Let's just start this story at the grossest part, which is to say lice. On Monday of last week I found a single head louse on myself. It was 4:45 in the morning. I had woken up early to work out, and had snuck into the kitchen for some coffee, when I felt a small shivery thing scurrying along the back of my neck. I would have felt so relieved had I pulled a tick from behind me, but no, what I found pinched between my fingers was a single, unmistakable, louse. Before the rest of my family had roused themselves out of bed I had doused my entire head in rubbing alcohol. When Dan came downstairs I had already pulled the covers off the sofas, and the washing machine was running full tilt. Nothing like a good morning, "LET ME LOOK AT YOUR HAIR RIGHT NOW" to get everyone's adrenaline pumping first thing.
I never did find another louse on me or anyone else. But it set my internal tone for the rest of the week. Which was something like CONSTANT VIGILENCE! Or BUGS will EAT you! You think this f-ing place is clean? YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY BE WORKING HARD ENOUGH!
The rest of my week was consumed with packing for a 30-hour retreat. If you don't understand how every hour on an island might require two hours of planning, then you don't have small children. Perhaps you are in the sort of life stage where you can simply throw a change of clothes into a backpack and lightly skip onto a ferry. Tra la! Perhaps you thrive on industrial-style dining (breaded chicken doesn't have gluten, right?) If this is the case, stop reading this blog right now and go have sex on top of your kitchen table. You have no idea, but your DAYS of carefree living are NUMBERED. Tick. Mother f-ing tock.
Meanwhile, I will share with the actual mothers in the crowd that I got so ill from all my food / outerwear / first aid packing stress, that I woke up retreat day with a mild fever. My protein bars might have been better replaced with elderberry syrup, but I am not a walking apothecary, not with the extra pair of rain boots I had to carry for each child on the train. So the outing was dominated by me shivering on the beach with a toddler strapped to my chest because he'd developed a sudden fear of water.
I said to Dan, "When this is all over, I want to take an actual retreat."
"Like going running?"
"Like you watch the kids while I go to Whole Foods."
If I may speak frankly, church-time spirituality isn't great for me these days. When I walk into church Elijah screams for nursing. Or he screams for home. Or he screams because he's tired or because he's bored or because he senses that I don't want him to scream at that moment. As I walk him out towards the parking lot other adults smile and say, "How's it going?" and I want to say, "How does it LOOK like it's going?" but I don't want to kill someone else's buzz if they're in the kind of life stage where they can go to a worship service one day and another day have sex on a kitchen table. They should enjoy their weekend.
No, if I want to be around people who understands my needs at a very deep level, I just go to Whole Foods. The girl in the vitamin aisle knows SO MUCH about oil of oregano. One thousand times stronger than garlic!!! Or I wander the aisle of nuts and dried fruit and imagine the world is a magical place filled with delights specifically designed to amuse me. "Have anything you like!" I say to myself, as if the message comes directly from God himself, as if I believe in a loving creator who cares about my desires and not just about my dedicated perseverance. Or I pace around the hot food bar. Look at all the lovely food that I DIDN'T HAVE TO COOK! Every ingredient clearly listed. It makes me warm inside, not just the proximity to a low-level heat source, but the marriage of OPTIONS and KNOWLEDGE. In Whole Foods anything is possible, even transcendence.
When we drive to church we pass a Whole Foods and sometimes I look out the window longingly.
Okay, so I don't want to be this woman, this mother who can't have any fun. This killjoy shrew who looks down on 20-somethings, whose chief role in retreat is attentive shlepper of bandaids and snacks. When did I become, above all else, a woman who ENJOYS food shopping??? Somewhere my life seems to have taken a wrong turn. I'd like to get back to where it was a bit freer and easier. But the journey seems perhaps long. I can't imagine how I'd pack enough snacks...
We did Halloween on Saturday; I have mixed feelings about it.
There are lots of things I enjoy about the holiday. Carving pumpkins, for example. After the boys' little ones (pictured here) they were out of steam for another big pumpkin effort, so I picked one up myself and carved it just before folks arrived for our party. I did have a little help from the littlest one.
I also love costumes, and the boys had some awesome ones this year. Only we didn't take many pictures, and Leah has all of them. The high point of the evening for me was when Lijah, who had resisted all efforts to get him to dress up earlier in the day, was finally inspired when he saw Mama helping Zion into his Snowy pants. "Tep, tep?" he repeated, miming stepping into a costume himself. Seizing the moment, I dashed upstairs for Zion's old monkey costume and, because it doesn't come with the crucial step-into portion, his king pants too. Lijah was delighted to put them on and cute as a button trick-or-treating.
