A few moments from the past week, a little delayed because of our awesome sleepover last night!
We celebrated Labor Day today by doing some work. School starts here in Bedford tomorrow, and even though that doesn't have to mean anything for us I figure we can kick off our not-school year at the same time. The main reason for that is, with the other kids around all the time over the summer the boys and I don't get any time to do projects together; now that I don't have any competition I want to make the most of my time with them. So today we cleaned up the room that we variously call the playroom or the school room, depending on mood and time of day. It was hard work. Our boys have a life that includes many comforts and even luxuries, but one thing they're missing in our smallish house is a place to store their own stuff. Lots of it ends up on their desks, to the point that none of them—nor me either!—would have been able to find room for even a single piece of paper, should we have wanted to do some work. But not any more! Now all four desk spaces are a clean sweep from end to end. Plus the shelves are organized too!
In the afternoon I went into work to put together the classroom spaces for my Kids Church program. We met over the summer and everything was beautiful, but while we had a couple weeks off the floor and the rugs got cleaned, so everything was entirely disarranged. Before I had a chance to put it right the charter school we share our space with started up for the year, so I wasn't able to get into the classrooms during the week. So I had to labor on Labor Day. Three hours of work brought all kinds of improvement; it's still not totally ready to go, but it's a lot closer! And the boys were with Grandma and Grandpa all afternoon while Leah and I worked, so that was kind of like a holiday anyhow... especially since they also fed us dinner!
I don't know if we'll make it to the bus stop tomorrow morning, but I certainly feel ready for the new school year in all the ways it touches my family. Happy Labor Day!
In early September we're always on the hunt for interesting, school-adjacent outdoor activities—so it's nice to have the pokeweed berries ripening just when we need them. Pokeweed, if you're not familiar with it, is a tremendous perennial weed that can grow to six feet high in one season. It produces clusters of dark purple berries, which apparently are mildly poisonous; no fear that we would ever eat them, because they smell pretty bad. What they are good for is making ink!
We play around with Pokeberry ink every couple years or so; I thought I'd written about it here before but I couldn't find anything. Even though the quill pens didn't really work (if anyone can show us how they're ever supposed to draw up liquid into the quill, I'd most appreciate it!) but there's still something amazing about the beautiful opaque purple ink. This year we just doodled and painted on some paper; good for 45 minutes of engagement. In the past we've dyed fabric, which looked fantastic at first but which then faded to a sort of purplish-brown. The color holds enough, though, that I was sure to keep this an outside project. And it's a good thing that both of the mashers were already wearing purple!
These days I try not to talk about "homeschooling"... more "home learning" or "home education". Because, truth be told, whether from ideology or from lack of organization we don't always do that much schooling around here. Historically our more traditional educational time has been concentrated around the first couple weeks of September, then we lose focus. This year we're laying the groundwork for a little more deliberate practice, while at the same time not trying to come out of the gates too fast. In one area, though, it feels a lot like school here—and that's the noise at the lunch table.
I don't know if you've ever experienced lunch in an elementary school cafeteria, but it's really something. Those kids are loud. And we've got three elementary school kids living in our house right now—for this year only!—so they're doing their best to approximate the environment. And not just at lunchtime either... I get them for three meals a day! Besides the volume I also get to enjoy all the repetition and deliberate stupidity of the best of elementary school humor. So fun!
In their defense, they're also capable of quite sophisticated humor, as well as lots of hard work and generally pleasant company. Except not always at mealtimes.
Leah sings to Zion at bedtime, and lately the songs he asks for aren't your typical lullabies (he also likes to sing along). Last week sometime she somehow got to singing "Superman's Song" by Crash Test Dummies, a band you may remember if you went to high school in the 90s. So then I got to enjoy a couple days of the boys singing it intermittently, which is how long it took me to actually realize what it was. When I finally did realize, yesterday evening after bedtime, I had to look up the chords so I could play it for myself on the guitar. And then of course I had to play it for the boys as soon as they woke up this morning, and then again a couple times throughout the day. The best part is I needed a capo to play it as originally recorded, but I don't have one... but I do have a pencil and a rubber band, which totally did the job. I still think I'll pick up a real capo the next time I go by the music store though.
