review // Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path

I just finished a forest school book that was so nice I’d like to read it twice. Maybe I will. It was one of those wonderful reads where you get to live in someone else’s life and soak up their lessons and foibles, their mistakes and ambitions, all from the sequestered comfort of your home that looks nothing like theirs. Here’s how I came upon the book…

A few years a guy by the name of Ben Hewitt wrote an article for Outside Magazine about unschooling. I read it through a couple times and deemed it a steaming cup of bone broth from the unschooling movement. Here’s just a paragraph or two…

By 6:30, with the first rays of sun burning through the ground-level fog, the boys are outside. At some point in the next hour, a yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road. The bus will be full of children the boys’ age, their foreheads pressed against the glass, gazing at the unfurling landscape, the fields and hills and forests of the small working-class community they call home.

The boys will pay the bus no heed. This could be because they will be seated at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with their parents. Or it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water. Perhaps they won’t notice the bus because they are already immersed in some other project: tillering a longbow of black locust, or starting a fire over which to cook the quartet of brookies they’ve caught. They heat a flat rock at the fire’s edge, and the hot stone turns the fishes’ flesh milky white and flaky.

I immediately googled what else this guy had written, and requested his book Home Grown. It is a quieter read than the article. While the article is edited to entice, and also, yes, to provoke, the book is a thoughtful read on the endearing attempts of unschooling parents to guide and provide for their children, to be patient, to believe in themselves and their child, and their children’s recent habit of skinning skunks in the front yard. It reminded me of Wendell Berry–written in a softly humble tone by a man who is grateful and astonished to find himself supporting his family above the poverty line as a writer and farmer.

Though we may now live surrounded by trees, rest assured my children are not (yet) hunting squirrels with handmade bows or building their own maple sugaring fires. They do not wake at dawn, dress appropriately for the weather and leave the house for hours at a time. And we aren’t unschooling. We are decidedly full of workbooks and curriculum and goals. But in reading something like Home Grown I can learn a lot from his attitude, the reminder to take the extra time to let them learn alongside you, the power of wait-and-see.

It has also been on my mind to seek out a tutor of sorts who could wander the woods with the girls, so I was delighted to find this same idea working well for Ben’s family. There are loads of wonderful camps around us, but I don’t need a week of intense activity framed by long drives and packed lunches. I would love something regular in our backyard with someone who can evolve into a mentor and friend.

What about you? Any good education reads lately?

old love // new love

I’ve got pencils on my mind for Valentines. Pencils are a delightful part of everyday life around here with the girls laboring over their handwriting–sharpening beautifully, the erasers all worn down to courageous stubs (furious erasing takes such courage).

I am the parent-tutor for a class of six seven-year-olds, we’re together each week for three fun and challenging hours. I will give them each a bright red sharpened pencil and a delicate red pen, the nib type that bends if you push too hard but until then, draws the most perfect fine line.

There is just something about red in February.

In the evenings the girls and I have been reading Birchbark House, a fictional story about a historic Native American tribe living on Lake Superior. We have landed in the winter chapters. The seven-year-old heroine Omakayas, her sister, mother, and grandmother spend the winter carefully beading projects like moccasins and purses by the dim firelight.

My equivalent is slowly beading our photos from 2017 and 2018 into a complete book for each year, purging hundreds of photos from my computer as I go. Last year I forgot to do the book for 2017. I think house hunting took over that computer-use space. Ultimately I have a very limited patience span for computer-ing. If I have one project, the time does not expand to accommodate another. It’s either/or.

Since 2013 I’ve used Artifact Uprising for my printed books; lured, I suppose, by their matte printing and rich papers. For years they did not offer an option for any kind of text to accompany the photos, which meant the book actually got done (they offer a text option now, which I will pragmatically ignore).

Their online book-building software is better than ever these days, they’ve fixed almost every quirk I used to quietly complain about. I recommend it. I also recommend batching all of your photos into folders by month and uploading the months as individual galleries. There–you have all of my wisdom gained in the last five years.

Though I was disappointed to find myself two years behind on the photo books, I have loved working through the photos from 2017. It’s completely wonderous how much has changed in that short amount of time. How much we did. How lovely most of it was. As I edit I often remember to murmur to myself–today we’re as young as we’ll ever be.

Bouquet image above from C.W. Pencil Enterprise

Homeschooling, the first round

I’m writing from a sunny window spot looking out on sparkling fields of snow. After the snow fell over the weekend it was blown into pillowy drifts, and like clouds, they look like you could cushion yourself gently upon them for a sunny catnap. But they are composed of such light, dry snow particles that if you were to try, you would fall deep within their frozen burrows. It’s hard to imagine the ground ever emerging from such a generous sugary frosting.

