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?

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/

Front Yard Living

At the beginning of the summer, during our daily Quiet Rest Hour, the energy in our house changed. I looked up from my book and felt that it had gone from Quiet Rest “Quiet” to eerily and suspiciously “Quiet.” I closed my book and walked upstairs where I found my oldest daughter obediently and happily reading in her room. My three-year-old was not in her room or in the playroom – our two designated Quiet Rest spots.

I looked into our garage and, sure enough, found the door open and a tricycle missing. Barefoot, I walked out to the front, crossed the street, and headed toward the most likely of our neighbors. There I found my daughter and her friend playing sweetly in the driveway. I waved to our neighbor who told me that, when asked, my daughter confirmed I knew exactly where she was.

Welcome to our neighborhood. Of the eight houses in our cul-de-sac, seven know my kids and take an interest in our daily lives. Three have an open-door policy, meaning if I can’t find my kids, I’m fairly certain where to look. But really, I know exactly where my girls are: out in the street, biking, playing, imagining, building forts, and exploring with the neighborhood kids and grandkids.

This community didn’t happen overnight. When we moved into our house in the suburbs four years ago, it was December so we didn’t have much of an idea about our neighbors. We had a good feeling – right away, people stopped to introduce themselves and I often found our driveway and sidewalk miraculously shoveled after a snowstorm. As winter merged into spring, we found ourselves outside more and more often.

Garage doors stayed open, front porches were filled in with comfortable chairs and hanging plants, and I discovered we had moved into a neighborhood of front yard people.

I responded by moving our water table to the front yard, stocking our freezer with Otter Pops, and learning the value of shifting from the backyard to the front yard. Often, my inclination is to go out back, where I can read quietly in our hammock, where my preschooler can run through the sprinklers naked, and where we have a sweet haven from the busyness of life.

Our backyard still functions as that but it has become so much more. When we intentionally decided to shift to living out front, we invited our neighbors into our lives. We met the little girl across the street, who is nearly the same age as our oldest. We met the grandparents whose grandkids often bike with our girls. We sat on front lawns and learned the stresses and joys of each other’s lives.

There’s a cost to living out front. We’ve had to navigate boundaries and space when it comes to kids trooping in and out of our side gate. On stressful days, I just want to close the door and hunker down and that’s not always possible.

Choosing community can often be messy. And yet, I wouldn’t give up that intention for the world. Now, as our kids grow and our activities have changed, we’re not just hanging out in front as often. Already I feel pangs of nostalgia as our kids get busier. I’m thankful for the newborn down the street, knowing that front yard living will continue for a few years more.

I think back to that relatively simple act of moving the water table out front and marvel at all that unfolded from there. Even as summer comes to an end and we look toward more structured days, I think about small ways I can keep my focus on our neighbors – from bringing a book or my computer out front to wave as others walk by to date nights after bedtime on the front porch rather in the backyard, I want to continue the spirit of loving my neighbors well by being present in my neighborhood.

What is one small shift you can make to live in your front yard more often? Perhaps sidewalk chalk or bubbles in the front yard will help you meet new neighbors? I am amazed at the ways the simplest acts bring about community.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/backyard-front-yard-living/

Review: Loving My Actual Neighbor by Alexandra Kuykendall

When we moved to our cul-de-sac in the suburbs, I didn’t realize how intertwined our lives would be with our actual neighbors. My daughters dash across the street, inviting themselves into the house of their best friend. (I’m told this is ok because “we actually family, mom!”) Our neighbor two houses down keeps a stash of crackers at the ready for Elle, who only likes what Judi offers. When I called an ambulance to rush Frank to the hospital last October, I got texts from my neighbors, checking in and with offers to help in all manner of ways.

White and red text on a faded background of wildflowers in a forest.
Text reads: "Our neighbors––the people right in front of us––are not those we choose, but those we can choose to treasure."
Alexandra Kuykendall, Loving My Actual Neighbor

These relationships didn’t happen overnight. They took time and intentionality. It meant bringing my book out front so that we’d interact with folks coming and going. It meant accepting offers of dinner during tax season and hanging out in pajamas and sweats on snow days. Now I see these neighbors as an integral part of our family’s rhythms but I also recognize the work that went into opening our lives to our neighbors.

In her newest book, Loving My Actual Neighbor, Alexandra Kuykendall sees the need to love our actual, right next door neighbors as well. In a divided world, remembering to love the people who live along our daily routes is important. We don’t really get to choose our neighbors and so getting to know them and immersing ourselves in their lives is a practical way to break down walls and misconceptions.