This evening some friends were over for dinner, so naturally I had to give them a rendition as well. Since most of them are about my age we had ourselves a nice little 90s sing-along with tunes from The Cranberries, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Indigo Girls, and more! Also "These Boots Are Made for Walking", which isn't from the 90s but which is still fun. Note that everyone who answered when I asked about a song they remembered from high school was female.
After they left I had "Linger" stuck in my head for a couple minutes before "Superman's Song" made a comeback. I may be singing it to myself for the next week. Maybe by then I'll know the words!
On Friday we had big plans to go swimming at Walden Pond with lots of friends. Even when the day dawned gray and chilly with rain threatening we weren't deterred. However, we were absolutely deterred when we reached the pond and found it closed. With five kids in the car and another three planning to meet us in a couple minutes, we had to find something else fun to do! Luckily Concord's Hapgood-Wright town forest, featuring Fairyland Pond, was just down the hill. So we went there instead.
Not, actually, to swim. Besides the cold weather and cold water, it was also pretty muddy and weedy. It would have been enough to walk around and explore, but as it happened there was even more fun to be had: the woods was the site of an "Art Ramble" organized by the Concord Umbrella Community Arts Center.
I love art, and I love it even more when it's integrated into the natural environment (like at the wonderful Old Frog Pond Orchard sculpture walk). And when you can play with it! Here are the kids climbing on a giant hand, and obeying my instructions for the picture: "give me the finger!".
We spent the most time at the Clootie Tree, a metal tree-like sculpture where the artist invited people to hang strips of cloth on which they had written their hopes and wishes. It was just about filled up already, though the younger kids found some space to add their own cloths. I enjoyed reading some of the wishes already up there. My least favorite was the guy who wished for a job where he could make "boatloads" of money doing something people would respect him for, and my most favorite was, "I wish I had a different snack." I guess I like realistic wishes. Lijah's was not realistic: he wished that he was the bunny from Sing.
Besides the art, we also did some fun hiking. The woods is small but very hilly, so even though we didn't go far we got to feel like we were climbing mountains. And some of the kids felt like we had gone far enough that we were lost, which is always exciting. Also there was deep mud to play in. And of course, at the end of the walk, the kids who hadn't changed out of their swimsuits after the disappointment of Walden went in the pond. All in all, I think we were quite satisfied with the alternate activity.
Yesterday we biked up to the farmers market in Lexington faster than we ever have before. Zion was pushing hard in the lead the whole way, not letting us pass him and even trying to stay on the wheel of some unrelated adults who went by him. I'm sure Harvey could have gone in front if he wanted too—he has a lighter bike and more gearing—but he was feeling pretty relaxed so he didn't see a need. No, the one who was suffering to stay in the pack was me! These boys keep getting older and stronger, and while I'm certainly getting older the strength is more of an open question.
Of course, if I wanted to I could offer some facts in my own defense. Namely, I'm still carrying Lijah, who is also getting older and stronger and, more to the point, heavier. So maybe I should be proud of myself for keeping up with the youngsters on a 20 lb bike carrying has to be 50 lbs of kid and gear. That sounds reasonable.
Every second Tuesday of the month is Bike to Market day, when everybody who rides gets a two dollar coupon to use anywhere at the market. I gave mine to Lijah, and all three boys topped up the coupon with some of their own money to buy giant sweet pastries. Two of them really deserved that treat!
There's always so much going on in our lives that it's hard to feel like we're living with any kind of schedule. This week it's planning for the church retreat that we're headed out on tomorrow afternoon (preparation needed because I'm running the kids program..). But some school year activities are getting going without needing any help from us, and one of those is our homeschool coop's weekly Park Day. And boy were we excited to get out there today!