It’s 2 pm, we’ve finished school for the day and I’m feeling content with all the work that was done, and also entirely weary of answering and asking questions. These things come together, in my experience. A memory of saying “And where is Damascus?” while one of the girls removed her nightgown and tied it around her shoulders like a cape, softly repeating my question as she gazed past the map and at the wall comes to mind. I want to be caught in my own mental energy for a while and maybe read the twitter feed of a food critic or possibly a new entry from a very bright and satisfied lifestyle blogger. The girls clearly feel the same way and are playing with marbles. I can hear them asking each other questions like, “Do you want Fuzzy’s name to be Sally?” and “Can we please go play with our dolls now?” Now the older two have agreed to a plan and rushed upstairs, and the youngest can at last chatter to herself with play uninterrupted.

It’s a little funny to answer questions about homeschooling when we’ve only been doing it for a few months. That, combined with our recent lifestyle change–living in a new state and new house–in essence, I’m radioing back trail updates from just a few steps down the path.

Homeschool is a strange adaption in an ever-changing world. It doesn’t make sense in any practical way to educate children separately from their peers. Certainly, it would far easier to have them all grouped together in a classroom watching the same lectern.

At yet there is always something appealing about it. The slow pace. The diversified interests. The magnified attention to the desires of the child’s heart and mind. The way the parent can walk the path alongside their child, instead of waving encouragingly from the sidelines.

It was a treat to read through all the questions I received on Instagram about homeschooling so far. I would like to write a longer post about how our day looks and what I’ve learned, but I thought these questions summed up their own sort of logic and I want to be sure to answer them clearly. It’s important to say I’m not trying to sell you on anything. Your reasons for this sounding like a good or bad idea are entirely up to you, your family, and perhaps most importantly: what your family needs this year.

If questions seemed to be in a similar vein, I grouped them together with a //.

Curious to know your “why.” We’ve homeschooled from the beginning and I love hearing what people’s vision is for homeschooling.

The decision came about at the same time that we were looking at changing our lifestyle–moving into a quieter part of the country and adapting Joe’s daily work to less traditional hours. We had a sudden strange craving for daily chores of a different sort–housekeeping, gardening, land management.

I think our biggest why was to reclaim the time and their childhood. We imagined we could give them hours of boredom and wandering. We hoped to see them comfortable in nature. We wanted them to be able to stay up late reading and sleep in beyond 7 am the next morning. We wanted them to play together for hours with elaborate imaginary games. We wanted them to have no idea that the things they were excited about were unique and different.

As parents, we wanted the luxury of planning long weekends and adventures for all three of the kids, without worrying we were disrupting class schedules or commitments.

I think when we signed up for formal schooling, we thought we could say yes to all of that, plus school, but eight hours is a long time to be away. You get your kid back and they’re worn out and tired. They can barely answer your questions about what they learned. And the year goes by–in a blink!

How has the transition been from public school to homeschooling? Our oldest is in public kindergarten, but homeschooling has been on my heart for some time now.

The transition is likely most disruptive for parents. It feels great not to hassle your kid about turning out the reading light because she doesn’t have to wake up at 6 am. It feels great to have breakfast together and do the dishes and tidy the living room together. It feels amazing to know what topics they are excited about and how to help them learn more about them.

But it can feel odd to not have the whole day regimented. It can feel like you’re not doing “enough” because you haven’t directed every moment of their mental energy. It can feel odd to find them gazing out the window in contemplation. It can feel like a personal attack when they don’t want to sit down and get work done together every single day.

I’d love to know how much time you spend on schoolwork, and what the girls think of it – especially Lux, since she went to a brick and mortar school for a bit.

We spend about three hours on schoolwork a day. There is some reading aloud and tons of (voluntary!) reading alone time in addition to that, but I like to be done with most of the group and individual work by lunchtime, if we begin around nine.

They seem to love it. If they were asking to do something else, we’d likely be doing it!

Lux was originally tempted into homeschool by observing the material her younger sister was learning through Classical Conversations when Lux was going to public school. We noticed she was very engaged in the material and often asked to study with Joan. On the mornings when she would ask to stay home, we would say she was welcome to homeschool next year if that was what she wanted. And she often said, “yes! That’s what I want.”

Lux remembers school very fondly and is nostalgic for aspects of it. Occasionally she will make remarks that reveal how loud and chaotic she found it, how the waiting and lining up was frustrating, how repetitive the reading material was and how that bored her. (These are things she either couldn’t articulate or simply never mentioned at the time.)

