened, but I used to be a member of a Facebook group organized for the specific curriculum that we follow. It's a Catholic, Charlotte Mason-based curriculum, it's free, it's got great resources, well laid out, and follows a solid Charlotte Mason philosophy. I really do like it. However, I did not realize how passionate these people are about following the rules of the philosophy. I didn't realize how intensely they believe that workbooks are NOT OK. So, posted to the group about something (I don't even remember what it was about, but I was pretty much looking for solidarity and the post itself was very lighthearted) and included an unrelated picture of what I thought was a hilariously filled out page of Greta's workbook, on which she had answered a question with "THIS IS SO BORING." Whooooweee! I got torn apart for posting a workbook--for the very fact that I USE workbooks--and was told that my daughters writing (I think the commenter meant handwriting) was "junk" and that I needed to step away from teaching interrogative, exclamatory and declarative sentences and focus instead on phonics and knowing that sentences begin with a capital letter. The comment was pretty harsh and it made me angry. It made me angry mostly because she felt okay criticizing a seven-year-old, but also because Greta's work was NOT junk. Greta is an excellent writer (better than her older sister, but don't tell Anja I said so) who taught herself to read by reading American Girl books before she had even turned 5. This stranger was tearing apart my methods and my child's work without even knowing who I was, or at what academic level my child was working in.

So, I had myself a little hissy fit. I furiously left that Facebook group, and immediately (because I'm stubborn and childish) ditched my curriculum. For the next week or two, we focused NOT on what was next on our yearly syllabus, but we took our own path and learned bigger things than what was listed in our curriculum for this year. We kept doing our funny workbooks because even if it IS "anti-Charlotte Mason," what do I care? My kids like them. Yes, they get boring. Geezopete, EVERYTHING gets boring. When we get bored, we move on to something else. I've been getting more books, some from the old book list, some not, and of our own accord we started reading Shakespeare and memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution and studying the Bill of Rights in depth. No we've moved on to the presidents. This is stuff I didn't learn in school. We learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and that was it. We did not study the amendments in depth (or if we did, it sure didn't stick) when I was in school. Recently I was looking back over the book list of the old curriculum (which I do still use as a loose guide) before a library run, and I found that Anja has read almost every book on the yearly lists all the way through the next year! A great many of them have been family read aloud so Greta has heard them too. After my confrontation with that group, my eyes were opened to see that we are doing a fine job--BEYOND fine. Without noticing it amid our daily struggles of math problems (because the struggle was usually math,) my kids had moved beyond their grade level in their assigned curriculum, and now I'm feeling super comfortable with my second and third grader, teaching them on our own self-directed path.

So, what do we DO? Well, there are a few things that I've noticed about our days at home. For formal learning we use various books as our base--we have two history books that are very good at giving ideas that we can run with; one is "The American Story," which is stories from American history, a lot of which are about specific important people that we then can research and learn more about on our own. Another is The Biggest Book of History, which is one of those cartoon-style books that moves through time, starting with the dinosaurs and leading through modern times. It's great because it gives little detailed snippets of times and cultures, but it doesn't talk about anything in depth, so we can take those three pages of cartoon snippets and then look in other books for more information. We've finished learning about the Ancient World and now we're in Medieval times. (This is separate from US History, which we also do.) This all goes hand in hand with geography. We use this same open-ended method we use for Literature. We read a poem from one of our poetry books, then we study the author, read other works of the author, etc. Math is drill, spelling, cursive writing, and grammar are done in workbooks. We use the religion book prescribed from our old curriculum, as well as various other books I've collected over the years. Honestly, science is what's really lagging for us this year; last year we had a subscription to the Magic School Bus monthly experiment packets, and that was AWESOME. They learned so much. This year we don't have that, so we just do random science stuff. Not very structured. They're probably not learning anything.

So, that's what we do for more formal work, but the way we travel through our days has a few key elements as well, that I've been more recently paying attention to.