Well, maybe it actually needed a little help from us. With rain in the forecast, I made the call that we were going for it regardless of weather. There's a pavilion at the playground; I figured if it was raining we could still meet there and hang out together, and if was absolutely bucketing down we could talk about somewhere else to go. Much easier than figuring out contingencies ahead of time. As it was, it was just drizzling when we got there and even the drizzle quickly trailed off, so the kids were free to have a great time running around together (and also sitting and listening to the adults talk, in the case of the older ones). With a couple new faces it felt like a strong start to our fall semester, and I was glad to get it going. We're looking forward to lots more fun Thursdays this fall!
We had a church retreat this past weekend—well, some people in the church had a retreat. I took care of the elementary kids, which is to say two of my own three children plus about 25 more. Of course, I had lots of help and it was lots of fun, but it was also pretty tiring. On our way home we stopped at my parents' house for dinner with them and my brother. We got home around 8:15. Less than twelve hours later I had to leave to set up for my the regular Sunday kids program, with the added effort of unloading and putting away all the materials I brought out for the kids to use at the hotel. So you can see why I was struggling to find something appropriate to prepare for the potluck lunch I was invited to.
I didn't really think about it until yesterday morning, and then for a while I was about ready to just give up and go in there pleading exhaustion and overwhelmedness. But then all the other people who were going had been at the retreat too, and also I'm actually pretty competitive when it comes to food prep, so bringing nothing felt pretty bad. Then in the shower I had a brainstorm: I was going to have over an hour between the end of Kids Church and the lunch. If I mixed up some cookie dough at home, I could bring it in and stick it in the fridge at church—then I'd be able to wow people with fresh-baked cookies coming out of the oven just in time for dessert. Who would be able to top that?!
As it happened, people appreciated the warm cookies a great deal. But they were just one small part of a wonderful lunch that included salad fresh from someone's garden and rice and beans with peach salsa made from someone else's home-grown peaches—all served on a beautifully set table with name cards and wildflowers and artistically-strewn stones and peach pits (it looked cool, really!). So I couldn't stand out. Never mind, I'm happy just to have done my part!
The best thing about homeschooling is that, by Wednesday, when you're ready for a change of scenery... it's yours to go find!
After just a little bit of work this morning, we headed up towards Gloucester and Rockport for an adventure. I had no firm plans beyond wanting an outing, and knowing we needed a bit more lumber for the new deck we're working on—and there's a Home Depot that direction too, so why not?! It's been a while since we visited the ocean in the northern part of Massachusetts.
There was some temptation to head to the same spot we spent so much time at on that last trip, since our memories of it were so positive. But I thought I'd check out the street parking situation at Good Harbor beach; and when I saw that it had opened up on September 15th we just had to stay. Our first try at exploring the beach was cut short by everyone needing to use the bathroom. On our second attempt we got down to the water, which was warm enough that we all had to go back to the car one more time to change into swimsuits. It was a lot of walking... but totally worth it!
For three of us, at least. Unfortunately, Lijah somehow got a nasty cut on his big toe yesterday, and crossing the bridge for the fifth time he stubbed it and it started bleeding again pretty good. So he wasn't as excited about getting wet. Instead he rested on our giant pile of gear.
While the water was warm—for the ocean in New England—the air most certainly was not. I don't think it got much above 60°F today, and at the shore there was a stiff breeze blowing the whole time. After a little while I headed back to cuddle with Lijah, so I was ready when the bigger boys were finally done in the water and needed some warming and drying (Lijah's towel was for warming purposes only, but he didn't want to be left out!).
We had lunches packed, but we couldn't eat on the beach: besides threatening to blow away all our food and containers, the wind also kept a constant spray of sand in the air to a height of about a foot. So we instead we went into Rockport to explore the rocks opposite the harbor from the breakwater, where we'd never been. It was just as windy there but there was no sand to blow around, and we were able to find a sheltered spot for lunch. Then we climbed all over the rocks and tried to take pictures of the breaking waves, which were quite impressive. Neither Zion or I—the two main photographers—managed anything especially good... but you get the idea.
Then it was time to go home. We were back by 2:30, with plenty of time to do the rest of the day's work and play with friends. Not a bad schedule!
