descend on our whole horizon

I keep waking up with a feeling of profound anxiety. When I wake the anxiety momentarily balances, like a hat resting on a doll, upon something I am not truly anxious about–the state of the kitchen dishes, a friend I forgot to call back, I never did write that thank you note…then the soapy water of sleep swirls away and the thin drain appears: the pandemic.

In general I am not an anxious person but I do like to forecast forward, and I am pessimistic. I have realistic projections of situations, and because of this I am rarely surprised by things. Though we read the news of the virus, the lockdowns, and the rate of infection in China in January, looking back if feels like we treated it as deeply other, as a nearly fictitious level of science reality. The way in which the pandemic has been handled by American federal authorities has been so outrageously bad that it feels like no projection can get too dark. The lack of oversight of infections and travel, the lack of ventilators for the hospitals, the untruthful  communication and lax restrictions. The time they had, that they wasted. Putting our healthcare professionals on the front lines, as if as innocent sacrificial lambs for the sin of arrogance.

It is an astounding experience to be in.

In April of last year I had an infant, a big messy house, three children at home all day and a thick layer of snow on the ground. One early morning, predawn, I was sitting under the blankets, nursing the baby in the dark, with my layers of socks and frozen windowpanes. A vision appeared: waking up in the morning with the baby, making our coffee, Joe and I sitting on the porch in the sun. Birds singing. Grass growing before our eyes. Though it seemed unbelievable, it was a totally attainable vision. A month or so later, as soon as it warmed up, we woke up earlier, crept downstairs more quietly, made our coffee and sat outside. Every day. For nearly the whole of the summer. And it was glorious.

I often wonder if we would have bothered to get out of bed, or ever discovered the beauty of that thirty minutes, had I not had that vision in the darker spot. It is the case that you can hold both dark and light projections in your hands at the same time.

I am savoring these words of Brian McLaren’s, quoted on the Center for Action and Contemplation’s blog yesterday:

Anxieties can gray the whole sky like cloud cover or descend on our whole horizon like fog. When we rename our anxieties, in a sense we distill them into requests. What covered the whole sky can now be contained in a couple of buckets. So when we’re suffering from anxiety, we can begin by simply holding the word help before God, letting that one word bring focus to the chaos of our racing thoughts. Once we feel that our mind has dropped out of the frantic zone and into a spirit of connection with God, we can let the general word help go and in its place hold more specific words that name what we need, thereby condensing the cloud of vague anxiety into a bucket of substantial request. So we might hold the word guidance before God. Or patience. Or courage. Or resilience. Or boundaries, mercy, compassion, determination, healing, calm, freedom, wisdom, or peace. . . .

From Brian McLaren’s Naked Spirituality. Quoted on CAC.

the garden congress

I’m carefully picking my way through spring tasks like thinking about the garden and typing up the girls’ portfolios for the year of homeschooling to send into Vermont state. The state office that oversees home studiers invites parents to begin submitting portfolios in March. Though most of my friends submit in the summer, last year I submitted ours in March and now I think it’s become a tradition for us. Something about acting like the year is already over helps me see how much we’ve done, and what I’d still like to do. And the change in perspective, the “this is all extra” reframes things as special and fun again.

Raising children has so much repetition, it’s so helpful to find these mirror-flip moments for yourself, catching the light and flinging it back on what you’re doing, in a new way.

Like when the four-year-old asks “to do potions” versus when the eight-year-old tells me she wants to do a science experiment. One sounds delightful and easy, the other sounds intimidating and fraught with possible errors. In reality, they are same experiment, the same work, the same amount of engagement.

Back to that other spring task: thinking about the garden.

I could list all sorts of things we did wrong in last year’s garden. It was neglected, beloved, dehydrated, crowded, and much of it was planted in too much shade. But upon looking through the seed catalog one last time before ordering, I realized I could at least claim to be totally different than the person who went through the seed catalog, for the first time ever, last year. I read for different details, paying more attention to things like days to maturity and transplanting than I did before. So even though I don’t think I’ve learned all that much, I can tell I’ve learned a little bit. And that’s how it goes.

Whenever I talked with the neighbors about the garden, I naturally listed all the things that weren’t going quite right. But then I always added, “I just love it though.”  I noticed that all the time I spent in the garden, I enjoyed. It was a deeply relaxing place for me to putter around. it was a place that was quiet, patient, and tranquil, three attributes to which I constantly aspire.

