ready for fall

Around here, August became so busy and chaotic that I felt the month couldn’t end fast enough. While other people were talking about the last things they wanted to squeeze in before school began, I was trying to finish up the details for another run of the Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair. The plan was for my husband to take the time off work and hang out with the boys from the end of August through Labor Day. Instead, he spent the 12 days of the fair gritting through the pain of shingles in his eye. So the boys were tasked with lunch preparation and clean up most days, and making sure their daddy got his eye drops and other medication on time. They rose to the occasion.

Then, I asked them to “volunteer” at the Alphabet Forest on the last day, when we were so short of help. They showed up around noon on Labor Day, donned red aprons, and got to work. The 11-year-old helped with the spinning wheel and the 13-year-old, who requested no photo be taken, helped kids make yarn necklaces with their names. They were good sports – one noted that they were indeed laboring that day.

After additional help arrived at the Alphabet Forest, I relieved them of their responsibilities and we set out in search of veggie fries and mini donuts. I also offered a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. They seemed indifferent, so we walked to the car instead. The younger one and I got our hands stamped, but teen son wasn’t interested in returning later.

Two of us did, and found there wasn’t much of a line for that giant Ferris wheel. So we were in and out of the fair in about an hour that evening. (It helps to have an employee parking spot.) The view from 150 feet in the air was splendid. We could see both downtowns and noted how many trees we have in the Twin Cities.

The next evening I got some one-on-one time with my older son. While the younger one was at soccer practice, the two of us strolled around Lake Phalen Regional Park. It was a beautiful evening, with just the slightest hint of coolness in the air, and so I did end the summer with one of the things I treasure most – some quality time with each son.

I am grateful for the calm moments I was able to claim amid the chaotic last days of summer. I’ll also note that I was surprised both of our boys made a point of articulating their appreciation for all I do around the house (and that they’re glad that I’m back at it.)

a night out like no other

When we moved into our house in 2009, some of our first interactions with the neighbors took place during the National Night Out picnic. Since then, that first Tuesday in August has proven to be an opportunity to catch up with people whom we live near but don’t really see that often.

Last August, there was no National Night Out – people didn’t even get one day of reprieve from all the isolation. This year, I thought it would be important for us all to get back together other again. But the landlord who usually allows the picnic on his lawn said, “We’re not going to do it this year.” It’s the one day a year that people actually come out and talk to each other, I pointed out.

“Someone else can host,” he countered. So that’s what I attempted to do. Part of me didn’t want to, but I felt that I ought to. People are important. Community is important.

But building community is hard work.

I invited the new families in the neighborhood. They sounded pleased to have been invited. I stopped and talked to various people in the neighborhood on my evening walks. I called those whose phone numbers I had or could track down, even some who had recently moved away. People were polite. A few said they’d come, and offered to bring something to for the picnic.

I cooked all afternoon. We borrowed a few tables, and my sons and I set up tables and chairs in the backyard. We blew up balloons, and wrote a “welcome” note in chalk on the driveway. The one who lent the tables informed me that some people in the neighborhood are mad at each other and may not show up. (Was that the real reason she wasn’t coming?)

One neighbor stopped by. We ate and talked and I tried my best to ignore the nagging feeling that I’d failed. But if one person didn’t have to spend the evening alone, wasn’t that enough? 

But what should I do with all the leftovers? I sent our guest home with some of the curry. I also delivered some to the neighbor who lent us tables. I packed up some sloppy Joes and buns for the neighbor next door who was sitting outside smoking. I called up another and delivered some food to her too. She met me her door and we chatted. Another neighbor walking by joined the conversation, and the three of us talked for several minutes. 

“If people don’t come to you, you take the food to them,” I concluded. My husband and kids thought the evening was a failure, but I noted that I did end up spending a good portion of the evening outdoors talking to neighbors, mostly one-on-one. Though different than I’d expected, I did have my night out. 

 

making do

One afternoon when the boys knew screens were not an option, they wandered outside and then into the garage where they picked up the bow and arrow their grandpa had made a number of years ago. Determining it was time for an updated model, they come in to get the pocket knife. Then pretty soon they wanted to watch an instructional video on how to make a bow from a tree branch. I was invited to help with the project.


