Transitions When Life is Always the Same

After a particularly dreary winter followed quickly by a stay-at-home order, spring is finally here. Of course, we can’t plant our annuals just yet for fear of another frost, but besides that potential, trees are blooming, windows are wide open for the majority of the day, and the hope of sunshine and an emergence from dormancy are on everyone’s minds.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

The changing weather has made me even more aware of our unchanging days. I’m antsy to hang out with my neighbors without hovering at barely six feet away. I want to run to the store without overthinking whether or not it’s truly an essential trip. I want to host friends for dinner and celebrate birthdays and the end of the school year properly.

Our stay-at-home order has changed to a safer-at-home order which really doesn’t change life at all for our family. But the slightly looser mandate combined with the weather have loosened everyone’s outlook on what safety really means. Folks who were vigilant at the beginning are now choosing social functions over staying home. We all perceive “doing our best” and “safer” differently which, for this rule-follower, is stressful.

One friend recently commented that it feels like the beginning of the end. Frank and I were talking later, and reminded of an article that borrowed Winston Churchill’s quote, we’re really at the end of the beginning. We may have enough hospital beds available in this moment but we are far from implementing longterm best practices to safely reopen in a pre-COVID sense of the word.

In a lot of ways, I’m thankful we can at least say there’s a shift from being totally in an unknown state to one that is seeing some sort of change on the horizon. Any sort of movement feels hopeful. But is it?

Next week is Bea’s last week of school. We’re ending early to give staff time to sort out and clean up from distance learning but it means yet another transition, just as we’re settled into a routine. Summer break feels different, too. We’re not anticipating the same need for rest as in years past. Many of our favorite outings will be closed, at least for a little while longer. We’re not sure if summer camp will still be an option to break up the long weeks.

I’ve been thinking about how we can mark transitions in a time when most of our usual markers have been taken away. How can we shift from learning at home to lounging at home? How will we fill our days anew? I have a feeling this summer will be much more structured than years past. Whereas before I had the loosest of loose routines, now I wonder if we’ll need just a bit more guidance to our days.

Maybe this will be the year for each girl to pick one new thing to learn. Maybe we’ll figure out a family project to do. I’ve never been “that” type of summertime mom but maybe this is the year to not only tap into my homeschooling skills but also my organized summer skills. I want to view this next transition as an opportunity to try something new, even if it’s the only year that makes sense for us to do this.

As I watch our trees sprout leaves and our lilac bushes blossom, I’m not as envious at my own lack of change this year. Maybe I’ll have to be more innovative in the transition but it can still be there, teaching me about myself in ways I hadn’t explored before.

How are you viewing the next transitions, whether seasonally or as your own home starts to open up more? How do you mark your days in new ways?

Living a Still Life

Our COVID-19 disruptions conveniently began with Spring Break. I spent the week before shopping a bit more – buying an extra bottle of olive oil and making sure we had some veggie soup frozen for later but I really didn’t think to systematically go through my cupboards until an emergency was announced and schools closed a day early.

We went to the mountains for a couple days, a trip already planned and one that seemed to align with the instructions to socially distance from our friends and neighbors. We needed those couple days in the sunshine and fresh air, with blue skies for our hikes and incredible views from our windows.

Now we’re back and still technically on break but a new reality is looming. Our governor has already extended the school closures to the end of April and we’re waiting to hear what online learning will entail. There are a lot of unknowns and I’m thankful that this is coming in this season when I’m used to staying home with the girls and crafting new schedules and rhythms for each season.

I’ve been hesitant to make big goals, for myself or the girls, partly because things are changing so rapidly and partly because I don’t want to add stress to an already stressful situation.

Still Life, Pitcher and Fruit Paul Cezanne 1894

I’ve always loved still life paintings and how they give us a glimpse into what was important at a certain moment in time. In the seventeenth century, Dutch painters would create still life scenes to depict wealth and status – each wheel of cheese and vase of flowers told a story about a family. Later, impressionists like Paul Cezanne reimagined still life scenes to show the everyday moments of everyday people. Vincent Van Gogh painted garden flowers and items anyone would find in nearby fields.

Then I read this from The Art of Life by Joan Chittister, in her March reflections around still life paintings:

I, for one, know how easy it is to get caught up in the dramatic and miss the power of the mundane, the wisdom of the daily, the comfort of regularity, the unexciting exciting dimensions of what it means to be really alive. And yet my life cries out for more and more and more of it always.

Joan Chittister, “The Art of Life”

I needed this reminder as we stay close to home and lean into the still life mentality. What is important for our family in this season? We’ll do the schoolwork our district assigns and we’ll have a rhythm to our days because we need that. But I want to teach my girls to look for the still life – for the mundane, for the wisdom of the daily, and for comfort in regularity.