The things I remember are how little ownership she felt over any projects completed in class, how she was gone the whole day and couldn’t manage to get along with her sisters when she got home though I could see how badly she wanted to, and the general sense of edge-softening/dulling that seemed to happen to her unique curiosities and spirit.

I’d love to know what you’re using, what your days look like, and how you balance school with the little ones!!

We are using :

-Classical Conversations: “CC” A weekly group meet up with a memorized curriculum in seven subjects, science experiments, and fine art experiences.

-Sonlight Curriculum’s history & literature (about an hour of reading per day lined up for the entire year, 3-4 different books daily). This curriculum has a Christian emphasis but most of the titles are not specifically religious.

Handwriting Without Tears cursive (love the style of these books!)

Explode the Code phonics (Joan adores these)

-Life of Fred math & everyday math engagement with things like postage stamps and road signs

The newly three-year-old would be the first to tell you she does school. In fact at the doctor’s office when they asked her what was one of her favorite things to do, she said “phonics!” 

But really, the morning school hours can be boring for her, and she has to learn to be as least disruptive during this time as she can. It is amazing/delightful to see how much of the material she will engage with. She’ll ask what a word I just read aloud means. She’ll attempt to and sometimes successfully memorize the same material as the girls (a two-year-old singing Latin declensions is unbelievably cute).

She has her own books, crayons, notepad, and letters that come out during this time. None of them catch her attention for long…which is totally normal for that age and I don’t get discouraged by it.

And after each morning session, I gush over how patient she was, and we get a stack of books and read them together, just she and I. Then too her sisters have hours of the day after lunch to play with her and include her in their games—what could be more amazing?

Are you still able to do CC in Vermont and if so how is it going? We started it with my 4 and 6-year-old when we moved to Florida.

Yes! For each house we looked at while house hunting, I used the zip code check to see what CC was in the area, and often reached out to the leader to talk and ask questions about the town and community.

It didn’t determine where we purchased a house, but I would have been surprised/concerned if there hadn’t been a community within 45 minutes.

I know so little about homeschooling, so I’d love to find out how you homeschool three different ages at once. // It interests me so much but I don’t know much about it. Would love the basics including how you handle 3 different ages.

The primary approach with the reading is one-room-schoolhouse style. I read books aloud that the seven-year-old could theoretically read aloud to herself (though she would avoid them because they appear boring) and that the five-year-old may understand most but not all of the material therein. Sonlight Curriculum makes this easy by shipping you a box of books for those ages and laying out the schedule for the year.

But one shouldn’t think they have to pay lots of money to do this kind of thing. There are lots of free programs laid out online and you could compose it with library books and used book purchases in advance. Ambleside Online is a good place to encounter this world.

For CC, the girls memorize the exact same material. The older child is likely grasping the geography of ancient Mesopotamia in a more concrete way than the younger child. And it’s a little easier for her. But they both work at the same thing.

Handwriting, phonics, and math are individualized to their exact level. It takes us about 15-30 minutes with each to do each subject.

Do you have any suggested reading for those who don’t homeschool but would like supplement with the classical model?

You might enjoy purchasing Classical Conversation’s CDs for the car. Begin with the history sentence songs and see what your children think. I guess they would likely eat it up, and ask you to play it again and again. The Story of the World is also a wonderful book & audiobook (there are four volumes) that can enrich any daily life with history.

Another way to experiment with the Classical Conversations material is to download their app for this year’s cycle C1 (I can’t recommend other cycles as I think they have not been updated). My girls love this on their iPads and they casually review, I’m not making this up, 12 weeks of material in one trip to Boston. Excellent ancient world geography graphics here too.

Geography is a big part of classical education, so I have one more app to recommend: National Giraffic. It’s tough but excellent and fun! I think ages six and above for this one.

I’d love to know more about how to pick a curriculum… And yes, also more about balancing homeschool with multiple ages (my kids are 7 and 3).

This is a tough one because it has so much to do with your preference for emphasis and your child’s interests. If you know anyone homeschooling, you can begin to ask around and learn that way. Check what CC group is in your area (see above for the zip code link), email them and ask to visit and observe a meeting for a day—what’s the harm? I had heard of Classical Conversations for at least a year before I checked it out, and I was originally not interested. Then because it was for my four-year-old, and I had little to lose, I decided to just try it. I wish that I had just looked into it earlier, instead of steering around it.