One thing we do is talk all the time. Everything is interactive in our family. If someone is reading a book, we talk about it. If one of us learns something new, we talk about it. (This is parents and children.) We ask each other questions. We aren't afraid to ask what something means, or how something works, or to say, "Why is that so?" or  "I don't remember that," and go over it again. Everything is open to discussion.

We do a lot of art. Painting, drawing, singing, learning about artists, poets, naturalists, writers, etc. We do a lot of music, a lot of art, a lot of writing, a lot of reading. Art can be connected to so many things, it's a great vehicle for learning.

We play. Formal lessons at the table are broken up by sessions of play/free time. Lately the cool thing has been peg dolls, but there's always something they're especially into that takes up those pockets of free time.  This is good for me because it allows me to get my work done, and it's good for them because they have the time to let one lesson soak in (or ooze out...) before moving onto the next. And if they aren't into specific games or play, they use those breaks to create independently. Sew, draw, write a little book.... anything.

We're not afraid to move beyond our grade level. Everything is very fluid. Some days we read stacks of "Angelina Ballerina" books, while on others we read Lewis Carroll. "Age appropriate" is respected, but not dwelt upon.

The last thing is something that took me aaaaallllll this time to actually DO, even though I knew it was necessary and would improve our lives. We have a morning routine. I don't know why it was so difficult for me to embrace this, but setting up a very basic morning routine (not by the clock, just by getting stuff done,) has had such a positive impact on our daily life! We all wake up at different times, but throughout the early morning everyone brushes teeth, gets dressed, makes their bed, has breakfast, and we usually begin our schooling with tea and morning prayer. Routine. I knew it was beneficial, but somehow it took me ages to latch onto the idea that it would improve my entire daily existence.

In a lot of ways, I think my flavor of homeschooling might not work for everyone. It's pretty willy-nilly. I don't call it "unschooling" because it's more formal than that, but it's definitely "loose" homeschooling. I know a lot of people prefer much more structure than this--and some prefer less. The most important thing is that my kids are learning. I SEE them learning and I see them LOVING to learn new things. It doesn't matter if you've got your perfect curriculum all mapped out--if the kids reject it, or if it's making you crazy as the homeschool parent, it's not worth it. It's not going to work. I had this silly idea in my head that using this curriculum as it was written year by year was THE ONLY WAY I could do our schooling. What the heck? Workbooks might be anti-Charlotte Mason, but believing that homeschool can ONLY be done ONE specific way is anti-homeschool! The whole idea with learning at home is based on freedom, independence, and personal pace of students' learning. That's sort of the point.

So that's what we do, in a nutshell. We still struggle with math, but not as much as we used to. (We've started using the Life of Fred series along with drills, which has been really great.) Whatever you are doing as a homeschooler (or as a non-homeschooler,) just try to keep in mind that some days really blow and there's no getting around that. Just type out your troubles on social media and receive that mound of virtual hugs of solidarity, and try again tomorrow. Make sure you're not sticking with something you hate just because other people have told you it's the "best way." (This is just about homeschooling, not about religious beliefs or following the law!!) Dabble! Find what works for you. I'm a terrible homeschooler, you honestly should probably disregard everything I've said in this post. BUT, I've found a way that doesn't make me spend extended time in the shower every morning in an effort to avoid doing school. And that, my friends, is progress.

Monday, January 9, 2017

This Time Last Year

A few nights ago I was looking through my Instagram feed for a specific picture (of Captain Detergent,) but got sidetracked when I came upon the series of pictures from about this time last year when we were having the "adventure" of Not Really Having a Home after having been knocked on our tails by Life.