I want them to look back on these months as a time we connected as a family, a time that we learned to argue and forgive in ways we didn’t need to before, a time in which we were together.

I think one of the things we’ll do to start this new reality is create our own still life drawings. I want us to create a tangible reminder that this is a moment to observe, to mark in time, and to share what is most valuable to our family.

Will you join us? I’d love to hear what your still life looks like in this moment.

Keeping Christmas Magical

I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus. Apparently, there was a party and a Santa with whom I wasn’t impressed and so quickly ended that magical relationship. I don’t know that I really missed out on anything. “Santa” gave us a present each year and I still believed in the Christmas spirit.

Now, my girls believe in Santa, though not rabidly. There’s a peripheral acknowledgment that they ask him for gifts but I’m not sure they actually believe. Bea is getting older and I expect it’ll die down sooner than later, which means Elle will follow close behind.

This past weekend, we took the girls to the mountains to ride a Santa Train. We’ve done this a couple times before and it’s a great way to enjoy a Christmas market, ride a train through the snowy mountains, and include Santa in the experience without making a visit with him the main focus. This year, after waiting in line to get on the train, waiting for Santa to make his way to our car, and then waiting for Santa to slowly work his way down the aisle for each family’s photo op, Elle was done. To top it off, Santa had the audacity to give Bea a high-five but gave Elle a tickle instead. She reluctantly told him she wanted a violin and a harmonica and then wanted off the train.

It made me wonder if this is our last Santa train experience. I enjoy our family excursions but also wouldn’t be too sad about moving on. What I do want to keep is the magic of Santa. I’m not sure if I’m ready to replace this piece of cultural mythology solely with the historic Saint Nicholas, though we have already introduced him.

Last week I saw a tweet about how the Little People Nativity set is rooted in white supremacy. It’s true, when I look at ours, Jesus is depicted with blond hair and the only people of color are the wise men, who shouldn’t even be part of the scene. But I’m not quite ready to give up our inaccurate set. The girls love playing with it and I’ve loved watching the story evolve over the years as they hear it told again and again.

One day we’ll trade our set for something to get us through the next developmental stage and will maybe even buy extra figurines to round out the actual cast of characters but for now, I want my girls to interact with this story on a magical, play-based level. I think it’s important to actually play with our nativity set and these plastic figures can’t be mistaken for anything but toys.

Like Santa, I grapple with how to best present the Baby Jesus to my girls. The story is rooted in history and yet there is a lot of storytelling that has evolved and captured our collective cultural imaginations. We’ve imagined the holy family to be quite alone on this journey of new parenthood, in a stable, surrounded by Northern European farm animals. For my young kids, I’m not too worried about this mythology. The point is that a baby was born and this baby grows up to be the Messiah.

One day, I hope my kids read the nativity story critically and through a lens that is different from their own North American culture. I hope they will question the accuracy and I hope that I will be able to give them tools to research and grapple with their own spiritual journey.

For now, I want them to focus on the magic of a baby born in Bethlehem. Maybe some shepherds from a nearby field really did visit. Maybe they were surrounded by women who had given birth before, encouraging and coaching along the way. Maybe they were alone, savoring some quiet moments of becoming a family. None of those details really matters, in the end. It adds to the story and creates a scene we can imagine but I don’t think those details are the point.

As Christmas approaches, I want to remember to balance magic with history, mythology and storytelling with critical thinking. I’ll fill the stockings with chapstick and new pens and chocolates from Santa Claus and we’ll keep imagining the story of Jesus with our plastic Little People figurines. We’ll keep cementing family traditions and add new experiences. And we’ll remember that this story we are living is always a dance between fact and fiction, between proof and story.

Did you believe in Santa growing up? How do you balance the magic of a story with its historical accuracy?

Balancing Environmental Disturbances

The more I learn, the more I unravel. Favorite childhood books are coming under scrutiny and it’s hard to balance nostalgia with a sense of doing better. Last week, I grappled with the idea of Intermediate Disturbance Hypothosis, the idea that too much disturbance is just as harmful as too little diversity. Here’s an excerpt––head over to SheLoves to read the whole essay!

My seven-year-old daughter and I just finished reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took us all summer with stops and starts because of camping trips and visits with family. I was amazed at how engaged Bea was in the story since this was the first “capital L” piece of literature we tried.

About halfway through the story, Bea stopped me and declared, “There are no girls in this story! Why not?!”

I turned to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1937. We talked a bit about the time period in which Tolkien was writing—that fantasy wasn’t a “girl’s audience.” Bea wasn’t convinced.