She says, “Our neighbors––the people right in front of us––are not those we choose but those we can choose to treasure.”

Alexandra Kuykendall, “Loving My Actual Neighbor”

This is easier said than done and Alex offers seven practical stories and steps in Loving My Actual Neighbor. From asking questions to actively listening and honing our empathy, Alex grounds her steps in story and scripture, reminding us that loving our neighbor is the most important of the commandments. Each chapter ends with a call to action, a reflection, steps to practice, and a scripture to guide you on the journey.

Loving our neighbors can be overwhelming, for a myriad of reasons from perfectionism to social anxiety. Alex takes the guesswork out of connection and helps dismantle the idea that loving our neighbors is something out of the realm of possibility.

If you have neighbors, you need to read this book. Alex will encourage you, push you, and help you remember that loving our neighbors can become second-nature. And what a gift that is.

What are ways you love your actual neighbors? What are some challenges in loving the people right next door?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon,any purchase you make supports this site.

Backyard Justice

Last week, I returned to the University of Denver for the first time in over 10 years. I’ve signed up to take a month-long enrichment course and the class is located in the same building as my grad school classes. I pulled up a desk to the circle and took out my notebook. As I went to swing the hinged desk over my chair, I noticed that I had selected a right-handed desk. No problem! I scanned the room for a left-handed version, but none were to be found. I propped my notebook in my lap and took notes in the slightly awkward but totally manageable way I had learned long ago.

BackyardBeing left-handed in a right-handed world is not an injustice. My rights aren’t being removed; it’s annoying but not threatening. But it reminds me of ways in which injustice starts. Often, it can begin as a minor annoyance, but it stems from the fact that those who make decisions make them for the majority of the population. Rather than design ambidextrous desks, the expectation is for left-handers to adapt.

Of course, this is an incredibly trivial example of injustice. However, my goal is to open my eyes to see those seemingly minor “inconveniences.” It’s easy to bring my blood to a boil when outrageous discrimination and acts of injustice occur. But what about all those minor situations in which people are slowly dehumanized and made to feel less-than? Those all build up and create something that is much more complex and harder to dismantle than the big issues.

This month, I’ll be joining with hundreds of other writers to participate in the Write 31 Days challenge. The goal is to write every single day for the month of October. Short, long, pictures, ideas – the rules are loose and the purpose is to have fun and improve the craft of writing.

I’ll be writing about Backyard Justice for these 31 days. What does practicing justice in the space of my own home look like? I’m not an activist – I’m constrained by nap time and school pickup and the life of a mom of little kids. But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t practice justice. I’ll be using Micah 6:8 as a guide:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (NRSV)

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!

And, if you’re a writer and interested in joining the challenge, link up over here! You have until October 6th to join the community.

Best Friends Forever!

I’m honored to be over at my friend, Debby’s to kick off her series on friendship. Here’s an excerpt and I hope you’ll join the conversation over at her place!

ElleWhen we moved into this neighborhood, we couldn’t have known what awaited us, just across the street. If we had been able to include neighbor profiles in our search criteria, I couldn’t have imagined better. A family with a daughter, just a few months younger than our oldest? How perfect!

Now, hardly a day goes by without these girls yelling out windows, running into open garages, insisting on playdates. They yell through the street, Best Friends Forever!!! and hug and fight and grapple their way through each playtime. No matter how much tattling has happened or how many times feelings were hurt, we always leave with a massive bear hug and the declaration of Best Friends Forever!

I’ve never experienced a childhood best friend. Across the street from our house was a church parking lot and a kind old lady who collected elephant figurines. Read the rest over at Debby’s!

What about you? Did you have a best friend and a child? Are you a Best Friends Forever sort of friend or a seasonal friend?

Review: The Turquoise Table by Kristin Schell + Giveaway

When we moved to this cul-de-sac, a friend posted an Instagram picture with the hashtag #frontyardpeople. I was intrigued. Our neighborhood is one where front yard living is alive and well. Judi often sits on her porch and if we can’t find our girls, there’s a 90% chance they’re sitting with Judi. Another neighbor’s grandkids and our girls have formed a little bike gang, speeding through the street and down the spillways. Because of this front yard mentality, we have gotten to know our amazing neighbors.

_140_245_Book.2295.coverSo when I heard that Kristin Schell, founder of #frontyardpeople had written a book about her turquoise table and the start of this movement, I knew I had to read it. The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard is a timely and important book. In an age where we are constantly connected but not necessarily face-to-face, meeting people takes a lot of intention.