In our part of Vermont, gardeners wait until the end of May for a last frost. People plan to plant on Memorial Day weekend. So I still have some time to get things going around here. Last year I learned that all of the major seedling sales are in May, so I’ll be prepared this year to buy things that I don’t want to start from seed, like broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and pumpkins. Another thing I learned: those sales happen once, and then they are done! If you see them, it’s very nice to buy a few strawberry seedlings and put them in a container on your porch.

young corn

borage, post bloom

The other day my friend Bridget asked me what I will plant again, so here’s the list of what I’m thinking through. I link to Johnny’s because that’s who we primarily ordered from:

  • Zucchini: I’m linking to the type that we planted, I loved it. It had lovely coloring and the blossoms were gorgeous. Several times I fried the blossoms up (never bothered with stuffing them) as a pre-dinner snack.
  • Basil: I loved having several rows of basil. Such abundance! I could use as much as I wanted, and make as much freezer pesto as I wanted. I pinched off the flowers whenever I saw them beginning to appear and was able to eat off that first planting all summer.
  • Beets: Our beets did not get big enough in time for the season. I cook with beets infrequently, and anyway I do like getting them from the farmer’s market, where they seem to spill over with abundance.
  • Borage: an easy plant that shot right up and was soon covered with dozens of soft purple and blue edible flowers. The bees adored it and the kids did too. We’ll do this again. 
  • Kohlrabi: This is a forgiving cheerful little plant that we like to eat raw. I planted too much of it, and will likely just do a small row of it this year.
  • Beans & peas: These were planted in an area with too much shade. I will try them in a new area this year.
  • Tomatoes: I had terrible luck but I will try again, of course. Likely with the Sungold cherry tomatoes, which are so delicious
  • Carrots: I spent quite a bit of time replanting carrot seeds after rain downpours, so this time I will buy pelleted seeds that (should be) easier to keep track of.
  • Corn: The five stalks of corn that we grew did not provide us with more than a meal or two’s worth of corn, but it was so fun to watch it grow. The plants are fascinating, tall lean Abraham Lincolns standing stately in the garden congress. We’ll try a few more varieties this year, just for fun.
  • Lettuce: I only planted one type and it thrived. I was totally bored of it within a week or two. I’m leaning into greens this year. They are so interesting and relatively easy to grow, mine seemed to do well because they got shade from the afternoon sun.
  • Kale: Same as above, but I never tired of our kale, beginning in July on through September. It was so delicious.
  • Herb bin: all the herbs, besides the basil, were in a container near the kitchen door, which was lovely. I encouraged the girls to eat whatever they wanted from the container. This year I will plant basil and dill in the garden, but keep parsley, oregano, mint, and chives in the handy container.

an August evening.

This is Hard

Such homeschooling! No homeschooler I know would voluntarily sign up for a homeschool devoid of libraries, parks, friend meetups, rousing trips to the coffee shop and long days at the museum.

Not to mention we’re all walking around like pale atlases, trying to hold up under the relentlessly grim news.

This isn’t homeschooling; this is HARD.

Let’s get that straight now, before we spend the next eight weeks doing it.

Now, when we should be bolstering our natural immunities, I’ve been craving sweets. Typically I live and breathe a savory palate—salt, vinegar, fries, oysters, etc. When I crave sweets it’s a sign that I’m feeling denied. Mind controlled. Like the word CANT is stamped on my forehead. Craving sweets told me my psyche was truly battling with all the NOs flooding my inbox. Closed. Done. No idea. Shouldn’t.

(That photo is banana bread which was good, but a tad mushy on day 2.)

As an extrovert at home with our outings cancelled, I immediately began hunting for further intellectual engagement in my daily life.  I can’t believe I didn’t grab more books from the library when I was there three days before they abruptly closed. I had one giant bag of books for the girls—couldn’t I have grabbed a few novels for myself?!

That’s how you become the generation who always carries six books around with them. “What if these were the last books I could check out for weeks?” we’ll tell our grandchild when they ask why granny insisted on carrying the bag to lunch.

