Beauty in the Valley

January 25, 2018

Our pastor ran a sermon series in December called God With Us.  The promo video that ran each week began with a reminder that God is always with us:  “On the mountain…in the valley….”

Ah, yes, the valley.  The first sermon was all about the valley, which is where our family spent most of 2016 and a fair portion of 2017.  The valley is supposed to be a dark, desperate place–“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” from Psalm 23, right?–but here’s what hit me as I watched the video intro:

Valleys are beautiful.

Honestly, on our trips to Colorado, valleys are my favorite places to be.  Mountains are majestic, of course, but the countless houses tucked into the deeply wooded valleys? That’s where I’d want to live.  There’s beauty there; it’s not hard to see.

There’s beauty in the valleys of our lives, too.

A perfect example came to me a few Fridays ago, when I went to bed early (like before-dinner early) with what seemed to be a stomach bug.  My husband had plans that night, so my twelve-year-old daughter put my four-year-old to bed.  While I lay curled up under the covers, miserable and barely awake, the sound of my older daughter’s voice floated down the hall, reading bedtime stories to her little sister. Snuggles, giggles, a chapter of Betsy-Tacy; A Birthday for Frances….

When did she get to be such a beautifully fluent reader?

Beauty in the valley.

Watching your oldest pull back and withdraw, more and more often, until you fear that depression might actually really win–that’s a valley.  No doubt.

Watching your son buy his younger sisters stuffed animal souvenirs on the zoo trip he chose to go on with the family, smack in the middle of the ugliness….spending his own money to put a smile on their faces….there’s beauty in the valley.

Holding your son while he sobs and begs….begs you to buy him a gun, so he can end it all and just be done with it for good…that’s the deepest, lowest valley I’ve come to yet.

A doctor who returns your calls while on vacation to ensure he gets medication started: beauty in the valley.

Any trouble with friends tripping a switch that still seems to be set to “despair” is even now a very real part of our valley.

Watching the same child–barely 24 hours later–bringing the folding card table up from the basement, setting it up on the back deck, and cooking and serving dinner to his entire family under the light of the near-full moon….that is a step beyond beauty.  That is unbelievable.

Watching my middle child lose her older-brother-best-friend to the gaping maw of depression has been one of the most ongoing, difficult valleys.

Signing off on her “homework” for church and realizing that under “list three ways you know God cares for you” she included, “He gave me a baby sister….”  That is beauty so vivid it brought me to tears.

It’s beauty, too, when the big kids do reconnect and find out they are still friends, even after everything they’ve been through.

I know that God has been with us in every one of these situations.  He was sitting on the bed with us, brokenhearted, while my son sobbed into my shoulder.  He was pulling up a seat with us, outside on the deck, rejoicing in His gorgeous night and healing child.  I know his hand is on my family as we walk this rocky road, full of switchbacks, that winds through the valley.  But I’m also realizing the valley can be an amazing place, full of beauty, if I can just pay attention.  I don’t know how much longer our valley is.  I do have faith there will continue to be beauty along the way.

Advertisements

January 18, 2018

I am sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with my four-year-old.  The rest of the house is quiet; the older two still asleep, husband at work in the basement.  She is quiet, too, as she digs into her warm bowl of oatmeal.  She-who-will-not-be-hurried is deeply focused.

She pulls up a spoonful and holds it over her bowl, watching.

Finally….finally….she looks at me and explains, “I’m watching the steam.  Steam is beautiful.

Steam is beautiful.

There you are, friends.  Your mindful moment for the day, brought to you by a preschooler.  Steam is beautiful.

Go out and find something else beautiful in your day.

 

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”–Psalm 19:1-2

January 8, 2018

I decided weeks ago that my word for this year would be “intentional.”

It might be ridiculously overused; almost a buzz-word at this point, but it sums up exactly what I was needing–and aware I was needing–by the end of December.