We had been living in the sweet little lakeside cabin with big plans to fix up the farmhouse on that property and move into it as soon as we could. On this day last year--I'll always remember it because it is the Sunday of our local Nutcracker performance, and the Sunday of Epiphany--we woke up to extremely low temperatures in the cabin. It had been cold in there before but this was unbearable. Somewhere around 45 degrees. Being Sunday, we bundled everybody up and headed out for a day in town; Mass, followed by brunch and going to the afternoon performance of the Nutcracker Ballet. When we returned to the cabin later that afternoon, expecting it to be somewhat warmer, we found it to be even colder. (The cabin was/is very poorly insulated... we had a propane fireplace heater that did well in mild temperatures, and even in cold temperatures was okay, as long as it wasn't windy... but the wind just came right through the walls and no amount of heat sources could warm the place.) We did have the option of our empty downtown house. It was getting to be evening, so we figured we could use sleeping bags and blankets and cuddle up on the floor in there for the night. At least we would be warm, even if we didn't have furniture. Unfortunately, when Martin went to turn on the heat, he found that the utilities had actually been turned on when the place had been closed up for the winter and there was no gas available to the house; we'd have to have a serviceman come turn it back on. Finally, we thought, we could drive up to my parents' river cottage about thirty minutes north of town. It's a sweet place to stay in the winter, fully stocked with food and blankets and even some toys, plus a reliable furnace AND cozy wood stove. With my parents' permission we drove up there, only to discover that the hidden key was frozen into it's lock box.

It was so late when we finally got into the cottage. We were so cold and so tired, but once we got inside, we were warm and cozy and the girls loved that place, so they were all thrilled to be there. Martin and I were beyond grateful to have a place to stay. We settled in for what we thought would be a day or two.

It was not going to be just a day or two. All through the beginning of January everything started breaking--furnaces and propane stoves, well pumps and pipes and appliances... It ended up being three weeks that we were living at my parents' river cottage while we waited for things to be assessed and tried to figure out what the heck we were going to do. I had forgotten how long it had taken just to get the appliances serviced, and about the time spent waiting on repairmen to fix things until I read back on my Instagram posts. We were doing a lot of anxious waiting. A LOT.

At the time, those three weeks and the weeks following our stay at the river cottage were incredibly stressful. It was a long drive to town; Martin was going into work before the sun was up every day and coming home well after dark, so we weren't seeing a whole lot of each other. We didn't have cell reception at the river, so my contact with the outside world was maddeningly limited. Dealing with our housing situation was a nightmare; as soon as we thought something would be fixed allowing us to move back to the cabin, something else would break, or some new issue would surface and we'd be back to wondering how it was all going to pan out. Thankfully, we had our downtown house that we knew we could fall back on, but even then, after the gas service came out and we turned on the utilities we found broken pipes (and the ceiling and floor damage that goes along with broken pipes) and an ill furnace. Everything was going wrong and it was all happening at the same time.

Now that a year has passed since that time, I can look back with cloudy affection for those weeks we stayed at the cottage. For the girls, it was the best place they've ever lived. They loved it there. And I did too, in a way. It was very simple to live with only three outfits each, not very many toys, not many responsibilities... aside from the whole "not knowing where we're going to live" thing, it was a pretty sweet vacation. We even had built-in entertainment because the neighbor was having a seawall built, so there were construction vehicles coming and going the whole time! We played a lot of board games, I got a ton of knitting done, (thank you, stress knitting, for providing me a great sweater!) and even though we were sleeping on the floor in the living room, it was a cozy routine. Every morning we'd put our makeshift bed back in the closet, every night we'd lay it all out again. Ingrid was still napping, and sometimes Elka, so the afternoons were very quiet. Our bathing situation at the cabin had been.... "rustic"... so having a posh bathroom with a shower, tub, and endless supply of hot water was incredible. Baths every day! Twice a day!

I didn't realize how happy the girls were to be living at the river, and I felt such guilt about it. I bought them all pajamas at TJ Maxx. I thought they were so sad to not be at the cabin anymore, when really, they were enjoying every second of not being there and to remember it, they now say that "Ooma's Cottage" was the favorite place they've ever lived. I wish I had realized how much fun they were having at the time, because if I hadn't felt so guilty, I think I would have been able to enjoy it more! When I remember that time now, even though I still remember the facts of being so overwhelmed, my memories of that time are oddly very happy and cozy.