When we finished the book, I asked her how she liked it. She decided it was good but added, “I’m writing two more versions. One with only girls and one with both boys and girls so that they’re even.”

I was recently talking with a friend about the books we read with our children. Should I get rid of all the Dr. Seuss books in our house because of his racist artwork? What about Ma’s fear of the Osage Nation as they built a cabin on occupied land? Should all our books pass the Bechdel test, requiring two named female characters to have a conversation with each other?

Our answer is no… not yet.

My husband read the entire Little House series with Bea. I’ve read The Hobbit with her. Our bookshelves still have well-loved copies of Hop on Pop and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Our answer, as with most of our parenting choices, is really, let’s talk about it. Let’s think critically about our choices. But let’s not ban anything just yet.

As someone who values history and context, I want to raise my girls with a sense of place in time. We are not making decisions in a vacuum—the stories we hear, the politics we support, the ways we think about God are all products of hundreds of years of stories, literature, and collective behaviors. Some of these behaviors are unhealthy, both to us individually and to society as a whole. Most of our western nations have been built on the foundation of colonialism and slavery of some sort. We can’t escape it.

So how do we raise kids who are aware and knowledgeable? How do we start to repair the sins of the past? Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the conversation!

What foundational book do you find yourself questioning today? How do you hold the tension between growth and appreciation for the journey?

Loving My Neighbor Through School Choice

Over the summer we were at a family gathering halfway across the country. It was a lot of catching up and conversation about education came up. A cousin asked if ours was a good school and I hesitated. Yes, our school is an incredible school! We love it and our teachers. My daughter is thriving and her curiosity is encouraged. But it’s also a school that recently went on academic probation. Our test scores are low, mostly due to the fact that we have a large immigrant and refugee population – one of the things that drew us to our neighborhood. I laughed and said, “Good is such a relative marker.”

We went on to talk about the point of education. Is it to ensure our first graders are constantly challenged or is it to build empathy? Is it to check off a list of skills our kids need to know or is it to learn to be in community, to love our neighbors? For our family, we knew we could fill in any academic gaps that may arise on our own. But it would be much harder to expose our kids to families whose values, economic capabilities, and cultural backgrounds are different from our own.

When we moved to our neighborhood, our oldest was two years old – not even in preschool yet. We knew we were moving into one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our state and also into a highly respected school district. When we walked to our neighborhood school, just a block away, on the weekends to play, we were greeted with an enormous sign, announcing its status as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

Before having kids, I earned a master’s degree in urban education and taught for seven years at a charter school. I had studied the positive impacts of investing in neighborhood education while also working with families who had decided to choice into a different school. I enjoyed my time at a charter school, mostly because my grade level teammate was an incredible teacher. I knew the gift of working with her wouldn’t come often. Our school was a good fit for a lot of families but teaching at a charter was a reminder that there were excellent teachers there and there were people who would probably thrive in a different profession. The curriculum was good but not great. There were highly involved families and families who outsourced a lot of responsibility to the school. What I’m saying is, charter schools are not a magic cure. They have pros and cons, just like public schools.

As attendance to neighborhood public schools dwindles nationwide, my husband and I believed we were brought to our particular neighborhood for a reason. A natural outgrowth of that was to send our children to the school closest to us, where we could walk and meet other families in our area. Going to our local public school was the perfect opportunity to live out one of the Bible’s greatest commands: To love our neighbor.

Our dreams were realized at our school. Our daughter has had absolutely incredible teachers who love her and have poured into her curiosity. She has interacted with students from all over the world – over 40 cultures are represented. Just like my experience as a teacher, there are families who are highly involved and families who outsource responsibility to the school system. And they aren’t always the families you would expect.

Last year, our school went on academic probation. My husband asked if this impacted my love for our community and honestly, it made me value our school even more. When I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom each week, I see teachers who are highly committed to each and every student. When I spend each Wednesday morning teaching English to our immigrant parents, I see moms who are working hard to give their children the best opportunities. I love knowing I am raising my kids among these incredible families, regardless of what a test score shows.

I know school choice is a complex issue. There are as many reasons for choosing a school as there are schools and students. We all want what’s best for our kids. We have close friends who send their daughter to a private school that represents their minority religion and other friends who have chosen a charter school that offers Spanish immersion. We have friends who are as in love with and committed to their neighborhood schools as we are and we have friends who have chosen other options based on a variety of other needs.

As your kids enter school, I’d encourage you to ask: What motivates your school choiceIs it what’s truly best for your child and your neighbors? Is it motivated by fear of the unknown? 