My life was slowly veering into the “keeping up with the daily” that is so much of mom-ness, with lots of floating around in the in-between times; or, on other days, the pin-balling of incessant reacting.  The day would end and I would realize that while things “got done,” nothing worthy was really accomplished.

I spent three days writing down every. single. thing I did during the day, and then sat down to figure out how to make things work better.  I figured out where I had huge windows of time to play with, where things got complicated quickly, and saw clearly that sometimes things just happen:  there really is a limit to any control we attempt.  I wrote down the things I wanted to see in our home (among them more art, more read-alouds, more time outside when feasible) and began to lay out a new plan for our days.

The start of this year has been beginning to put that plan into place.

I started with a little bit of art time immediately after breakfast with my little. Sometimes big sister joins us, sometimes it’s just she and I.  Cutting snowflakes, watercolor painting, play-doh…we’re open.  Today art time looked like her snuggled up under the tablecloth-draped fort of a card table with a new stencil set from Gramma while I took down the Christmas tree, ornaments spread all over her “roof.”

That was an intentional decision, too:  after planning on taking down the tree “on the 6th,” which I’d been stating for weeks, I realized the weather was not my friend in this endeavor.  I want to take down a tree in full sunshine, not lose all our Christmas lights on a gray, rainy day.  So I checked the weather and opted for today.  Our big dog is curled up in a huge patch of sunshine that’s been blocked by the tree for a month and a half, happy as can be.  (For that matter, so am I.)

I thought our read-aloud would be pegged onto our snack time, but it’s looking more like a breakfast thing at this point.  I don’t care–it’s happening.  I want a routine, and I know we’ll get there, but at least right now I can see it happening.

Outside time?  Well….with the temperature here eventually warming up into the low 20’s, that hasn’t exactly been a priority.  I’ve kept the birds (and squirrels…sigh) fed, and the birdbath filled, and that’s probably enough for now.

I guess, this year, I want to be “pursuing enough” of the right things.

Unplugging

December 18, 2017

It was around Halloween that I realized what I was doing.

Each time I’d see a little uplifting reminder float by on my Facebook feed….

img_7665

I’d always finish it with, “….but you could get off your phone and do some of it.”

Because truly, sometimes it’s not an unreasonable to-do list or the busyness of a certain season.  Sometimes, it’s just me being lazy.

I finally decided to do something about it.

The first baby-step was to deleting the two real estate apps off my phone.  We have no intention of moving, and if a house pops up for sale “that I’ve always wondered what it looks like inside,” I can get on the computer.  No more mindlessly scrolling through houses and suddenly realizing an hour has gone by:  check.

The next step was scheduling an email check into my morning routine…on my laptop.  I suddenly had a new goal of not being on my phone in the early morning, at all.  Was that even possible?  All I knew was that I didn’t want my four-year-old to grow up seeing me glued to my phone…..and I wanted to see my four-year-old grow up.

Next up:  not faithfully keeping up with reading blogs.  No more daily check-ins (though occasionally reading is definitely still happening).  It occurred to me recently that I’m not trying to build a brand, launch a product, sell an item or make a name…..so why on earth do I feel a strange sense of obligation to keep up with this?  No more.

The last step was deleting the Facebook app.  I’d already made a decision, after an exceptionally good Halloween, that I wanted to take another break from Facebook; I wanted to enjoy the holiday season we were having instead of constantly being bombarded with other ideas and wondering if we should be doing things differently. This fall and winter have been so different from last year, as my son continues to climb out of depression.  I want to enjoy it!  I want to savor this time, not compare it to someone else’s holiday–or not even be truly present for it in the first place.  Bye-bye, FB.

My mom and I had a conversation not that long ago about how technology has gone from a blessing to a nuisance.  While I don’t want to get rid of the internet, I think the line that got crossed awhile back–that “smartphone” line–has turned something wonderful into something awful.  I can objectively see the benefits of the internet.  Right now, it’s hard for me to see the good in a smartphone.