We're working on responsibility here, in all different forms. Like doing the work we're asked to do, and noticing and doing work we're not asked to do. I'm also trying to help the boys take care of their own stuff. Especially as we have more days with scheduled time out of the house, I want to make both the leaving and the time away run as smoothly as possible by having everybody pack their own backpack with all that they might need for the day. Oh, and I'm also trying to give Harvey and Zion, at least, enough money that they can practice making reasonable decisions with it. It's been working fairly well, but for Zion this afternoon it all went wrong.
We went to the park, and he did a great job bringing his bag with his lunch and things. Plus his wallet, which was just yesterday—to keep it from being lost—clipped on to the backpack. But then somehow, when we stopped at Chip In Farm on the way home, the pack was not in the car. Nor was it at the park, when we drove fifteen minutes back that way to look for it. Zion was distraught; I wasn't much better myself. He must have left it at the park, and I can't imagine who would have taken it in the half hour we were gone—but no more can I imagine where else it could be. Sad story. So now Zion needs a new backpack, and some new money, and some more practice with responsibility.
A little while after we got back from Washington I was talking to someone about our visit to the zoo there, and she explained that she's not really a fan of zoos because she's not sure about animals in captivity. I can understand that. But if I were an animal and had to be in one, I think the National Zoo is the place to pick. Even the elephants had plenty of room to roam; given that, we really appreciated that a couple of them chose to hang out right by the fence where we came in.
The landscaping and design of the zoo is wonderful for visitors and animals alike, and I'm so glad we had time to hang out there on the last day of our visit to Washington. We stayed for over three hours, and we could have been even longer. There were the charismatic mega-fauna like elephants and lions:
There were cute little mammals like the fennec fox and... this other thing:
And there were playground and activities for the kids as they walked between the enclosures. One pathway let the kids experience a cheetah's stalking and pursuit of an antelope; here is Zion at the successful conclusion of the hunt:
Of course, not everything was perfect. Like everything else in Washington, it was super hot—too hot for us. There was a great bee-themed playground that we were excited to hang out in—we saved for the end of our visit—but when we finally went to play there the heat coming off the rubber matting was just unbearable. So we sat in the shade instead. And we were sad not to see the pandas, who are kind of a main draw; one of them was working on having a baby and, rare as panda babies are in captivity, could not be disturbed.
But those downsides can't spoil what was overall a great experience. My favorite part was the sea lion exhibit, where I took this picture. Before we went friends who have been to the zoo before told us to bring a bottle, which we could use to attract the sea lions' attention, but we didn't even need it; one in particular seemed to be completely fascinated by his adoring public, and happy to pose for photos. And they had quite an audience!
One final note, if you're considering a visit. The zoo is built on a pretty significant slope (that's part of what makes the landscaping so interesting) and there are parking lots at the top, where the main gate is, and at the bottom. Not knowing what we were doing we parked at the D lot on the bottom, and that was absolutely the right choice, because it meant we walked up to the top of the zoo first and then back down to the car. If we'd done it the other way we actually might not have made it back, and I'd never be able to write these words. As it was we survived, and left the zoo in time to make it home to Bedford by 11:30 at night. What a trip!
One final brief note on last month's trip to Washington. The hardest thing for me there was finding food and water. The sink was bad in the hotel room, and the water fountains in the convention center were warm. We didn't have time to go out for lunch, and by supper time all the restaurants around the hotel were closed. It was pretty stressful. Thank goodness there was a grocery store practically connected to our hotel, but even that could only go so far; we had a fridge the size of a breadbox, and almost no surfaces on which to prepare food (to say nothing of washing up dishes!). In was in these dire straights that Subway came to our rescue.
I'll be the first to admit I've had plenty of bad things to say about Subway in the past. My feeling was that their offerings—especially their bread!—fall far short of what you could expect to find at any middling local sub shop. But we were so hungry that we thought we'd give the one on 7th St NW a try. And that was a good call! As soon as we walked in the three people behind the counter greeted us warmly, and then they waited patiently while we made our slow selection (two of my boys, amazingly, seem not to have ever ordered a sub before). And our turkey subs—one with pickles, one without—were the most delicious food I've ever tasted. Our late-night party on Saturday night, when we ate subs and Giant Food brand chocolate sandwich cookies and watched the Little League World Series, was unironically one of the highlights of the trip. And, AND, we found out later that that same Subway location also has unlimited free cold water on tap. Amazing.