As it turned out, we were able to get our downtown house livable faster than the cabin or the big farmhouse on the cabin property, and we moved into it in February. It's funny to look back on that time, too. I was so sad to not be living in the country anymore, but at the same time, I remember feeling that I'd finally come home. Arranging the kitchen again, and having a fresh start in an old place was a really fun experience. And it was still about two months before we realized we'd never be going back to the cabin, so we took a family trip to IKEA and bought a lot of stuff with plans to put it in the big farmhouse when we moved in there.

*I need to backtrack a bit to explain why we had so little stuff. In the middle of moving from our previous homestead to the cabin property, our previous homestead had been robbed twice, and even though we had been largely moved out, there had been packed boxes of all our kitchen stuff there, which all got stolen. We had outfitted the cabin with necessities, expecting to leave them there so it would be a functioning place after we moved into the farmhouse, but it was a one-room cabin, so as you can imagine, it was not a very extensively outfitted kitchen area. (Really, we had plenty, PLENTY of "stuff," it was largely just the kitchen stuff we had to replace.)*

In the downtown house, along with the mentality of "everything we buy for this place can go to the farmhouse," was the idea of, "any work we do to this house will help it to rent or sell." So we got to work! We ripped up carpet and laid wood floors, painted rooms, fixed things, brought in our washer and dryer. We cleaned it up and settled in. And it was surprisingly nice. I missed our animals, I missed our beautiful lake view and I couldn't wait to get back to it, but there was beauty in the simplicity of life downtown, too. It was still stressful having our animals out there to take care of, and being downtown again was kind of a shock to the system, but when I look back on that time, moving into that place with it's white walls and clean floors and good city tap water, (I have never gotten used to well water...) watching the big girls show the little girls all the fun little details of the house, in my memory that was such a happy time.

Of course, the actual time of deciding we needed to STAY downtown and then rehoming our animals and realizing we likely weren't going to be able to homestead ever again remains a not-so-happy memory. But the first weeks of the situation remain a bright time in my mind. Memory is such a funny thing. Now we are back in the country again, unexpectedly, and knowing that we will eventually leave this place when our time is up and return again to our downtown house is an oddly comforting feeling. It makes me miss that house and it's fresh white floors and the way the early spring light came through the west windows. I don't know what to expect this Spring in this new place--where will the light come in at those nice angles? The familiarity of our old house was such a comfort to us in a time of tumult that I think it's pretty clear now that that house is always going to feel like our real Home.

**Funnily, my parents have held onto that property and are now in the process of renovating the farmhouse, so we will still see lots of the little cabin where we lived!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Today I Didn't Save the World

Parents across the globe will tell you that having children is an incredible experience. Children bring joy and fulfillment that you can't find anywhere else. And it's unique in that you don't know how it is until you actually have children. Parents of all walks will also share that parenthood is so, so hard... but totally worth it.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking about all the things I'm not. Causes I'm NOT helping. Music I'm NOT making. Money I'm NOT bringing in for my family. Social groups I'm NOT a part of.  It's really pretty easy to name plenty of activities I'm currently sitting out as I devote my life to my home and children. And there are many, many days when I go to bed at night asking myself the question, "Self... what DID you do today?" and I can't think of one success in the entire day.

Today I emptied the clothes drier onto my bed. The clothes are still there. Today I washed dishes, but they all became dirty again and are still in the sink. Today I needed to mop, and I did--but only one room. I didn't get to the rest. Today I was supposed to have the girls copy down their 8's in multiplication, but that didn't happen because we had visitors drop by. Today we were meant to go to a restaurant for dinner for a fundraiser for our church, but I couldn't get the kids to put on their sweaters and shoes when I asked. (We did eventually go, but it took some raising of voices.)

My day was full of a lot of little failures. I sorted the dirty laundry, but didn't get my whites load washed--it's still on the bathroom floor. We were supposed to do the second half of our Ancient Rome lesson, but it just never happened. I tried to record a song while all four girls were occupied in a different room, but it didn't turn out before my time was up. I went to change the cat litter and emptied it before I realized we didn't have any refill litter--so I lined the boxes with paper towels and my house smelled like cat pee for the rest of the day. Because we went out to dinner I didn't even cook --and we had leftovers for lunch. And I yelled. I yelled kind of a lot. Nobody seemed to be listening to me. The first time I yelled was when Greta was scaring Elka by doing this thing we call "monstering." She wouldn't stop when I asked her gently the first three times, and even kept on monstering as my voice became more and more firm until finally I yelled, "STOP IT!" and she ran out of the room sobbing. Her not listening was my failure. My yelling was another.