Rant over.

In November…

November 24, 2017

Cynthia Rylant has a beautiful book titled In November that I discovered last year while I was rounding up “fall books” for my youngest.  (Sadly, I didn’t know it existed when my big kids were little.)  At one point she talks about the trees:

In November, the trees are standing all sticks and bones.  Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers.  They know it is time to be still.

Do we know it’s time to be still?  I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how separated we are from the seasons.  We live our insulated lives, with our A/C and our furnaces, and let the weather go on as it may.  I’m incredibly thankful for the blessings of air conditioning on a hundred degree Kansas day, but we’ve become very removed from the gradual shift of the seasons.

Is it possible to recapture the sense that November is a time for quieting life?  For slowing down; for preparing for sleep?  The cynic in me is clawing to get out right now, full of snide remarks about how dark and gray it is and of course we’re ready to sleep.  But is it possible to actually mimic nature, to set aside all the crazy of go-go-go and do-do-do and be still?

To be at peace, in quiet, as the world fades into the muted grays and browns of late autumn?

I’m considering a few ideas:

Nothing new.  No new appointments this month.  In an effort to slow and quiet our schedule, purposefully saying “no” to any new or last-minute obligations that crop up.  If it’s a regular class, appointment, or event, it stays.  If not, it must fight to earn its way onto the calendar.  The default answer should be “no.”

Afternoon walks.  The time for after-dinner walking is officially over; it’s pitch-black by 5:30 where we live.  But our family’s schedule offers up the freedom to take a walk in the late afternoon, before dinner prep starts.  I don’t look at this as a “gotta get a workout in” walk.  I’m intending this to be a “go outside and enjoy the amazing trees before they fade” walk.

Evenings in.  It’s cold out there.  I want to spend evenings inside, with family, with warm drinks and books (or maybe cards and games).  Especially as the shopping season ramps up, I’m hoping to be content at home instead of jumping into the holiday frenzy.  I absolutely understand this is not possible every night (even our very scaled-back calendar includes youth events at church on Wednesday nights), but any baby steps in this direction will help.

Winter prep.  I’ve been taking care of the outside “stuff” over the past few weeks.  It’s never looked like “We spent our entire Saturday dealing with yard work.”  It’s been a quiet, small, gradual process of putting away the plant pots one day, unhooking and storing the hoses the next afternoon, taking down and washing the hammock another….a simple, “still” way of preparing for the winter ahead; putting the yard and garden to bed for the year.

Cleaning out.  As we prepare for the Christmas season, I’m taking decluttering the same gradual way: small, baby steps; with weekly stops at our thrift store that’s on the way to preschool (and next door to the library–does it get any better than that?).  I’m planning our Christmas in the quiet spaces I’ve found in my days, and am making room for the influx that is bound to happen come December 25th (still, thankfully, a ways off).

Apparently rules are made to be broken, because I’ve disregarded each of these more than once over the past few weeks.  Birthday party invites arrive; math tutors must be included in the schedule as needed, and afternoon walks?  That’s a fairly large schedule (read: habit) change for me to just start, out of the blue.  But my intention, knowing it’s time to be still, stays the same.

What would you want to give up?  What would you need to include?  How else could we appreciate more fully this particular season, when things grow quiet and still?

I picked up my phone one morning to find I’d been tagged in a Facebook comment in a homeschool group.

Huh….What’s up?  That’s weird.

It got weirder.

The original poster had questioned, Anyone unschool older kids?

My daughter’s preschool teacher had promptly tagged me.

I just about dropped my teeth.

Unexpected milestones in life: getting tagged in an unschooling post.

Which is exactly what I replied to her teacher.  (Her response:  “Well, I know your kids are awesome, so you’re doing something right!”)