Sonlight Curriculum’s website and the catalog does a great job of reviewing lots of curriculums for math, handwriting, phonics etc. Click around their language arts section and just see what appeals to you. After that google the names, and you’ll likely find homeschool bloggers talking about why they like it.

I got to see Sonlight Curriculum’s reading style growing up because my mom did it with my little brothers, which is why it was familiar and appealed to me.

For me, her approach was more of an unschooling style, plus I couldn’t grasp reading until “late,” around nine-years-old. Once I could read I embarked on my own curriculum of reading everything I could get my hands on, for hours every day.

The vintage book I review here might be an interesting armchair read for you. It goes into how she organically found a curriculum of sorts and how it morphed over the years.

Do you plan on sending them to a traditional school when they’re older?

I think so. I’d be surprised if we were still homeschooling after middle school. Perhaps if an alternative path became tempting to them—like if one of them wanted to go to culinary school, live abroad, become an engineer, and wanted to complete high school on the side.

As a kid I was homeschooled, transitioned to high school, and though I feel like those years had a lot of wasted time sitting in classrooms, I also loved the sports, theater experience, and close friends that came out of that time.

Do you feel pulled in lots of different directions? I feel nutso helping my 11, 9, and 6 year olds with homework after school with the 3 yr old cruising around…in my head I multiply that painful 1.5 hour of the day to equal a day of homeschool 😜 my kids beg to homeschool (their cousins do, and so does our babysitter) but I’m also worried I’d let a lot of things slide under the guise of “relaxed” schooling or “unschooling” or “guided learning.” I guess my question is…how do you be the only adult in charge and stay that way?? 😅

Keep in mind you are dealing with your kids after they’ve already had a totally exhausting day at school. Energy is low. Attention span is even lower. Interest level in the topics…probably all time lowest. Deep in their minds, they are processing all the social interactions and moments they had, whether to bring them up to you, what they meant, wait why did that happen, etc.

I’m reading things aloud that the girls say, “please keep reading!” when I’m done. They are proud of their memorization skills. I get to see them have the “aha!” moment with topics and work through them. Yes, it’s for sure distracting to them when the three-year-old interrupts every seven minutes with a random question.

Your older two would probably have quite a bit of solo work that they would be responsible to complete on their own (and could probably do in 15-20 minutes what would typically take a classroom “hour.”). The Unlikely Homeschool could be a good resource for you here—I’m not as sure about what the great curriculums are for those ages.

And you likely would have things that felt relaxed to you! Because as soon as a kid is interested in something (and they are able to read), they can often take it from there. That would feel easy, but in fact, you’d be watching as they took an interest and turned it into a passion, conquered it, and picked a new one.

Wondering how Lux is feeling about homeschooling after being in public school; and whether any of your daughters are extroverts, and if so, how you meet their need to gab & interact with lots of people all the time. (We’re thinking about homeschooling our kindergartener once the school year is over and these two issues are heavy on my mind!) // Do you feel like your children are getting enough “socialization” at home? Is that ever a worry for you? My husband and I are both introverts and I feel like our daughter is very extroverted, but I also feel like I was extroverted as a child, but a lot of school experiences made me more shy and introverted. I sometimes feel like I’m depriving her of socialization just because we would rather take a walk around the neighborhood as a family or go for a hike than spend the day with other families, even if she does seem perfectly content with these activities.

Yes, the oldest is an extrovert. That aspect of her is something I’m very sensitive to, and as a mom, I go a little out of my way to make sure she gets engagement. Whether it’s paying special attention to her request to take a class, a play date that takes some planning to make happen, potlucks, church Sunday school, willingly signing her up for sleepover camp, and just keeping tabs on how she’s doing.

In general, I don’t believe traditional school offers the unstructured social time extroverted children crave. I also don’t believe children need as much peer socialization as is often implied.

What’s working?! I feel like it changes a lot and sometimes my “philosophy” has to bend a little to make the day go smoothly.

What’s working for me right now is to strive not to take it for granted. Life feels brief, childhood feels even briefer. There are lots of moments that would feel easy to shrug at–giggling at Winnie-the-Pooh’s old fashioned language together, the girls reading to each other on the couch, cheerfully playing each other’s games with absurd rules, widening their eyes with curiosity at a new idea or topic, finding a new favorite aisle of the library to settle in for an hour.

These are in fact moments that are absolutely unique to a very short period of life.

all of the above and how you self care? really looking forward to this post 😘

Once I decided that 3-4 hours was sufficient for what we wanted to accomplish each day, I became pretty clear that my on-call time was done after that. At lunch, I’ll say, “what will you guys do this afternoon?” If I’m reading or writing and they keep (joyfully, no doubt) coming up to me with various remarks, I’ll tell them it’s distracting and I want to be left alone for a while.