So now my view of Subway has completely changed. Passing that green and yellow sign yesterday in Acton brought not revulsion but a feeling of comfort. Now I'll always have a place in my heart for the chain—and I hope I'll never have to ruin that good feeling by eating there ever again.
Today was the beginning of fall, and more importantly it was my dad's birthday! We celebrated together at my parents' house with a cookout—but we didn't get to eat outside. The weather was perfect, but as soon as we put the first bit of food out it was discovered by wasps. Not a ton of wasps, but enough to make some of us nervous. So we went inside. And now that I think about it, the nervousness might have been a little bit justified, because we've had some intense wasp experiences over the past few weeks!
Most notable was our last outing of summer camp back at the end of August. With a good group of kids we rode to Fawn Lake and set out to walk around it. Less then halfway into the walk the leading kids moved off the main trail to explore a peninsula. I was near the back of the group, and as I neared the spot where the path reached the water I heard Sam say, "I think something is stinging me..." Next came the screams.
Sam had stepped on a wasps nest, and the wasps were streaming out and stinging everyone in sight. So we ran! (actually, the kids didn't run until I yelled at them to). Unfortunately, the peninsula we were on is kind of swampy and the path is vague, so in our hurry to get away we went the wrong way, which I realized when we came to a stream that the littler kids couldn't get over. I picking them up to basically throw them across I dropped my backpack and Zion's shoes. Then we ran some more. After a few hundred yards we stopped to catch our breath, and immediately noticed that the wasps were still with us: a few in the air around us and lots more on—or in a few cases under—our clothes. So we ran some more, with a few breaks to kill the wasps clinging to the kids. Half way around the pond from the nest we finally felt safe to stop.
With all that, we weren't absolutely destroyed. Nathan, who hates bugs the most, got the most stings—maybe six. Nobody else got more than two or three, and a few of us—me included—escaped without a single one. But everyone was a little shaken up. Needless to say, we didn't linger long at the pond; and one of the five-year-olds was heard to announce that he's never going hiking again (don't worry, he already has). To recover we all went out for ice cream.
It seems like there are more wasps around this year than usual. Lots of them are interested in our compost, which means they're also interested in our food when we eat on the back porch. Even with the stings they got at the pond the kids aren't particularly worried about wasps attacking them, but it's still disconcerting to have five or six of them buzzing around your head when you're trying to eat and, often, landing on your food. They might not want to sting us, but I bet they would if we bit one by accident. So we haven't been eating outside as much here, either.
But now that it's fall we'll be free of them soon. I'm ready!
An article in the Bedford Citizen asks if this past Saturday was the best Bedford Day ever. I don't know about that. The St. Paul's Church booth didn't have nearly the bake sale spread we're accustomed to, and the candy throwing at the parade caused just as much chaos as it always does. On the other hand, the weather was beautiful. And there was free cotton candy.
We started the day off with the parade, and we had a big gang together at our traditional viewing spot: four families that planned to be there, and one more who we just happened to meet there. New this year, the town set up some barricades along the street to, I assume, keep the kids from crowding the parade off the road in their desperate scramble for candy. We were happy to see them.
Not that they totally worked... besides the gaps in between them that let anybody with a lack of self-restraint come around in front, most of the people throwing candy from trucks didn't manage to get any of it actually over the barriers. Which felt kind of even more dangerous than not having them there at all? No worries for us, though; we stayed safely behind.
Then it was on to the fair. There was plenty more candy available at various booths, plus fruit at one and toothbrushes at a couple others to balance out the sweets. But we didn't last long; with the summery weather everybody was out there and it was a little overwhelming. Most of us quickly escaped to a shady spot for lunch. And from our shady spot we could watch the karate demos and dance performances—plus keep an eye on kids on the playground—so there didn't seem much reason to move for quite a while.