But I found some other projects in short order…. I’ve wanted to understand naturally leavened bread for FOREVER. I have the Tartine cookbook. I understand patience, dough, and staying calm when everything is sticking to your fingers. I own flour. The last time I read the cookbook it seemed unintelligible. What was it saying? Why did single step directions seem to take pages to explain?

But this week I took a look at it again. All of a sudden it didn’t seem so hard.

If there’s one thing teaching kids has taught me, it’s that the first draft should be sloppy. Gratuitously sloppy. Pool splash sloppy. Round two might be a little better. Round three—just imagine!

Here’s round two. It was super sloppy. First draft style. On to the next batch! Honestly I’ve never cared less how my bread turns out. I just want something, something else, to mull over for a little while.

In the spirit of adult engagement, here are few more things I’ve been enjoying lately:

These soft spoken interviews with fiction writers. They may make me fall in love with reading fiction again. This fall I read The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, a fiction set around the romance of a zealous Christian and a former Christian, and a circling cult leader. Her interview was superb. Here, on her sense of being since losing her personal faith: “I’ve tried to find more value in ephemeral joy than I did when I believed I would live forever.” The most recent Jenny Offill one is so good.

Signs of Bloom’s anything & everything pinterest board. Such a pretty collection.

Bright orange zinging ice cubes of immunity. You can do whatever you like with them, I like throwing them into green smoothies.

The titles of Lullatone songs. There is one Lullatone song that Esme falls asleep to sometimes when we’re driving–Falling Asleep with a Book On Your Chest–but reading their titles is like a perfume squeak of happiness to your wrist. Going to Buy Some Strawberries. Here Comes Sweater Weather. Adventures Songs for Migrating Birds. Finishing Something You Worked Really Hard On.

Bright orange carrot dressing with ginger and turmeric. Try it on soba noodles, and relish the flavor of anti inflammatorys!

Let me know if you have a favorite mental mulling escape to add to the list!

 

Consider the Bedtime

Because of the crazy times, people are suddenly home with their young children for extended and unexpected periods of time. I’m writing up a few general ideas I’ve learned over the years of being at home with one, two, three, and now four children. 

General idea number three…

Consider the bedtime.

Is it working for you? What is it that your family needs out of bedtime if your schedules have changed? What do your energy levels look like in the evening right now?

When sharing a house all day with children, bedtime is a method to close up the day so that you still have a few hours of thoughtful mental space before you fall asleep.

A bedtime after a day apart and full of activities is one thing. The bedtime after a day together is a garden feature of a different sort. It is a hedge between two yards. On one side of the hedge, adults relax on the couch with books, silence, glasses of wine. On the other side of the hedge, bedside lights are lit, piles of books threaten to fall off the bed, there’s talking, there’s gazing off into space.

Some things to consider:

  • Is bedtime early enough? Not likely–on average American children do not get enough sleep. Nine hours at a minimum for ages six and above. We plan on twelve hours in the bedroom, more on that below.

 

  • Is the process itself beginning early enough? If bedtime has always been your cozy time together to unwind, consider beginning it earlier than usual so that you can take it at a leisurely pace–the teeth brushing, finding the pillow, resetting the blanket. The goal is to have two hours to yourself afterward before you need to sleep.

 

  • Wakeful bedtime allows children to practice time apart. You may be surprised to see how much a child wishes to accomplish when suddenly freed of the mundanity of adult availability.

 

  • If they stay up, let them sleep in. This is one of the greatest perks of not having to get the children out the door by any specific time in the morning! I like to project a 12hr cycle. (Here’s a sleep chart by age by Dr. Sears, though 9 hours does seem like the absolute minimum for a six/seven year old.) If they stay up until 9pm, wake them around 9am. If they stay up until 10pm, it’s up to you, but I like to wake them up at 9am anyway. If they wake up at 8am but you wish they’d slept in, be sure to let them stay up until at least 8pm.

Here’s what we do, having been on a homeschool schedule for over a year. I do not expect it to be guidance for you in any way, this is just what works for us right now. 7pm: Baby in bed. 7:45pm: Begin bedtime for the older three. 8pm: Girls in bed. Parents out of the room. 10pm: Lights out, but nightlights are allowed for those still reading.

