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

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….

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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…

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?

Late bloomers

I thought about titling this post “Winter is coming,” but figured that might be mistaken for other topics….

Back in the spring my older daughter and I planted morning glories and moon flowers on the south side of the deck, as we do every year.  The vines grow up and over the railing until we can see them from the living room and kitchen.  Planting both gives us flowers literally all day and night; in the morning and evening we get an added show as they all are still open, together.

This year we (ahem….I) made the mistake of not thinning the flowers.  It was spring, and seedlings were popping up all over, and the whole scene was just so full of hope….I couldn’t quite bring myself to snuff out the future of a handful of plants.

Big mistake.

This year we grew huge, enormous, giant vines.  Thick, winding, tangled vines.  Vines with leaves over three inches across.  They were massive.  I finally started going out once a week with a pair of scissors to chop out the vines I couldn’t guide along the spindles and railing.  They absolutely took over.

Flowers?  Not so much.

Eventually, late in the summer, some moon flowers appeared; then more and more.  I was grateful we’d gotten at least a flurry of blooms to enjoy and wrote off the rest.

Until mid-October, when the morning glories exploded.

Dozens upon dozens of buds–hundreds, even?– appearing all over the east section of vine.  They were everywhere, and finally starting to open.

I have no idea what finally set these flowers off; why, of all times, they chose the end of October to finally show up and do their thing.  Because the end of October, in Kansas, is….fickle.  Temperamental.  Unstable.  (Actually, that’s pretty much the weather in Kansas year-round.)

Sure enough, before these ever got a chance to bloom to their fullest, we had our first hard freeze.  They hung in through one night surprisingly well, but night two, well…..it’s definitely time to put the garden to bed for the winter.

We always hear about the late bloomers, the ugly-duckling stories of the awkward and unlovely who finally show up in their lives fully and beautifully.  But what happens if you forget to show up in your life until it’s too late?  Is there such a thing as too-late of a bloomer?

What would you regret not doing if you knew “winter” was tomorrow?

A little bit different

I think, if you sat our family down on the front steps of our home and took a photo, we would look like the perfect microcosm of average suburban America.  Three kids, two dogs, 2,300-square-foot home….it all screams “average.”

I forget in how many ways we are different, and are living life in a simpler way. We haven’t gotten too off-course from my goal of “enough” (in spite of birthday season), and we really aren’t quite “average.”  The past few days reinforced that idea for me.

In a way, it started Monday night; the last night of a four-week Bible study I was attending.  We usually have very quiet evenings, and me being gone four Mondays in a row was a serious shock to the family system.  (Obviously, they all did fine.)  Bedtime hugs and kisses were doled out at 6:40pm since I wouldn’t see kids until morning…..

…and the next morning we hit the ground running a bit harder than usual.  I dropped my youngest off at her preschool, then stopped by the library on my way to a chiropractor appointment.  I had a bit of time at home (long enough to flip laundry) and then collected my older daughter to tag along as we picked up the youngest from preschool and headed straight to Target for a quick lunch (um…ick) and a shopping trip involving birthday gifts for their brother.  We were having all sorts of fun, wandering and smelling candles, when I literally gasped so loud it scared the girls.

“I’m supposed to get your brother to his appointment at 2:00!” I hastily explained, and once I checked my phone I realized we were fine. There was no more moseying through the aisles, however, and we headed straight for the checkout line.  As I pushed the cart towards the door, my youngest reminded me, “Don’t forget his treat!”

Oh, yeah.  We stopped back by the deli and grabbed an Icee.

Headed for home, unloaded stuff, loaded boy, sat in a waiting room for an hour, and tried to breathe.

Back home I collected the girls and RETURNED to Target WITH the Redcard to get our 5% off all that stuff we just bought earlier.  (Sigh.)  One last gift for brother.  A few clothing items for my older girl, who is rapidly (again) running out of clothes to wear, regardless of how often she does laundry.  Got home and started dinner and ate together--on days like today, I consider the fact that we still managed to eat together a HUGE win.

While my husband and older daughter cleaned up dinner, my son and I jumped back in the car so I could drop him off at a homeschool group event.  I hung out to talk a bit, then headed home to put my youngest to bed while my husband ran to the grocery store.  Once both girls were down, I headed back out to make sure I was there to pick my son up at 9:00; only to check my messages in the parking lot and realize the group was running late and maybe push pick-up back to 9:30?

Well…..guess I’ll gas the car now.

Returned for pick-up and more talking.  Home by ten.  Completely sacked out by 10:45.

I knew going into the week that Tuesday would be the worst, Wednesday would be a bit better, and by Thursday, the end was in sight.  At some point mid-Tuesday, I stopped and looked around and had a sudden, deep awareness that some people live like this all the time.

Mine were a crazy few days, but for many, that is everyday.

That is how countless people are going through their lives:  a bit like pinballs, bouncing from one thing to another in an endless–and sometimes mindless–run.  That is what an average day looks like, for an average person.  And thankfully, SO thankfully, that is one way we’re different.

Today we are home.  Home for an entire day.  The bigs are at the kitchen table with me, coloring while I write.  The four-year-old is camped out in the living room with her My Little Ponies  My laundry for the day is done and my daughter has started hers.  The kitchen is clean and the coffee is fresh.  We have discussed a library run, and put it on the back burner.  All the kids are still in pajamas.  It is the best kind of day–especially after the week we’ve had.  I’m so, so grateful that this is our normal; that we are, actually, a little bit different.

In defense of a label-less homeschool

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.

My home is fine, thank you (part 2)

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.