If I’m doing any kind of housekeeping, I try to make sure they are aware of what’s going on and are asked to help however they can.

When I first considered homeschooling, I had a secret theory that most moms doing it had a hack that was helping them. A husband with a flexible schedule. A mother-in-law down the street. A house cleaner. A babysitter for a few hours a day prepping dinner and playing card games. (I mention this survival theory in my review of this book.)

And for the most part, I’ve found this theory to be proven true. My hack is that Joe is now working from home. And though he disappears into his office for hours at a time, he is still an adult presence in the vicinity and this goes a long way. He can stop by when I’m prepping dinner and chat for a few minutes. He eats lunch with us and quizzes the girls about their morning. He can stay with a sleeping baby if I run out to do errands with the other two. These little things help a lot.

Admittedly, I’m not getting ninety minutes of silence every day. I’m not even getting sixty minutes of silence. It’s a phases of life thing. Cuddling kids on the couch and read books. Hear their creative story unfold as they quietly talk to their toys. Wake up slowly and make pancakes. Put my feet in front of the fire and say, “wow I did that today.” Feel totally normal sprawled on the library floor playing Candy Land with all the wrong rules. Spend an afternoon worrying over a random fever and questioning a nurse closely over the phone. I get those things.

Like so many aspects of motherhood, the decision to homeschool can immediately become burdened with guilt. It’s all on me and I’m not doing enough crop up frequently. Signing up for too much and feeling like a failure when you can’t pull it off. Giving up as a result. It’s very important to avoid this for one big reason: If you are providing consistency and respecting the level of interest your child is at, it’s very difficult to screw this up. Honestly. The child’s innate curiosity and drive will win out.

Thank you! Lots of love.

Favorites January 2019

Heidi of 101cookbooks does these lists every once in awhile and I love them. Here’s what I’m loving.

This interview with Molly Rosen Guy (Shop Doen). My Dad used to tell his doctor that he just wanted to get well soon so he could go home and read the Chicago Tribune every morning in his favorite chair by the window. 

My friend Erin told me about Kid Gorgeous, the hour long comedy special on Netflix and I’m so glad she did. His robot bit had me laughing hysterically (with headphones, after bedtime, with old halloween candy, as a parent might do). More laughter for January!

I’ve been making this light, tasty chicken stir-fry recipe for ten years and the sauce is still my favorite mix of soy-vinegar-garlic-ginger. If you can get Boston lettuce, the wraps are really fun, but tortillas will do, sour cream adds a lot as well. (Martha Stewart)

This interview with RadioLab producer Latif Nasser“I love Google Alerts. I have dozens of them active at any given time.”

A passion project of Alice of Forest Bound, the Cabin Escapes Directory is so fun to page through, imagine getaways and nab interior decoration ideas.

Light, bendy, and rechargeable, these clip-on reading lights were a total win as Christmas gifts for the girls.

The pinterest account of Willaby, an organic blanket brand from Georgia.

Mortise & Tenon Magazine

Names

This tribute page from Christina Rossetti’s book of children’s poetry Sing-Song (1872) is the sweetest thing. to the baby that suggested them…Doesn’t that idea sum up so much?

Alongside a few serious baby names (which I could never share with you because their cradled eggshell magic would instantly crack) we always keep a running list of whatever names that sound wonderful; just in case they breakthrough into THE revelation.

Some favorites (of that list) so far:

Iris Ines

Iris Olive

Mem Fox

Mies

Annie Jump Cannon

Corbu

Renza

Names are one of those things that turn you to face the beauty of humanity. When attached to a human, every name seems wonderful, no matter how banal or unique. Saying someone else’s name brings such satisfaction. The more you say it, the more you can’t help loving them a little more as a fellow human. In the Bible there are some odd moments in the Old Testament when God says His name is I am, as in I AM has sent you to me, neatly skirting the idea of a name. And one of the ancient Egyptian myths the girls and I read this fall, Isis tricks Ra into revealing his TRUE name, which gives her all sorts of power over him and ultimately is his undoing.

In abstract bantering between expecting parents, on the other hand, names seem good, great, bad, or terrible.

Article of the year

Of all the articles I read this year, I’m still reflecting on one from July written about Gwyneth Paltrow. The writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, was cleverly both infatuated with G.P. and entirely aware of the aura that GP projects and the success that perhaps naturally follows it. There was a slightest touch of snark as she examined the hype of everything goop and the millions in profits involved therein, yet it was sisterly and affectionate and comfortable to read—like a fashion profile.