The big problem with trick-or-treating, of course, is the candy. The boys started sugaring up pretty early in the day, and their behavior suffered accordingly. Between that and the late night they were pretty ruined for Sunday and even some of Monday. And now we're stuck with bags more of the stuff that we hope to keep anyone—myself included—from eating. Couldn't folks find something more wholesome to share with their neighbors?! We did our best: once again our main offering to trick-or-treaters was homemade cookies.
Of course, it was nice to share the experience with friends: we advertized a party and two families joined us for the festivities. After the trick-or-treating was over it seemed like a shame to send everyone home right away, so we started a board game. It ended up going a little long; Leah may forgive me some day for my role in the debacle. And I didn't even win!
On Sunday—despite how tired we all were—we headed out west to an afternoon party at the home of our friends Ashley and Jim. It was a lovely affair, and pretty quiet: by the time we arrived there were just a few other families. The little kids ran around (well, most of them; Zion lay on the couch under a blanket) while the adults ate and ate: Jim is a great cook and likes to work in quantity. There was plenty left at the end of the evening, so he sent us home with a big bag of cornbread and another of ribs. Now that's the kind of trick-or-treating I could get behind!
What delightful jack-o-lanterns are to Halloween night—and really, folks in our neighborhood have some impressive skills and creativity in that regard—smashed left-over pumpkins are to November 5th. Some folks get them into their trash; others just toss em to the side of the road. Either way, I'm appalled at the waste! And I'm not the only one: even real writers now have something to say on the subject.
I wouldn't want to eat a jack-o-lantern pumpkin. Pumpkin cultivation is now so focused on the decorative market that even sugar pumpkins are often disappointing, never mind the big field pumpkins. But when I see one tossed carelessly aside, I wish I could grab it and bring it home to feed to the chickens. And if we had a pig I'd do it! As it is our hens were delighted with the guts of the jack-o-lantern we carved on Saturday, and we'll see how they like the waxy, slightly toasted pumpkin itself in a day or two.
What do you do with your used-up pumpkins? If you want to keep them out of the trash—where, as they decompose, they release gases that contributes to global warming—we know someone with a big compost bin who's always looking for more organic matter to turn into dirt!
A moment from the week.
I had a project to post something every weekday in October, and I did. Then I thought I could take a break in November. We've also been pretty tired out and some of us sick. But that hasn't prevented us from enjoying the November weather.
You'd never guess that iconic-type of fall image was actually taken on the sidewalk of a busy street. All the leaves fell at once this year, so there's pretty much a pile under every tree.
After that moment of fun and a short trip through Wilson Farm (ask Lijah about the llama...) we went down to Arlington to walk around the Reservoir. Around, and in some cases over: it's very shallow this fall. Still enough water for swans.
The next day I took the boys to Concord. We stopped at the Old North Bridge—pictured at the top of this post—and generally got into things. Like trees.
Zion was very excited to find a shiny button.
We thought it might be off a redcoat's jacket. There was one talking to tourists not far away, but when we looked at his uniform we saw it wasn't a match. Disappointing, but at least it meant Zion got to keep it!
As well as the bridge and its surrounds, we also explored the boathouse. I'd never been in before—I didn't know one even could saw that he could open the latch he didn't hesitate to invite the rest of us in. We had fun playing in the semi-darkness.
The dock was fun too.
And at home, we even managed to enjoy—briefly—a fire out in the yard. It was Lijah who encouraged me—commanded me—to start it, and the two of us spent a lovely 15 minutes appreciating the warmth and light.
November at its finest.
One time I was invited to a baby shower with all my old jewish friends, and I totally went there with this big gold cross hanging from my neck. Like some kind of wanabee rapper. But, you know, offensive.
It was the year that I was finally SAVED and I wanted everyone to know. I was a different person now. Not plagued by self-consciousness. Or doubt. Or the oppressive weight of my own jerkiness.
As if someone could express such a thing via necklace. Indeed, my actions probably contradicted my own theology. An instant internal makeover, one in which I became a sane, lovely, considerate person, was a tall order. Even for Jesus.
At the time I was very concerned with IDENTITY. A decade in, I'm more interested in FAITH.