I’ve read other books about the importance of hospitality but this one grabbed my attention fully. Perhaps is that Schell offers such grace in the journey. She shares her own stories – both relatable successes and failures – as she found her rhythm living in her front yard. She also shares the stories of others living life with their neighbors and through this mix she gives permission to find your own path. For some, an actual turquoise picnic table in the front yard is a perfect tool to start conversations. For others, creating an intentional time to be outside may be how they connect. Schell reminds us that we are all different and our neighborhoods are different, so to try and recreate something exactly most likely won’t work.

Not only is this beautiful book filled with stories, but it’s also formatted as a guide to living an intentional life. Schell has prompts and questions to help the reader get started on a journey of living life communally. She also includes favorite recipes with each chapter to help inspire gathering around the table.

The book is filled with bright pictures and offers plenty of space for reflection. I think because it’s published as a “gift edition,” the idea of living out hospitality is acknowledged in the actual pages and style of this publication. If it hadn’t been printed as a gift book, I’m not sure I would have connected as deeply – the act of reading this book captures the idea of simple hospitality.

With summertime starting, it’s a natural time to move some of our regular activities to our front yard. Perhaps we’ll start small, with sitting on the front porch once or twice a week after bedtime. Perhaps we’ll grow bigger, with front yard barbecues and gatherings. However this plays out, I’m thankful that we live in a front yard neighborhood, and I know The Turquoise Table will infuse new ideas into our community.

What’s your neighborhood like? Do you think it would be easy to start a front yard community?

GIVEAWAY! I am giving away my copy of The Turquoise Table. Leave a comment about your experience connecting with neighbors and I’ll randomly select a winner on Friday, June 9, 2017. (United States addresses only.)

I review for BookLook Bloggers
I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.

Midwinter Lifesavers

It’s that time of year. January and its resolutions and catching up is over, February the longest shortest month of the year is ahead. Tax season is looming. It’s a good time to stop and remember all the things that are saving my life this winter.

Last year, my list included walking and the Mamaroo; the year before the list had a TV show and nesting into our new home. This year, we’re in a different stage with the girls and a different season as a family. In many ways, things seem a lot easier and we’re in a good life-groove. In other ways, the girls miss Frank a lot more, which makes this time of year and its schedule tougher for him.

I’m loving this practice of taking note and reflecting on the things that are saving us right now. So, in no particular order, here are my new lifesavers:

1) Cooking Classes
For Christmas this year, I gave Frank a series of 3 Sur la Table classes called Becoming a Confident Chef. Each Tuesday we met with others to chop, sauté, and learn all those skills that make cooking easier. Having a set date night three weeks in a row, right before tax season was probably the best gift I could have given. I could see making this an annual tradition. Bonus? We made friends with our hotplate partners and have already had dinner at their house. Serendipities definitely save my life!

img_32922) Neighbors
This made my list last year and I hope it will make my list every year. Our neighbors are truly incredible and I’m so thankful to have a community during these cold, hibernating months. From texting with my across-the-street friend to shoveling snow with our neighbor who owns a snowblower to checking in with Elle’s favorite, “Jooji” I remember that we have people in close proximity who are looking out for our family. It’s pretty incredible.

3) Facebook
I know, these past few months have seen most people renouncing Facebook and closing their accounts. (At least, temporarily.) And, while I’ve put tighter boundaries on my consumption, I am thankful for this crazy online world. I’m inspired by my friends who are out marching and protesting. I’m stretched by my friends who pose different opinions. And I’m reminded that ultimately, we are all in this together. I’m not sure I would remember that without this loud conglomeration of strong opinions all in one place.

4) Whole30 Habits
It’s been about 3 months since we finished our Whole30 challenge. In that time, we went back to Philadelphia for a week, had a month of holiday celebrations, and have started scheduling dinners and brunches with friends before tax season really hits. And through it all, we’ve been pretty good. Of course, we’ve had more alcohol, eaten more cake, and have ordered pizza for movie night. But we’ve also kept a fairly good meal planning schedule and have included a lot of our favorite Whole30 recipes in the rotation. I’m sure we’ll be doing a reset in May, but I also feel like we’re starting tax season with healthier habits in place.

5) Listening to My Gut
I’ve made some decisions lately that logically were easy to rethink. But, my gut kept telling me to make space, to slow down, to focus on this moment. It was hard to listen to this tug, but I am so glad I did. I feel like I need to be open to this year. I’m not sure what that means or how that will actually look, but by making these shifts and changes, I feel better positioned for whatever comes about.

What is saving your life right now?

Linked with Modern Mrs. Darcy – check out her linkup for more mid-winter lifesavers!