“I could give you a hug,” the teen said as he tried out the bow just after we had finished stringing it with baling twine. For someone who never willingly offers a hug, that was saying a lot. I never did get the hug, but I’m holding on to the sentiment.

finishing well

“Did you get an email from school? our middle schooler asked when he arrived home Tuesday.

“An email about what?” I asked.

“School’s done for the year because it’s so hot.” I hadn’t yet received the email. I was actually looking forward to getting a lot of things done the last two days I’d be home by myself… Instead, I get one more opportunity to adjust to a change in plans. Another abrupt ending. Feels like that’s been a recurring theme in the past year.

“Did you get an email?” our fourth grader asked when he came home later in the afternoon.

“Yes, I found out that school’s done for the year. How did your classmates respond to the news?”

“Some of them started crying.”

“Why do you think they did that?”

“Because it was unexpected,” he responded.

Couldn’t they just have just gone on and ended the year according to schedule? Lots of kids will be missing the closure they really could use right about now.

I still insisted they do their homework. I directed my middle schooler turn in the assignments due that day. I tried the same thing the next day. Since the work is all submitted online, his only counterargument is, “But WHY? They’re not going to grade it anyway.”

Because the teacher assigned it. Because the main reason we do homework is for the sake of learning. Because your education is at stake. No, I’m not talking about your grade; I’m talking about your education.

When I was a kid I had to feed newborn calves. Every once in a while there’d be a calf that didn’t want to take a bottle. The preferred way I dealt with those finicky calves was to tell Dad they wouldn’t drink. He’d take care of it, he’d say. But as I got older, that didn’t work any longer, and Dad would send me back to finish the job. He offered some tips, like try putting the calf in a head lock with your legs and then get the bottle in its mouth. Sometime that worked. Sometime it took more than half an hour to get some milk into a calf. Sometimes I got pretty irritated with my dad for making me do something so difficult. More than once I was surprised to discover that what I’d called impossible was actually possible.

Finishing up a few school assignments – even if they’re hard or take more time than a kid would like – seems like a poor proxy for the real-world experience I had on the farm, but it’s what’s before us at the moment. So the past two days have involved working on math packets and science assignments that my boys are convinced no other kid in their classes is actually doing. They are probably about as irritated as I once was.

When this week is over, we’ve still got time to enjoy our summer vacation. In the mean time, we might just be developing a little bit of grit.

a test of endurance

Our middle schooler went back to school today for his first day of in-person instruction in 13 months, on this first day of fourth quarter.

We survived distance learning. Many days were good, and it truly was a privilege to coach my kids through the challenges of time management, analytical thinking, and hard algebra problems – in some cases modeling how to find an answer when we don’t know. But I’m exhausted. I did a lot of reminding and redirecting. I tried to maintain screen-time limits. I expected them to do quality work. I even expected them to do their school work before giving in to the pull of online games. I earned the distinction of “meanest mom ever” for such expectations. I was frustrated at their unwillingness or inability to monitor themselves, particularly the older one. Mid-pandemic, I wallowed in mom guilt about not providing my boys with sufficient opportunities for social interaction. I planned and served three meals a day, day after day, week after week, in months that started to all blur together. (The kids did help with the cooking and the clean up, but ultimately, making sure it all got done rested on my shoulders.)

All was not in vain, I realized during a conversation with my older son on the last day of third quarter.

“I’m sorry for making your life difficult,” my teen had said, poking his head in our bedroom, where I’d silently retreated to get away from his brother who was whining about being on kitchen clean-up duty that evening. 

Many days he had made life more difficult. But parenting is worth the effort, I was sure at that moment. We had grown in patience and grace during this time, even if some days the evidence looked meager.

We’re ready for this fresh start. May the things we’ve learned serve us well as we face new, unknown challenges ahead.