There is some controversy in the news right now, or so I gather from Facebook, about the seasonal color of Starbucks cups. On the one hand, I can see how this irks people. A white and green cup is annoying enough, in the way it communicates, "Look at me! I can afford a five dollar coffee!" But a RED cup? Visible from a block away? It practically screams, "LOOK AT ME!!! I can afford a FIVE DOLLAR COFFEE!" And also, "My christmas is gonna be OFF THE HOOK, you guys! I'm buying my children mother fucking SKIS!!!!!"
So yeah, Starbucks. For the rest of us who take our caffeine at home, this was a little bit of a jerk move.
Some folks, though, seem to take umbrage with the red cups, not for the conspicuous consumption but for reasons of identity.
"My Christmas" means something different from "your Christmas," they say, and it's very very important that you understand that.
Know me. Understand me. This is an argument about identity. And look, I don't want to get down on identity. Identity is important. If you feel like you're one thing and other people say that you're not? That can be downright oppressive. Please please please, if you feel you're not adequately representing your true identity, do whatever it takes, buy whatever you need to buy, until you feel like a real punker / hippy / hipster / Christian. Solve the identity problem so you move onto other things.
Because as much as identity says, "I've got this Christian thing SOLVED!" long term faith stirs the realization, "I have absolutely nothing solved."
Ten years into following Jesus I am still a self-conscious, doubting jerk. I've been confessing my sin for over a decade and I still haven't reached the bottom of the great well of my wrong-headedness. I thought I knew a lot about Jesus when I broadcast my new allegiance through jewelry. The more I follow him, the less I know. Like how can he possibly stay interested in me? Day after day, with all my bad choices? Why did he extend his interest in the first place? When he know what a shitty person I was to begin with?
Know me. Understand me. This is actually the business Jesus is in. Once we can get past the identity thing.
I like Starbucks coffee. I wish I could afford it more. According to some infographic I saw on Facebook, it's very high in caffeine.
But I worry that all the choices Starbucks offers us, even the choice to be mad or bemused at a certain colored cup, these choices stoke the fires of our own personal posturing. How does this coffee fit into my IDENTITY? Am I a tall? A grande? a venti? What does that say about my discipline / income / work ethic? What does this say about my Christianity?
You guys, I invite you this not-yet-holiday season to take a multi-colored view of faith. Where all of us look like posers in one way or another. And that's okay. For some reason Jesus doesn't care.
A moment from the week.
With the warm fall this year the leaves were late to change color, and then they fell all at once. Climate change worries to one side, that was perfect for how we want to experience the fall. A few good hours of trying to catch fallen leaves on breezy days, and an easy ten minutes of raking to create a huge leaf pile.
Last year the highlight of the boys' fall was an attraction at the farmers market fall festival: a plastic kiddie pool filled with leaves, in which was hidden wonderful prizes. The prizes were so wonderful there was apparently a bit of a scuffle after we left—or some other unpleasantness, I didn't get the whole story—so this year the leaves were just for purposeless creative play. That was enough to occupy Zion and Lijah for about an hour, but Harvey wanted more: he wanted prizes! So we recreated the scene at home.
Well, almost. Though Harvey advocated for using our pool, I pointed out that we had about eight times more leaves than would ever fit—or more. So we just hid things in the pile. Besides giving the boys their own private shot at the hunt, we used our leaves for neighborhood outreach: neighbor kids one day, homeschool friends the next. Leah's big bag of plastic animals were plenty exciting as rewards, bulked out with a little extra halloween candy. Though actually, the pure thrill of the hunt may have been all the excitement they needed: witness Zion's reaction to finding an empty egg in the pile.
For our homeschool day Tuesday the activity was even tied to our curriculum: we also took a nature walk to collect leaves, then made rubbings and compared the shape and structure of some different specimens. And this Tuesday I'm going to have the kids spread the leaves from the pile on the garden beds for mulch. A complete fall experience.
What are you doing with your leaves?
I don't know how we missed it the last four years, but it's not since Harvey was one that we made it to the Fall Fair at the Congregational Church. If I'd been paying attention we would've made more of an effort to get there, because we went yesterday and I stand by my 2010 assessment: it's fantastic!
Unlike that last time, we had no advance notice that the fair was happening; I didn't notice the signs for it—on congregants' lawns all over town—until we were biking up to the playground yesterday morning. As suddenly cold as it was, so the playgrounding didn't last long, and after the library we were glad to have somewhere else inside to go. In theory, anyways; in fact the outdoor attractions caught our attention for quite a while. I didn't manage to photograph the petting zoo, but there was plenty of time for pictures at the bouncy house and the bean bag toss.