She wasn’t going to have more kids. That she also knew. Her business, her age, which is 45 — not impossible, but still. She’d wanted a third. She told me that after she asked how many I had, and I told her I had two children as well, and it was wonderful, but I was sad I didn’t have a third.

She told me I should rethink it while I’m still young enough. “All I’m saying is it’s not nothing,” she said. “I really wanted another one.” I nodded solemnly. (Later, I cried.)

I don’t read the goop newsletter, though it is exactly the type of thing I would imagine myself reading because I do like lists and recommendations. But a little over a year ago when goop began marketing vitamin combo packages with names like high school genes and why am I so effing tired? it was hard to look away from the brilliance. As a veteran (and believer!) of many chiropractic and acupuncture offices, I am well aware that statements about, and the manufacturing of, vitamins and minerals are not monitored by the FDA. They can be made, dosed, and recommended on just about any level. The idea of ditching the bland white plastic bottles in the smelly health aisle, sexily repackaging them and associating them with a luminous celebrity is….ridiculously smart. The idea of marketing them to tired moms who are most likely very deficient in something, is also genius.

So she was on my radar but I hadn’t been following the goop wellness summits, and I was honestly stunned to read about how successful they’ve been. I loved the way the writer stepped into the GP culture and joined it, yet couldn’t help some relaying it back to us with bemusement and a goofy dose of skepticism:

There were stories that talked about bee-sting therapy (don’t try it; someone died from it this year) and ashwagandha and adaptogens and autoimmune diseases — an autoimmune disease at every corner, be it thyroid disease, arthritis or celiac disease; trust them, you have one.

But something deeper about American privileged society was unpacked in the article as well: the idea of self-care. Here is Brodesser-Akner summing it up so well; it stayed with me in the months after I read the article:

The minute the phrase “having it all” lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces. It was a way to reorient ourselves — we were not in service to anyone else, and we were worthy subjects of our own care. It wasn’t about achieving; it was about putting ourselves at the top of a list that we hadn’t even previously been on. Wellness was maybe a result of too much having it all, too much pursuit, too many boxes that we’d seen our exhausted mothers fall into bed without checking off. Wellness arrived because it was gravely needed.

Before we knew it, the wellness point of view had invaded everything in our lives: Summer-solstice sales are wellness. Yoga in the park is wellness. Yoga at work is wellness. Yoga in Times Square is peak wellness. When people give you namaste hands and bow as a way of saying thank you. The organic produce section of Whole Foods. Whole Foods. Hemp. Oprah. CBD. “Body work.” Reiki. So is: SoulCycle, açaí, antioxidants, the phrase “mind-body,” meditation, the mindfulness jar my son brought home from school, kombucha, chai, juice bars, oat milk, almond milk, all the milks from substances that can’t technically be milked, clean anything. “Living your best life.” “Living your truth.” Crystals.

I was so struck by this encapsulation of the last twenty years because I’ve never pursued having it all. It didn’t appeal to me, and I felt immune, as woman and mother, to its call. But perhaps I felt immune because I was in fact susceptible to an entirely different call, one that I have actually worried over: was I caring for myself well enough? Should I be doing a better job of caring? Was it ok that I hadn’t been to a gym since the birth of my first child? Was it ok that I only went to a hair salon once a year? Was it ok that I liked coffee shops more than yoga studios? It felt ok, but was it really?

And in that odd way that happens after you’ve named something to yourself, I started noticing all the times people brought up self-care around me. As a recommendation. As a sales pitch. As a reflective summary of their weekend. Something they’d really been meaning to do. A goal for the month. It was constant. And where I’d been nodding along before, smiling in affirmation, now I began freezing the frame in my mind. Spinning it around to look at it. Why? Why were we all supporting each other in this self-spiral? Why were we acting like some sort of happiness was going to come from this—in many ways, just a new way to spend money?

Because we are sad. Because we are lonely. Because we feel unfinished and incomplete.

As a believer in Jesus and the promises of love and acceptance that He brought, it is my belief that the self is not a truth. The self does not contain peace or happiness deep within it, only to be revealed by pink quartz. In fact it contains loathing and despair. It contains deep dissatisfaction and loneliness. The joy and peace comes from outside of us, from the love that Christ offers us, we only need to accept it. As the profile finished, the writer’s jovial tone began to pace with a sadness. She shared her discouragement as a way to belie the exuberance written around GP and the summit. Even as I knew she was using her discouragement as a way to stay relatable to the reader (and the modern, disillusioned, no-truth times), I still wanted to hug her and say to her, to all of us, I guess: there is peace! There is joy! But it’s not in yourself.