As I thought about it, it struck me:  what are we, exactly?  We are absolutely not open-and-go, curriculum-in-a-box, structured schedules with desks in a corner.  We are not School At Home.  But as I explained in my comment, we really don’t fall into the “full-fledged, hard-core unschooling tribe,” with everyone doing their own thing and following their interests 24/7.  We are VERY….relaxed and eclectic.  But we are not Unschoolers.

Do we really need these labels to define us?  Honestly, are they helpful?  Maybe, possibly, for some truly dedicated people.  (I now have the phrase “die-hard Charlotte Mason” running through my head, which I think is hilarious.)  And it does make perfect sense to say, “We use ‘Sonlight,'” or “We use ‘My Father’s World.'”

But surely there are more of us wandering around in the middle?

In label-less homeschools?

Our own homeschool has had a very gradual shift over the past five years.  This year, each of my older kids has a spiral notebook, and every Monday there’s a note inside for that week of school, telling them what their “must-do’s” are. We start slowly and ease in to the school year, but a normal, average week involves a few constants; I think of it as the “spine” that everything else hangs from, or the foundation everything else builds on. Each child reads everyday from their “book for school” (I have a book list for each child, but they choose from it what they want to read).  They each have daily math (my 11-year-old daughter is in Teaching Textbooks 6, and my 13-year-old son is working on Horizons Pre-Algebra with a tutor). Science is also daily; this is effortless with my daughter, so she’s on her own with library books/an astronomy textbook; this is NOT effortless with my son, so he’s working through Apologia Physical Science bit by bit.  They also write at least once a week (this is effortless with my son, but even my daughter is willing to do a Friday Free-Write with a good attitude).  We do other things, of course, but this is our base.  Over the course of the week I jot down anything else school-related in a long list under Monday’s note.

And that makes us…..(what kind of ?) schoolers?

Our days look different for each child.  My son is very structured. He gets up between 7-8, starts his personal morning routine, and then jumps straight into school, to “knock it out” and “get it out of the way,” so he can do what HE wants to do. (Definitely no full-on unschooling here.)  What he “wants to do” is write.  A lot.  One of his current obsessions is The Ranking of Music….he’ll listen to every album by (insert band name here) and then do mini-reviews, ranking them, best to worst. We’ve got the Beatles albums ranked, the Muse albums ranked; right now he’s working through U2.  I’ve seen him knock out a 3000+ word essay reviewing every movie in the Marvel cinematic universe (that he’s seen).  The dude loves to write.

My daughter’s day looks (ahem) a little less focused.  She’ll wander down, eventually (I let my kids sleep as late as they want–no demanding a schedule here, either); and she’ll curl up with her math book over breakfast; then take off and go play with her preschool sister for an hour and a half; then suddenly get serious and say, “No, I HAVE to do my reading now,” and work on her reading….get lunch, play piano, rearrange her room, throw in a load of laundry, read a book, and suddenly say, “OH! I forgot about science!” and go attack something science-y with a vengeance….you get the idea.

What label do I apply to all this?

We have our routines.  We also have a huge amount of freedom, and I admit that each time I hear a school bus rumble down our street, I’m a little more thankful everyday.  I’m thrilled that my girls get a chance to play and get to know each other, and not be separated for over eight hours a day.  I love that my kids can get the sleep they need, and not leave the house at the crack of dawn.  I love that they can spend so much time doing what they love, while still learning what they need, and can do it in the comfort of our own home.  My “school pictures” tend to be kids curled up in nests of blankets reading, or sitting in the large swing in the backyard with a notebook, or cuddled with a dog while they work on their math…..

There’s really no label for all that.

I’ve been thinking lately of something that happened early this spring.  It was still almost cold outside–early spring–and my littlest, three years old at the time, was playing outside in a sundress that was completely inappropriate for the weather.  It was the “Mama, I want to wear my new dress” syndrome, and since I am old and finally recognize when not to pick a fight, I let her.  So she’d been outside playing, in a 45-degree mist, wearing her red, white, and blue “firecracker dress.”