So.... what DID I successfully do today?

I peeled and cut up four apples for my girls and their friends and they snacked happily.

I taught my visiting friend how to knit. (To be fair, she already knew how; I just refreshed her memory.)

I took yesterday's pot of leftover mashed potatoes, onions and green beans, added some chicken broth and ham, and served the kids a pretty yummy soup for lunch. I think that was inventive. That could be considered a success.

I read "There's a Bear on my Chair!" too many times to count, among other story books, to adoring little fans.

I played with Ingrid, making a little setup with two plastic pigs she lovingly named Shady and Sunny. And we laughed and snuggled and it was nice. That was a success.

I did eventually get all four kids dressed and out the door at 5:00 to meet Martin at the fundraiser night at Culver's. It took some big doings, but it happened. Success.

I cultivated creativity through drawing time and free writing with the big girls, and wrote out phrases for Elka to copy and practice her letters. Those don't feel much like successes in the big picture, but they were small successes that can build up over time to make a successful person.

I did wash their dishes and clothes, even if the jobs were never finished.

I said "yes" a lot and in return heard Greta improve in her mandolin playing and Anja build bravery when she went out to the car by herself.

I apologized to Greta for yelling and to everyone for being short tempered about them not putting on their shoes when I'd asked (a bajillion times.) I helped others apologize when feelings or bodies were hurt. And I forgave when I was the recipient of an apology. I fed my growing girls nourishing, healthful foods and indulged them just a little bit with dum-dum rewards.

I gave them a safe, loving home today, one full of music and creativity and plenty to eat and a mama who listens to their super-sized ideas.

From someone looking in at my life, I would probably be labeled a "not very successful person." And it's true that I have many, many failings, both big and small. But how is success measured? Is it measured by what you get done? Is it measured by what you gain for yourself? Is it measured by what you give? At this point in time, my life's success is definitely measured by what I give. And when looking at it that way, I'd consider today and overall win.

I gave them my attention. I gave them answers. I gave them love. I gave them me.

Sunday, November 6, 2016


Surprise! We have recently acquired a roommate!

It's a pretty good setup, really. The roomie happens to be my best friend, who has moved around a lot over the past decade and after quitting her job in New York, has decided to move back here to her hometown and bunk up with us for awhile until she gets herself settled. She's the share-all friend, the kind I don't clean up the house for when she's coming over. She likes my children and my husband, and really is like a family member--she spent last Christmas Eve with us, having a sleepover with our kids and shared in our Christmas Morning. Together we sit up late drinking coffee and watching cat videos and laughing uncontrollably at funny cat-themed internet memes. We scroll our Facebook feeds from opposite ends of the kitchen table saying, "Did you see X got married?!" and "Oh my gosh, are you following this huge argument on X's Facebook feed?!" or, "OH EM GEE YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS CUTE CAT PICTURE!" It's just like being young and free, staying up late, carb bingeing and doing boring things together.

The only problem is, while SHE might still be young and free, I am a tired, haggard, old parent. And nothing has made me realize this more than having a shiny, young roommate.

It specifically has been made clear upon the entrance of the dating scene to our home. Recently she had a "first date," for which I tagged along because it happened to be an acquaintance of mine. I was sort of their ice breaker. It was fun! We had beers and appetizers at a bar at four o'clock on a Sunday! So young and free of me! But then it got to be about 6:00 and I remembered that Martin was home with all the kids and I hadn't left them with any dinner prepared and if I didn't get home and feed them soon, bedtime would be later than ideal and then they'd be tired the next day... and it was a good reason to excuse myself, which had been my plan anyway, so it didn't have any impact on the outing... but it made me think.