A Love That Breaks Down Barriers

Imagine “love.” What colors do you see? What shapes? Now, try to think of the word without the color red or a heart. What do you see?

img_2680I often lead students through this exercise at the museum. An effort to understand that artists are constantly making choices – no matter how simple a drawing or painting looks – is a key part of this lesson. This discussion has so many interesting results:

I drew blue circles – because love is never-ending. And the sky is blue. We need love like we need to breathe.

I drew tulips – because there’s a field of tulips by my brother’s house that I love visiting.

It’s green – because green is calming and love should make me feel safe.

How do you view love? Sometimes I have trouble remembering that love does win; that love trumps hate. These days, it seems that those types of phrases are said in such an unloving way – that they’re used as accusations rather than reminders.

When I look to others and see that definition of love, I’m discouraged. It seems that I have to look so hard. When I close my eyes and think about it – really think, beyond hearts and red – I’m not as discouraged. It doesn’t seem so far away.

This second week of Advent, we lit the love candle. Sometimes it’s called the faith candle: A reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem – a journey of faith and love.

We had our neighbors over to decorate the tree and have dinner. We lit the Advent candles, though we left off the devotional. There was something so amazing about starting this second week with these friends of a different faith background. As the girls decorated, we parents talked about Christmas and Bethlehem but from different perspectives.

As we talked about our own traditions this time of year, as made plans for making tree decorating a yearly tradition, love took on a whole new meaning. I am reminded that to love our neighbors is what this is all about. To come together and do life. To talk about our different experiences and celebrate the rich diversity we bring to our conversations.

I need to remember that as we tell stories of the manger. This love was revolutionary. It wasn’t about drawing more us-them lines. It is a radical inclusivity, where love truly does win and conquers hate.

So this week, I focus on a love that breaks down barriers, that doesn’t see differences, that turns the kingdoms of this world upside down.

What are some tangible ways you let love lead in your life? How do you actively break down barriers?

 

Bike Gangs and Spare Grandparents

When we moved to a cul-de-sac in the suburbs, I had no idea how wonderful the cliche would be. On these lazy summer days, when I’m trying to pare back even our fun playdates, our neighbors keep us from being housebound without an event. (Something Bea loves!)

Regularly, kids are out biking and playing. We’ve got neighbors with a daughter Bea’s age as well as grandparents whose grandkids – also Bea’s age – visit regularly. We’ve laughed that we need to get t-shirts made for our neighborhood bike gang, they’re out so often.

IMG_1048I recently discovered that our monitor reaches out front, so while Elle takes her morning nap, Bea and I head outside for some bike riding. I’ll bring a book to read on the driveway while Bea peddles around. But usually, I don’t get much reading done. More often, we all gather outside. The kids help Judy water her flowers, or they’ll abandon their bikes and dig around Connie’s mailbox. They’ll race down the easement toward the empty lots behind the houses.

Adults will gather and we’ll laugh and watch the kids. Right now, we’re at about 50-50 young families-grandparents. At first, I’d apologize for Bea just biking over, barging in, “helping out.” But I’ve found that these neighbors love the young kids. They often talk about how the neighborhood has regained its vitality because of this little bike gang.

One of the things I love most about our neighbors is this diversity in age and life experience. Bea told one neighbor she could be her “spare nana.” She watches their house from her bedroom window and will yell out, I love you, Susie!!! if she emerges from the house. Susie’s grandkids and Bea are inseparable and even reserved Elle will give a smile.

It’s been a reminder for me, too, on the importance of cultivating friends of all ages. While I get so much support and encouragement from moms in the same phase as me and I love having friends who are in that next phase, who give me hope, these women are able to remind me that life is big and these years are quick.

They laugh about over-scheduling and date-nights. We talk tomatoes and gardening. They always know the gossip – both current and the history of our neighborhood. They watch their grandkids with an enthusiasm a mom couldn’t give. They engage with my kids when I’m tired and answer all the questions because they can. They have spare popsicles and toys and are generous with their flowers.

When we were looking at houses, we looked in neighborhoods that were mostly young families in our same phase; we looked at neighborhoods that seemed old and in need of revitalization; we looked at neighborhoods that didn’t have any chairs on the front porch. When we moved into our house, it was in December and front porch living was in hibernation.

Now, in our second summer here, I am thankful for this neighborhood where we landed. For the neighbors who are in our same place in parenting and for the ones who can give perspective and guidance on this journey.

What is your neighborhood like? Do your neighbors gather out front? Is there a diversity in ages or phases of life?