Vermont Christmas Tree Farm

 

My holiday armchair mystery novel ended all too soon, a natural consequence of tucking into oatmeal flannel sheets and reading far too late into the night. The days till Christmas still seem long and calm though I have a few more aspirations: homemade marshmallows, sparkling sugared cranberries, salt dough ornaments. This morning the windows were etched over with frozen snowflake glass and after breakfast of toasted english muffins and two fried eggs with melted cheddar (a meal I am totally addicted to and eat every single morning), I bundled all the girls to the three-year-old’s pediatrician appointment. “And do you eat fish or meat?” asked the kind pediatrician. “Dogs eat fish,” Alma cheerfully replied. “Would you like to finish drawing the eyes on this face?” she asked. “You can draw the eyes,” Alma replied.

I love looking at these foggy photos from finding a tree earlier this month. A quiet muddy Christmas Tree farm, an hour before closing on a rainy day. It was so muddy Joe had to hop the girls individually off into their socks before they got back into the car.

Christmas Trees of Vermont Springfield, VT.

Pleased as man with men to dwell

Upon revisiting Boston for three days I was intrigued to find we had already fallen out of city habits–how to hustle, how to be on time, how to evaluate the speed in which a three year old can scooter across town, how to weigh the pros and cons of a quick dinner down the street. The muscle memory of city life had faded.

The initial reason for the trip was to accompany Joe as he had several consecutive days of work and his company’s holiday party which we always like to be at.

I had announced to the girls that all of the expensive glitzy city traditions we’d once maintained were off this year: the Nutcracker tickets, the restaurant-run gingerbread house afternoon, the fancy hotel teas, and city Santas. It was time for new homemade traditions with new Vermont friends! Wasn’t it?

The seven-year-old looked at me like I had pulled the floor out from under her and asked if we could do a few of them “just one more year.” I realized how reasonable that sounded. And I wondered too what I could possibly have been thinking, having carefully woven a rug of traditions for her and set her upon it year after year; then grandly announcing they were all passé as if I were some Oprah magazine cover for January: new year, new YOU.

So the three days slowly filled up with favorite things: riding the trains in all the colors: orange, red, and green, ice skating downtown, holiday movies in the hotel room, dinner with old friends, scootering under the light-wrapped branches of the naked trees down Commonwealth Avenue, sharing a sloppy tiny dark hot chocolate at Burdicks, joyfully singing “Dreidel dreidel dreidel, I made it out of clay…” as a giant Menorah lit in the square outside our windows, and yes, even the overpriced gingerbread house tradition.

In which, incidentally, we had the loveliest time building together and trading candy supplies and I couldn’t believe we were at a stage where I could sit quietly with my three daughters for two hours while they carefully applied bright candies to frosting smears and plied each other with their extras.

And for myself, the treat of those moments of wandering on one’s own–for morning breakfast sandwiches from Flour, a breakfast date with a friend at Juliet, a late evening drink with friends at the Bristol lounge–that feel more accessible when one is just up the street.

(The Nutcracker ballet performance stayed off the list, not because of price as you can often get steeply discounted tickets, but because we’ve gone the last few years and last year I sensed that it had ceased to feel as special as one would imagine a child’s attendance at a ballet performance might feel.)

After we left, I realized there was a second important reason for our visit, besides seeing friends and revisiting a few favorite traditions at a time when the city is at its prettiest. The things we did and the places we stopped still meant something to us. We still have mental maps of where things are and how to get there and we felt vague ownership over our experiences had there. But the longer or more frequently we are away, the more those will fade. One cannot hold two existences in hand at the same time. An adult can believe that they will, but really one is being colored with nostalgia while the new one is formed. And for a child, the old one fades to almost black-and-white levels of the distant past. I caught Alma staring at the passerbys and shop windows like she’d never seen a wide avenue before in her life. Is this how quickly it goes? I wondered.

old movies

I’ve recently challenged myself to reexamine what movies I’ve let slip into regular rotation in our house. I like to think we’re unconventional in our approach–favoring Miyazaki films or old musicals–as well as strict. We don’t watch movies or television in the house on any consistent basis; a month can go by without watching a movie as a family or with the kids by themselves. Though I curate the girls ipads for travel eagerly—I really enjoy the world of education apps—I have also purchased a few Disney movies over time. The way Apple has designed it, the app has always displayed all of these, even the ones I don’t want them to watch anymore and have deleted, like the vintage Looney Tunes that I immediately realized was too violent. (Honestly, friends don’t lead friends to fall off cliffs.) They see these purchases on the app and ask me to be sure they are downloaded for the trip. I say “oh, ok sure…” and it goes from there. Somehow Alma ended up watching Frozen a few times during travel and it bothered me to think about how often she’d heard certain lines repeated and how impactful that could be.