It made me think about how very different parenthood is from non-parenthood. Not in a good way or a bad way, just in a different way. Very, very different. And suddenly I'm reminded of all the things I don't do anymore, all the things I haven't really considered doing in ages. Today we walked down Main Street, past a little coffee shop that I've never been to, and I thought, (for the first time, because I walk by this place all the time and never think twice about it!) "Look at all those people, sitting on the patio having coffee on a Sunday night. Wow. That sounds like a really nice time." And then a few steps ahead there was a couple deciding where to eat, and they mentioned the pub across the street, and I thought, "I haven't even taken notice of that pub in months. People eat there! Regularly!" It's really incredible--there's a whole society functioning outside our door that we are simply not a part of. It's crazy! Do you realize that some people go out to eat every night? And do you realize that whether they eat out once a month, once a year or three times a day, they never have to make a call ahead to the establishment to make sure you don't have to be over 21 to enter? !!!! This is ridiculous! These people, these others, are on an entirely different playing field of Life! And I'm not even in their ballpark!

But it's not just outside-- My Roommate's dating escapades, employment, and sleep habits have also enlightened me to my own home life and the very stark differences between Mom Life and Non-Mom Life. We'll start with sleep. And from now on we'll refer to My Roommate as Fifi.

On a typical night, my two youngest daughters go to bed at 7:00. Sometimes it's more like 6:30, sometimes it's more like 7:30, but it's in that general vicinity and if it gets to be 8pm and one of them is awake, that's grumptime. Following their bedtime, I get a good two hours with my older daughters. Usually they read or play quietly for about an hour, then we start bedtime routine which includes bath/shower, together time either drawing or playing a card game, read aloud, then prayers and bed. I am fortunate that bedtime in our house has finally gained "routine" status and goes down relatively smoothly every night. After they are down for the night, it's grownup time in the kitchen! Party! We usually make a pot of coffee, sit around gossiping about people, complain about various past and present employment, and review and compare our Instagram feeds. Wild times. Then we all retire around midnight.

Okay, here's where the differences begin. To my beloved Fifi, nighttime involves getting into bed and falling asleep. Sometimes she has too much coffee and feels anxiety and can't fall asleep right away, or sometimes she struggles with insomnia and I understand and respect that. But generally speaking, her night is: Fall asleep. Sleep all night. Wake up in the morning. That's the way a typical night for Martin is too.

This is my night:
Get into bed. Get out of bed and make sure all the doors are locked. Get into bed. Get out of bed and make sure all kids are in their beds and breathing. Get into bed. Get out of bed to get the cats out of the bedroom before they wake the baby. Get into bed. Fall asleep. Wake up between one and three hours later because Ingrid is crying. Move to her (small) bed and nurse her back to sleep. Fall asleep in her bed. Wake up one to two hours later when Elka comes into my bed. Snuggle Elka in our bed while she talks to me and complains about being hot and finally asks me to move back to her bed with her, and also, can she please have a glass of water? After water and lot of fussing over blankets, go to sleep with Elka in her bed. Approximately one hour later, Martin stumbles in to tell me that Ingrid is awake again. Leave sleeping Elka in her bed, return to Ingrid's bed. Nurse her back to sleep. Some time later, wake up to see Elka is back in our bed again, she is sleeping but the cat is pouncing all over her feet and I can't get the cat off without waking up Ingrid. Find various toys in Ingrid's bed and throw them at Martin's back until he wakes up and I can tell him to get the cat out of the room. Cat gone, everybody is back asleep. At some point around five every morning, I end up in my bed with Ingrid on one side and Elka on the other in a very uncomfortable position. This is basically how I end my night. At 6:30 or 7:00, they both wake up and being done with me, they have Martin get up and fix them breakfast, and I get my one, blessed, solid hour of sleep during which I know I will not be interrupted.

(Last night was even more extreme with Greta, Elka AND Ingrid taking turns being awake for ungodly amounts of time. Our middle-of-the-night happenings last night included two separate sessions of apples and milk, coloring, and doing mazes. And thanks to the time change, I even got an extra hour of being awake with them!)