Inside we perused the white elephant sale, where Lijah charmed the old ladies at the check-out table with his careful examination of the merchandise. We only had two dollars, so it took a good half-hour to decide on our purchases: a little car, a box of dice, a sword, and a silicone pan for baking donut holes. Well worth it.
Elsewhere, there was food—which sadly we couldn't afford—and more free activities for kids. Harvey and Zion were delighted to find a Battleships game: not really life-size, but certainly quite a bit bigger than anything we've seen before. They were still happy about it even after I beat them, and I was happy that, with a board of only 49 squares instead of 81, the game was well quicker than we're used to!
Before we left we had to check out the Christmas wing, four rooms full of lights and beautiful handmade crafts and baked goods. Once again we wished we had more money: for a tiny sleigh, and a loaf of english-muffin bread, and...
Next year's fair is on the calendar, and I've made a note to budget $20 dollars for it. Do you think that'll be enough?
Lijah is keeping us from sleeping much, and from doing much during the day besides entertaining him. I'm telling myself it's a phase; Leah thinks it's just the end of the world. But he is still cute, and his language development offers some small compensations. For example, last night—when he was wide awake well after the big boys were in bed—I was distracting him in conversation while Leah got some precious alone time. He was playing with the doll stroller, and I asked him where his baby was.
He answered, "uhhh..."
Now that I think about it, I shouldn't have started trying to tell this story in a text medium, because those letters can't do justice the adorable maturity and relevance of his utterance, the perfectly-tuned sound of a child who wants to convey the appearance of careful thought—it's his toy we're looking for, after all—while avoiding any effort at all, physical or even mental. He's clearly paying attention to his big brothers' example.
I have no clever wrap-up for this post, except to say that I'm with you, Lijah. "uhhh..."
When I was a kid, it was a thrill to see a chipmunk. We had squirrels, sure, and voles, but a glimpse of any other wild mammal was rare and exciting. Not so much any more—there are mornings when I have to work hard not to run over any of the dozens of chipmunks running back and forth over the bike path.
And it's not just them who have apparently accommodated themselves to suburban existence. My trips along the path over the past couple years provide a representative sample of the animals you never used to see that are now definitely around, if not downright common: lots of deer, turkeys, and hawks; the occasional coyote; once a snapping turtle.
My Sunday morning baking this past weekend was interrupted by a fox in the yard (Rascal was very interested, and once we let him out he saw it off in short order). We apparently have a fisher living just about in our backyard—we haven't seen it, though we've had reports from neighbors (Leah did see one in the woods several years ago). There are lots of bats around, and an owl nearby that's been very vocal many of these late fall evenings. Last year I saw a porcupine.
Now, I don't actually know if all these creatures have always been around, and I just didn't pay attention as a young lad. I was certainly oblivious to lots of other things (girls, for example...). But my hypothesis is that they are, in fact, more common now. And I like it! If we have to live in the suburbs, I'm ever so happy to share them with the wild creatures who were here first. If nothing else they make my commute a lot more interesting.
A moment from the week.
There are good things about public schools. It's great for kids of different backgrounds to be together, curriculum coordinators and adventurous teachers come up with great learning activities, and the Common Core standards have some solid ideas about helping kids really understand math. But beneath all that, there's a problem: at its heart, the whole operation is driven by fear.
The other day I was passing by the Waldorf School in Lexington around mid-morning, and I had to pause on the bike path to let a class of first- or second-graders cross from the conservation land behind the school back onto school grounds. It was a chilly day, but they were all well-bundled up and seemed happy enough to be outside enjoying the November sunshine. As I understand it, all the classes at the school spend time outside every day. That would never fly in the public school.
For one thing, the kids might get cold! Kids being cold or wet is a huge concern of public school educators in the suburbs, and most of them are quite happy to disappoint kids' hopes of playing in puddles—or even going outside at all—in order to save them from the dangers of the elements. And even teachers who think that wet feet are their own reasonable deterrent hesitate, less they incur the wrath of parents. Would most parents be particularly upset to have a kid come home still damp? I expect not; but one might be. And that's enough to shut down any puddle fun across the board, and all spring the cry of "Stay out of the puddles!" echoes across Massachusetts schoolyards.