I checked this gem of a book out of the library: Ty Burr, dad of two daughters and the Boston Globe film critic wrote The Best Old Movies for Families: a Guide to Watching TogetherHis tone is really perfect–he loves movies, and he loves sharing them with his daughters and watching them respond. He reviews all sorts of old movies, summarizes the plot, makes the pitch to watch, even tells you which dvd edition to try to get. He’s careful to flag films that you may have forgotten have a few creepy scenes (I did this with the original The Absent Minded Professor, oops).

A beginning list I scribbled for us to check out: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Sherlock Jr (1924), The Music Box (1932), and La Belle et La Bete (Criterion edition from 1998), as well as many old comedies like The Gold Rush and City Lights. The girls recently finished memorizing the ten commandments chapter of Genesis and I’ve got the 1956 version on the list as well.

I’m ready to rehash the few films we do have on hand digitally completely. I think I used the excuse of not wanting to spend more money as a reason to leave it alone. The shrug effect. And it may mean spending a bit to rebuild the digital library and straight up deleting the few that were ill advised to begin with, fun songs or not.

Ty Burr doesn’t recommend the film Gandhi, but we applied the same approach when we recently decided to screen it for the girls. They had memorized a brief history sentence about imperialism and Gandhi, and I was itching for them to have a sense of all that was caught up in those two words. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was it. We spread the viewing over a couple of days, typically 30 minutes after dinner. There was so much to discuss. Joe and I almost choked on our food when one of the girls said, “His words were his weapon.” Though the film has been criticized for portraying Gandhi as saintly, I would argue the moments when that didn’t happen–in particular with his wife–were just as powerful to them. Not to mention the beautiful shots of Indian landscape and cities and music. I’ll have to wait for the remarks that come out in the weeks to come to see if we made a mistake.

Photos from neighborhood early October walks. 

whittling

After scouring the internet for recommendations, I finally ordered the predictably! French model of a whittling knife for the girls. The soft curls drift across our floor every day now. Afterwards there is a small trial in sweeping them up into a pile, they would rather sink gently into the floor crevices or let socked feet sally them into distant corners. But they make like a pile of feathers to start a fire. Lit with a match they burst into hearty hot flame, encouraging even the most dismally-built fire to glow. I can always use help starting a fire myself if Joe happens to be in the city (a phrase I use now) or working in the other room.

So far the only human injured in the whittling hobby has been an adult. The girls seem to mostly make sharp pointy objects, nibs of arrowheads scattered around the living room. I’ve suggested something softer and rounder–like a wooden stone? A gentle bird at rest in the hand? They’ll get there. One evening the two-year-old came up to me with a piece of wood in hand: “Mama, I need a knife. I want to whittle.” Sorry kid. Mama already screwed up one child by blessing her deft precocious hand too early, and scaring her away from mandolines forever. You’ll have to wait till you’re…four?

Speaking of future opportunities, the girls have been busy assigning ages to things that I may have murmured to them at one point: earrings, age 12. Cell phones, age 13. Mothers should never utter age ultimatums out loud. An excellent parenting book would include a chapter of stalling techniques. “I’ll have to check with your grandmother.” “That one might be legislated by the state, we’ll look into it, shall we?”

Last night I was on Ambleside online, browsing again, the intriguing world of Charlotte Mason homeschooling. In the realm of homeschooling curriculums, Charlotte Mason comes across as the mysterious ancient prophet of it—espousing her own unique ideas like narration, nature journaling, dictation, and the power of a few things done perfectly. Like some sort of Gospel epistle writer of erudition there are six volumes of her writing on the topic of homeschooling, rife with words like obedience, perfect execution, fresh air and weak literature.

Wouldn’t mind a Virgil to guide me through it. Meanwhile I’ll pick back up with Consider Thisa book that discusses the melding of classical and Charlotte Mason ideas.

House projects abound. We nearly stumble over them on our walk to the breakfast table, so many things we’d like to do. Here’s a nook in the kitchen that I hoped would be a spot to keep the cook company–lounge before meals, curl up with a book by the light of the baking bread, nursing a baby and a glass of wine, and that’s just what it’s become. The previous owners had a big antique dish cabinet that filled up the space, and it looks like before that it had a wood stove.