Eventually we decamped to the library for the book sale, and also because we just like being in the library. Several of our friends had by then left to watch the high school football game—rescheduled from Friday night due to EEE mosquito fears—so when they let me know that the second half was starting and admission was now free I forced the boys away from their bookish reverie for some real American sporting. I don't know how much of the game we actually absorbed over the 20 minutes we managed to stay in the stadium, but we certainly felt like we taking part in some real Bedford life.
Then leaving the stadium we watched some middle school boys rolling down a steep hill in truck tires: at least as thrilling as the football!
It was a fine day. Bedford Day continues to be one of my favorite days.
I've been driving too much lately. It feels bad regardless, and it felt especially bad the last two days when I spent significant portions of my errand sitting in traffic. Both times I was needed to go pick up something for this deck we're building in back of the house, and I left at what seemed to me like a reasonable time to avoid congestion. But yesterday at 3:00 all Bedford was packed with cars, so my short hop to the hardware store took half an hour. Then today at around the same time the highway was completely stopped up due to some police activity just before the exit I needed to get off at to pick up lumber; I was stuck going under 10 MPH for about five miles.
I don't gripe about being stuck in traffic. I'd be the first one to acknowledge that when I get in the car I am traffic, doing my part to make the problem worse. I couldn't have taken my bike to the lumber store, but I could have planned ahead better and ordered lumber for delivery. And I certainly could have ridden to the hardware store in town. I didn't because I was in a hurry, but as it happened cycling would have been quicker—even if I had taken the cargo bike, which I would have to carry the things I wanted to get. Lesson learned? I'm working on it!
Today we kicked off our new homeschool book group, sent Harvey and Mama off to Atlantic City for the weekend, and hosted our weekly community group. We had extra kids for all three meals: two for breakfast, seven for lunch (plus two extra adults) and seven for supper (and seven adults). I barely left our property, but I feel like I had a pretty full day nevertheless!
For the past three years our church has run a retreat at the end of October on Cape Cod. This year we got priced out of the fancy hotel there, and shifted the event to a hotel and conference center in Sturbridge. We also changed the time to mid-September. It's funny: mid-September would be a tremendous time to visit the Cape, unlike the edge of winter when we're usually there. And October is probably pretty nice in Sturbridge. It's always off-peak for us. Never mind, Sturbridge in September was lovely as well!
The hotel certainly suited us a lot better than the previous one. Besides my own kids I also spend most of the time on the retreat in charge of everyone else's elementary schoolers too, so the elegant atmosphere of the Cape Cod Sea Crest was lost on me—more, I was terrified the whole time that the kids would break something. At the Sturdbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center there was no such worry: so many things were already broken! But that doesn't mean it wasn't lovely. The interior decor is impossible to describe; suffice it to say that it combines colonial elements, Wild West detailing, and the indoor-outdoor feeling like you have in a big garden center greenhouse. There are balconies on the inside walls of the courtyard. The pool has an island!
The kids spent most of their free time in the pool. Despite its tropical appearance it was actually pretty cold, so they also took full advantage of the hot tub, despite signs forbidding anyone under 16. The hotel employees were pretty gentle when they kicked them out, all six or seven times they had to. Besides the swimming, they also got to be part of the kids program I ran. On Friday night we watched a movie.
The kids there are about a quarter of the total; we had some other options going on too. There were 28 elementary kids, if I recall correctly. On Saturday I took them to a playground in the morning (some of them almost didn't survive the third-of-a-mile walk there) and in the afternoon we played board games, made paper airplanes and costumes, and had sack races. I think I showed them all a pretty good time! Lijah wasn't with my group; the kindergartners were with the preschoolers, and I was so proud of how uncomplainingly he went off with the rest of them. I think he sometimes enjoys the chance to be one of the biggest kids in a room! Of course, it was even harder work for him than it was for the rest of us, and as soon as he was back in my charge he was done with it all!
As I said in my summing-up last year: it wasn't really a vacation, but it was sure a fun adventure!