And then of course there's the concern that, if kids are outside—even to "take regular nature walks and observe the daily and seasonal changes in the natural environment"—they'll be missing vital pedagogical opportunities. We're not going to catch up with Singapore if we're wasting time in nature! As is the case with the fear of weather, it's not clear who first decided that first grade would set the academic tone and decide if a student would be able to gain admission to a prestigious college... but now everyone seems to think that. So there are no more toys in first grade rooms, except those to use during the 20 minutes of indoor recess a day kids get when it's colder than 25 degrees or so.
As it is now, no one seems able to step back and take a deep breath and realize that, provided the right circumstances, kids really like learning.
And I understand how seductive fear can be. I fall prey to it in my own teaching, and when I think about what I'd do if I were in charge of educating a whole town's worth of kids—or even a dozen at a time—I start to have "responsible" fears about how ready the average child is to make their own educational decisions. That's nonsense, just like it's nonsense to think that eight-year-olds can't be trusted to decide whether they're cold or not. As educators, our job should be to accept kids as they are, and do the best we can to make learning appealing: not forcing facts and methods into kids' heads, but creating an environment where they can explore what interests them and make their own educational path.
It's possible that doing that on a large scale would be a disaster, or even that I won't be able to manage it for our tiny farm-school co-op. But maybe it can work... and I'm not afraid to try!
Especially when I get free farm work out of the deal!
I feel a little out of sync with most of the United States this evening. We have a fridge full of Thanksgiving leftovers and spent the morning decorating the church for Advent, so we're about ready to move on to December and turn on the Christmas lights out on the porch—they're already hung and ready! Not, of course, that I mind the prospect of another feast at Leah's parents' house tomorrow evening... but I could be done if I had to be.
Our own Thanksgiving dinner last night was lovely. With three adults and seven kids in attendance we didn't go in for elegance, but everyone was happy with something on the table—turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, rolls, cauliflower gratin, canned corn, steamed carrots; we cater to all tastes. Well, almost all: the visiting one-month-old drank milk at a separate seating. As chaotic as it was, we were so thankful to share our turkey and our home with friends.
And I've complained before about the lateness of US Thanksgiving, but this year it seems about right. I just finished putting down manure and mulch in the garden, so it seems like the perfect time to relax for a weekend and eat lots of food. Then the Christmas preparations can begin.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
A moment from the week.
I gave a talk at church last Sunday titled, "how to live after happily ever after." You can hear the audio recording there from the second service. I didn't get as many laughs the second time around, but I didn't say "poop" either, so I thought that version might be more appropriate for the official website.
But now that you're here on my blog, here's a moment of reality: POOP!
It's funny getting up on stage and talking about how life is poopy, and then everyone says hurray good job and I feel like maybe life isn't so poopy? And then I get back home and I'm like No Just kidding, life is still pretty poopy. While we were out at church Rascal ate turkey out of the trash can and then shit on the play room rug. The first thing I did when I got home was to stain treat the carpet. Which took me down a level from my moment of public speaking.
I have been wondering lately whether I should do something with my thinking brain, something normal people call "work." Part of my thinking perhaps includes an assumption that if my labor was remunerative I wouldn't have to deal with this other shit. At some level of success, perhaps, I might be so valued that I'm no longer touching other people's feces?
But no, poop is omnipresent. And even if I have an important speaking gig, that steaming pile of poop will wait politely on the play room floor until I get home.
I have been thinking that perhaps the work of this life cannot be outsourced. There is not someone else I can hire to nurse my baby at 2 in the morning. Or to wipe my 4 year old's bum. Or to validate my 6 year old's emotions. There is not a streamlined solution to replace the devoted attention of a mother.
Nor is the work of this life scalable. I think perhaps I will get systems in place, I will make all their lunches ahead of time, and then everything will go well, we will all get on the moving assembly line of Happy Day!
But no, there is no amount of prep work possible, no pre arranged bento boxes, that will alleviate the need to stop everything when a child has a breakdown. To put myself in the middle of their problem, to look them in the eye, to love that little screaming banshee, I cannot put that on my checklist. The march of progress much be stopped. lunch be damned.
There is no way to scale up love.
Love is teeny acts of attention again and again and loving little people is that plus cleaning. And no, I can't get out of it, because humans don't come out factory ready. For some stupid reason. Something something God probably knows what he's doing.
I wrote this blog post on my phone while nursing. It didn't get me out of nursing every 30 minutes all bleeping night. There is no app for that.