You can see that my Mom Nighttime is very different from Fifi's Non-Mom Nighttime. It's a lot of taking care of people and tending to needs. Much like the rest of my existence.

So, it's no surprise that another obstacle I've run into in regards to Fifi's dating life is that I'm always meddling. In some ways having a single friend living with us is what I imagine it would be like to have a teenaged daughter. Fifi has been dating--let's call him Mo--only for about a week. She had a spontaneous second date with him on Halloween, where they handed out candy to trick-or-treaters on our porch, while we trick-or-treated in our usual neighborhood where we know lots of people. After some hours of not hearing from her, while we were driving home, I texted her, asking how it was going. She didn't respond. I started to get nervous. I didn't know this guy THAT well, what if he was actually an ax murderer? I texted again: "he didn't murder you, did he?!" Still no response, and suddenly I was mildly freaking out that I was going to arrive home to a scene much more gruesome than had been advertised.

Of course, they were just outside sharing wine and Kit-Kat bars. She hadn't seen my texts, so deeply had they been looking into each other's eyes (JUST KIDDING!) and all was well. But then he came over again on another day, and I was trying to tidy up quickly, making sure he didn't get the impression that my poor roommate is forced to live in squalor (which, let's face it, she kind of is,) and when he arrived, I offered them coffee and water and I occasionally offer dinner, and why do I feel the need to do this? because I AM A HOMEMAKER, DARN IT, THIS IS WHAT I DO. But Fifi is not my teenaged daughter, she's a grownup(and not my daughter at all)! She can offer her own guest a glass of water! I do not need to meddle!

Also, this arrangement has made me more aware of my parenting, or more accurately, of the fact that I'm surrounded by children twenty-four hours a day. Until recently, it wasn't as clear to me that this was the case. I mean, I was aware, obviously, but I wasn't aware to the full extent of reality. Interrupted conversations, scoldings, violent outbursts from certain daughters. The crying--so much crying! And why doesn't anyone ever wear clothes?!? All these things are blindingly clear to me now, whereas before they had just been background noise. (Literally and figuratively, haha.)

I've always been a pro at putting off grocery store trips, but now when Fifi says she needs to go to the store and I say, "me too!" I realize that I'm putting it off because the idea of taking four children to the grocery by myself makes me nauseous, so I wait until times when Martin can go with me, or better yet, without me, on his lunch breaks. Fifi is putting off her grocery shopping for all the reasons I used to. Sometimes I miss those reasons. (And sometimes I don't.)

Generally speaking, it's the whole having a social life that is the most noticeable change in the way I view my world. It's been years since I've noticed the extent to which I have no life outside my children. And it's not that I don't get out, it's just that everything is so painstakingly planned. I have been playing music quite a bit lately, and it's great! But it's a much more involved process nowadays than it was in my beginnings, when I all I had to do was make sure I was paying attention to the time so I wouldn't be late to a gig. Now I need to secure childcare, which sometimes involves Martin taking off work early, which makes me feel guilty about playing out, blah, blah blah... and the whole time I'm gone, I'm hoping that all goes smoothly at home, that nobody gets hurt, nobody is sad, nobody is fighting too much, everybody is eating their dinner. More blah, blah, blah. And after the gig, there is no lingering, there's no going out for drinks, there's no staying for dinner. And it's okay, because I love walking in the door to four little voices saying, "Hi, Mama!" and jumping on me and asking about where I've been and what songs I sang. And it's okay because I enjoy playing music out even more than I used to before children, because it's no longer what I do every single weekend--it's a fun treat!

Still... no matter how completely awesome it is to have my four girls (and it IS completely awesome, super duper completely awesome,) there's a bit of nostalgia that strikes when I notice young people who are clearly not tied down by kids and I realize just how much my life has changed over the past nine years.

But, you know what? There's something all the people of the non-children group of society don't have. And they can't take it from us, either. And I feel it's really telling of how kind of ridiculous our life is at the moment, that Martin brought it up to me tonight, while discussing this blog post, in the form of a question: "You know what they don't have, right?" And we were both able to answer in declarative unison: "Chuck E. Cheese."