In the morning, the baby and I will wake between 7-8am, and have some peace to ourselves. I often write for a twenty minutes or so during this time. The four-year-old will wake around 8:30, and the older two will likely have to be waken at 9am. They would sleep until 10am but that doesn’t make for a great morning cycle for us.

xo

Read Aloud

Because of the crazy times, lots of people are suddenly home with their young children for extended and unexpected periods of time. I’m writing up a few general ideas I’ve learned over the years of being at home with one, two, three, and now four children. 

General idea number two…

Read Aloud. 

You don’t have textbooks, curriculum, flashcards, or workbooks. But you have a something wildly more powerful than any of that. Something that will increase their vocabulary, strengthen their listening comprehension, give you a shared language of characters, and all but guarantee that they will love books as adult. And if they love books, then they love learning, and (dusts hands) that’s the best it can get.

To begin, plan to read aloud for one hour. But aspire to two hours. You will get there sooner than you think. Pick a few books to move between within that hour. Books with long words and dense story lines that one can listen to while sprawled on the floor, staring at the cracks in the ceiling.

Books like Anne of Green Gables, Birchbark House, The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, The Laura Ingalls Series, The Penderwicks, Twenty-One Balloons, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, Dr. Dolittle, and My Father’s Dragon.*

After you read one chapter, ask “Should I read another chapter?” And they will likely surprise both of you by shouting,”Yes!”

But if they say no, move on to the next book and read a chapter of that. If you have a book of poetry, or Winnie-the-Pooh which is basically poetry,` read a few pages of that. If you have something really dense, like actual history like The Story of the World or Our Island Story, read one chapter and don’t expect more.

I like to read in the morning, right after breakfast. Morning energy is often a little wild, creative but not directed quite yet, and very cuddly. For whatever reason, in the morning, it’s easiest for all ages to find a comfortable place to sit and to listen for a few hours. After an hour or two, I get up and say something like, “Ho! I have to start lunch,” and walk off and the rest of the day begins.

If you have a child younger than age four in your group, there are a few things you can do to include them. 1: Read several illustrated books of their choice to begin with. Read to them first. 2: Provide something for them to do nearby while you read aloud, like markers and paper, a puzzle, magnatiles. They’ll do it for a little while and likely wander off. You will have to remind them not to interrupt you. They will forget, of course, but they will begin to get it, over time.

* We’ve read all of the books listed above to children ages five and older, and they loved them. But lighter options that are great for reading aloud (I think of these as afternoon books) include the original Boxcar Children (any book between #1-20) and the older American Girl series books: Samantha, Kirsten, Addy, Molly, Felicity. There are loads of book lists online, this is an educational approach you can really lean into. If you need more ideas, let me know.

You are Not the Entertainment. 

Because of the crazy times, lots of people are suddenly home with their young children for extended and unexpected periods of time. I’m writing up a few general ideas I’ve learned over the years of being at home with one, two, three, and now four children. 

General idea number one…

You are Not the Entertainment. 

You are a provider who sources food, keeps a roof intact, equips a bed, encourages brushing teeth, and coos softly over headaches and stubbed toes. You are not an entertainer.

With the exception of one highly concentrated 45 minutes a day, you are not available to play.*

You are a pond, and your child is a frog. You are lily pads that they like to hop on every once in a while. You do not have good ideas for interesting games. You do not know what might be fun. You have a speckle of imagination, a leftover algae of green krongu imagination, to their utter essence of it. One of your imagination speckles is actually something they told you they were interested in, and you can periodically repeat this back to them.

Your child is returning to you from a scheduled environment where they have been interrupted ceaselessly: just settled on a good game? Playtime is over. lunchtime? Is now over. You were still writing? Stop writing. They adapted to interruptions. Now they will have to adapt to no interruptions. It may take three days. It may take four. They will adapt, I promise.

Don’t think for a moment that you have better ideas of what to play than they do, because you don’t. And if you think you do, you will confuse them and they will believe you, for a little while.

You are boggy and slow moving and they can splash through you and swim around to be reminded of what it feels like to be underwater and slow moving. Not only is this a useful approach to keep in mind, it is absolutely the truth.

*Play whatever you and they want during this 45 minutes and live it up. Tag. Hide and seek in a room that has one piece of furniture. Pillow fight. Card game they adore. Extraordinary slow-moving board game that has no winner.