She finally came in through the back door and immediately squealed with glee.  “Oooooh! Mama!  It’s warm in here!”

I burst out laughing.  “It is warm, isn’t it?  Isn’t it nice to come in and be warm and cozy?”

I can still remember how she looked at me, her eyes shining.  “It IS cozy!  This is the coziest house EVER!  I LOVE it!  Let’s NEVER MOVE!!

I had to laugh.  After twenty-one years of marriage, I’ve learned not to make a big broad statement like “we’re never moving.”  But I assured her that we’d do our best.

Last week I stumbled across a quote that finally put into words my feelings about moving; why I’m so hesitant to pack up and start over again.  Yes, me, who can happily while away an afternoon looking at houses online:  if I ever found The Perfect House, I still don’t think I could bring myself to act on it.  It just takes so much time, is the vague notion that would float through my head.  While reading Love the House You’re In, by Paige Rien, I stumbled across a little offhand comment that gave structure and definition to my haze:

It takes six months to move into a new house.  You might be sleeping in your own bed the first night you arrive, but to actually move in and find a space for everything, getting your bearings in a new space–not to mention making any improvements–takes six months.  It takes five years of diligent work to really make it yours–not finish it–but feel like yours.

Six months.  Five years.

This, of course, doesn’t count the months of un-making your current home:  removing all personal items and any source of clutter to ensure the house shows at its best for all viewings.  (Oh, the showings….three kids, two dogs, and a husband working in the basement?  Can you even imagine?)

So yes, beautiful girl, I am ready to say it:

This IS the coziest house EVER.  Let’s NEVER MOVE.

My home is fine, thank you

October 6, 2017

The comment on the Facebook post, which linked to an article on minimalism, read, “Yes, your home is too big.”

This is the kind of thing that sets me off a bit.  Firstly, they have no idea who is reading that particular post–and let’s be real, it can’t possibly be true of 100% of the people.  It’s a minimalism page.  They’re mostly preaching to the choir.

The article itself, honestly, was very thoughtful and well written.  The author was encouraging people to live smaller where they were–the article, literally, encouraged people not to move but to enjoy “less” in their current home.  One of their tips?  Close the vents in all the rooms you’re not using.

Um….???

We have no unused rooms in this house.  With a homeschooling family of five, and a husband working from home, we use this house–every inch of it.  We actually do have a few vents closed, to try to funnel air to the places that need it more (the basement, with the air conditioning on in the summer, can get downright frigid).  But there’s no room we’re “not using” in this place.

So…back to the original statement…maybe our home isn’t too big?

Our lying brains

June 14, 2017

I sat at the kitchen table at 9:30 this morning and thought with a sigh, I’ve done nothing today.

Um…wait.

Dealing with my son’s depression has led us to a lot of “that’s your brain lying to you” discussions.  I suddenly realized I could apply that lesson to me.

Okay….I must have done something this morning.  What have I done?  (Not counting coffee and quiet time first thing, because that’s not really “work….”)

I got a shower, and got dressed and got my hair done.  (I’m a mom.  That totally counts.)

I fed both dogs, got them outside, and started a load of laundry.

I ate breakfast, and hung out with my son while he ate breakfast.

I took care of my breakfast dishes and the few other dishes/recycling in the sink.

I wrestled the patio umbrella/patio table back into proper position after the thunderstorm that blew through this morning.

I made an appointment to get my recall-issues car in to be repaired.  (That, in itself, involved an unfortunate amount of time online, plus a trip to the car to get the registration with the VIN number/replace the registration with the VIN number.  Go me for putting things back.)

I made a fresh pot of coffee and prepped some half-caf in my coffee canister.

I flipped the laundry and started a new load.

I did a quick sweep of the kitchen floor (since the new load was dog towels and I stirred up fur everywhere).

I dealt with a dirty pull-up.  (Yes, she’s four.  Prayers appreciated.)

I got my littlest breakfast and sat with both my girls while they ate breakfast.