Lean into where God has planted your family – perhaps there’s a reason … I know I have seen God at work in unexpected ways, right here at our neighborhood school and I am thankful I was here to witness it.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/school-choice-questions-ask/

One September Morning

I think my baby girl was about 6 weeks old when I first felt the itch to expand our world beyond the hammock in our backyard. While I loved snuggling my sweet newborn, I knew we needed a community. I was one of the first in our group of friends to have a baby and so I didn’t have a lot of stay-at-home girlfriends to lean on.

I remember typing in “MOPS near me” to Google one morning, knowing that an aunt of mine was a MOPS mentor for a group at her church in California. As little pinpoints filled the map on my screen, I wondered how I would pick one of the several groups that met within a couple miles of our house.

When my daughter woke from her morning nap, I closed my computer, packed a diaper bag with more essentials than I would ever bring with our second baby, strapped Bea into her car seat, clicked it into the stroller, and walked up the block on our first outing to our neighborhood library’s Book Babies hour.

Of course, we arrived late because that’s what moms of newborns do. As I unloaded and sat in the back of the group, a mom without a baby in her lap leaned over with a smile and welcomed me. Later, during “free play” time, she asked for my life story. Kathy is one of those women who probably knows details about everyone she’s in contact with––from regulars in the checkout line to those at her church. She has the ability to ask all the right questions and to make anyone feel safe and comfortable.

As we talked, she invited me to the MOPS group that had just started at her church. It was one of the farthest in my Google search but still only a five- minute drive from our house. I decided that this conversation was Divine Intervention. A few days later, I walked into a church and was greeted with coffee, muffins and women who wanted to know me. Kathy wasn’t there but she had told the leader about a new mom she had met at the library. This group was expecting me and I knew I had found my home.

As I sat at a table, holding my baby, watching the other moms work on a craft project, another mom asked if she could hold Bea so I could make my own craft. Before I knew it, April was bouncing her next to our table as I found myself with baby-free arms for the first time since giving birth.

It’s been seven years since that moment and I can now say with confidence, that morning was life-changing. These women have become our family’s close friends. We’ve celebrated birthdays and baby showers together, we’ve gone to each other’s homes for dinners and watch each other’s kids in a pinch. Recently, my family switched from our church of 10 years to fully commit to the community at our MOPS church. It has always been home, even though it took us time to realize that.

Looking back, that day in September seems so random. It’s rare when God speaks so loudly or so quickly to my questions. As school starts back, I’m looking for those nudges again. Where is God leading me? What relationships do I need to invest in? What volunteer opportunities will fit our family in this season? How will I look back on this season and recognize that God was speaking loud and clear?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/mops-story-one-september-morning

Learning Hospitality Through Play

This morning, the Friday of the first week of school, Elle and I visited yet another park. Nearly every day this week, we’ve explored our favorite playgrounds, trying to fill the void left by Bea’s absence at school.

Normally, I bring a book along so I can read while Elle climbs and digs and scampers around. Today, our park excursion was unexpected––halfway through a practice bike ride to her preschool, we changed course and headed to the neighborhood park instead.

Finally, Elle had my full and undivided attention. I helped her climb a tree and we then commenced in a long and often incomprehensible game about camping and sleeping that only a four-year-old could imagine and sustain for twenty minutes.

I recently read a comment by a mom whose children are in their late teens and early twenties. She was reminiscing about the little years, wishing she could go back for just one day, put aside her own desires, and simply play with her children. Nostalgia keeps us going, doesn’t it? After five eternal minutes of playing, I know I’ll look back on these days with nostalgia but I hope I have a dash of realism mixed in. Yes, I want to pay attention and be present. I totally understand the developmental importance of imaginative play and made up games. And yet, I also recognize how mind-numbing they can be.

In her new book Invited, my friend Leslie Verner quotes Henri Nouwen. In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen talks about how we as parents are hosting our children. They are our closest guests. They are not ours to control but ours to host and extend the practice of hospitality.

That idea was what kept me playing today. Not for nostalgia or because I particularly loved the game but because in so many ways, I’m learning the art of hospitality from Elle. She invited me into her world and the least I could do was join in and participate, even if just for twenty minutes.

Where have you experienced unexpected hospitality? And, do you love or loathe imaginative games with kids?

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “hospitality.”

Also, check out Leslie’s new book, Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness. Not only did I get to read one of the first drafts, I’ve had the honor of sharing conversations and playdates with Leslie as she wrote this book. It released on Tuesday and is an wonderful, encouraging look at what we can learn from other cultures about hospitality––and it doesn’t have anything to do with a beautiful table or a clean home!