And that, that moment of sitting, of (gasp!) sitting and drinking coffee and enjoying being with my girls, that is when my lying brain snuck in to feed me garbage.  She’s having fun!  NOW!

For once, I’m not buying it.

PS And now I’ve written a blog post.  So there, you lying brain.

Times change

March 24, 2017

Recently I found this draft I wrote three years ago:

I was snuggled with my littlest, before bedtime, when I noticed something odd.  Her bedroom is–by far–the smallest bedroom in the house.  It’s also the most awkward to furnish, because in addition to being small (it’s something like 9’x10′), one wall holds three doors:  the door into the room and a double-door on the closet.  But as I sat and rocked the baby, I realized that her room felt spacious.  Maybe not as roomy as her sister’s (whose room is ridiculously large), but it felt open and clear.

That’s because, of course, she isn’t even a year old yet and doesn’t have any “stuff.”

Don’t get me wrong, that closet is quite full of clothes waiting to be grown into; almost the entire top shelf is devoted to 12-18 month clothing that she’s creeping towards daily.  She has “stuff.”  But wow…all her room has in it is a crib, a changing table (with baskets for the clothes she’s currently wearing), a rocking chair and a small side table.  That’s it.  It’s absolutely refreshing.

I wish my other kids–especially my son–would “get it.”  That even a room that tiny can feel large if it’s not crammed with stuff.  My oldest often complains about how small his room is, when in reality it’s not bad; it’s just full.  He’s also the poster-boy for posters; when we moved here we devoted one wall to all his artwork, arranged carefully all together.  Now he’s old enough to get the thumbtacks for himself and his room is becoming a fire hazard.  I keep trying to explain to him that his room isn’t small, it’s crowded.  I think it might have started sinking in when family began to ask him what he wanted for his birthday and he said he didn’t want any more Legos because he didn’t know where he would put them.  That’s a pretty big step for my little Lego fiend.

The problem is that everything is held in comparison to middle girl’s room, which is HUGE.  It’s the one at the veeeery end of the hall, over the garage, and it’s almost as big as the garage.  (The square footage of her bedroom is actually bigger than the master bedroom; it’s 12’x18′.)  Her space veers back and forth between completely trashed and amazingly clean; the older she gets the more into decorating she is and the more “fixy” she is about her space.  To her credit, her large room usually feels large because she’s kept it fairly picked up.

I’m sure that someday, as the baby gets older, she’ll probably want a room as big as her sister’s, too.  I’ll take the smaller space any day.  Especially one as clean and simple as the nursery is now.  In a few years, little one will start accumulating stuff and putting her own mark on everything, the way her siblings have.  I hope she learns to appreciate the beauty of less.

So here we are, three years later.  The room is actually much the same, though we moved in a chest-of-drawers to replace the outgrown changing table.  We also moved the side table out, and a small “crib” in, to hold her stuffed animals.  (I would say it was a doll bed, but it was actually built by my great-grandfather for my mother when she was born.)  The closet has even been cleared out, and all her “to grow into” clothing (now size 6 to 10, the best of the best from older sister) is hanging up instead of piled on the upper shelf.

The only part of her room that gets regularly out-of-hand is her bed, since she wants ALL her stuffed animals in bed with her.  Oh, and her library books.  And sometimes a box of Kleenex.  (You get the idea.)  Sometimes when I tuck her in at night I tease her about where she’s going to fit, and she will cheerfully inform me, “It’s okay, Mama!  There’s a spot right here!”  And sure enough, there’s just enough space for her little head to lay on her pillow.

My son has come a long way, too.  Apparently around age ten or eleven there’s a seismic shift in attitude about stuff, and things that once were overwhelmingly sentimental now just seem babyish.  (I’m seeing it happen with my eleven-year-old daughter now.)  His room looks consistently better, with the occasional “wow, I have too many books” issue.

Interesting what three years can do.