This picture at the bus stop was from late February, when weekly middle school in-person support started (still all middle school classes were online) and the boys rode the bus together for the first time this year. The photo idea was vetoed this morning.

simple day-brighteners

The first cookbook I ever owned was Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls. Uncle Harold sent it to me in 1983, with the date and “Happy New Year” hand-written on the inside front cover. I read that book more times that I can count, usually flipping through the pages until something caught my eye, but I don’t think I actually made that many of the recipes. So I’m not sure why I had higher hopes for Melissa Clark’s cookbook and my own kiddos. Though the book hasn’t yet lured my boys into the kitchen, I’ve tried making several of the recipes and they’ve been well received. The savory Dutch Baby with Parmesan and chives was a favorite. We also thought the Cheesy Skillet Black Beans were a winner – even without the cheese – and Secret Ingredient Tofu was pretty good (though I reduced the amount of fish sauce in the homemade barbecue sauce slathered on the baked tofu slabs cause I know how my boys feel about fish sauce.)

My older son, though, has proved more interested in coming up with his own recipes. “I’m going to invent a salad,” our thirteen-year-old announced as I was preparing lunch Saturday, “one with two kinds of olives, lettuce, and cheese. Do we have any black olives?”

So here he was, the one who begrudgingly helps with meal preparation, pulling items out of the fridge and pantry of his own accord. Turns out there was no lettuce in the fridge, but baby spinach leaves worked splendidly tossed with his olive-brine and olive-oil dressing. It was a tasty salad, but the thing I appreciated most was the initiative he showed in contributing to the meal.

Another item that’s been brightening days is this cute mouse pad. It’s got a photo of a quilted placemat my sister Clair made for us over a year ago. It arrived a couple of weeks ago and has become my favorite mouse pad ever.

I’ve also been enjoying an angel wing begonia from a neighbor. Back in November, someone posted a request for houseplants on Nextdoor.com. The response was so overwhelming that not only did the person making the request get all the offers for plants she could handle, but lots of other plant sharing took place as well. One kind grower gave me a clipping that I’ve managed to keep alive these past four months. I still have to figure out how to get it to flower, but otherwise it seems to be thriving.

February lessons

I saw my ten-year-old off to school this morning – something we hadn’t done in a good 11 months. No one else was at the bus stop, not even his older brother who goes to the same school, because only elementary learners have been welcomed back so far. We waited in the below zero weather, thinking about how much more pleasant it is to wait for the bus in September, when you don’t even need a jacket. This is not the way I would have written the script. But I’m trusting that things have happened this way for a reason.

And if I were writing the script, I surely wouldn’t have included any broken bones, but that’s what I got earlier this month. Trusting that it has happened for a reason is a little bit harder when it comes to my broken wrist. Yet I’ve come to see that there are things for me to learn in the forced stillness, including things that I hadn’t known I need to learn. My new (metal) accessories were attached last Friday:

After a week with a rather bulky wrap around my wrist, I got a slimmer brace yesterday.

I’m rejoicing at the increased mobility and looking for ways to savor the moments that are rich and meaningful: helpful acts, kind words, and time spent with those I love best. Sure beats worrying or getting stuck in the “I can’t wait until…” mentality where I’m so preoccupied with what I want to happen next that I’m not fully living in the present.

art from lined paper

During Christmas break, we tried out author and illustrator Debra Frasier’s Paper Camp. The beauty of the technique in this stripes course is that you create your own patterned paper from regular notebook or loose leaf paper, coloring every other line with a marker. Once you’ve got a nice assortment of handmade striped paper, then you cut out some shapes to form a picture. The boys and I each made one:

The best thing about this class was that it opened our eyes to what can be done with scraps. In our second round, we created pictures with the bits and pieces, arranging and rearranging different discarded pieces from the first project until it looked like something familiar.

In one picture, we used scraps plus some tiny embellishments cut from an orange stripe:

After that, we tried out a few folding projects to make use of more of the striped paper:

Once the boys got past the idea that such projects are for “little kids,” we had a fun time creating together.

a lesson in lunch prep

The library is one of the few places we go during quarantine. While browsing at Rice Street Library last week, our older son picked up a copy of the Bone Handbook by Jeff Smith:

While he was reading it, he pointed out that there’s a recipe for quiche in there. “Let’s make it,” he suggested.

“Good idea,” I responded, deciding not to mention that both he and his brother complain whenever I put a veggie-laden crustless quiche or frittata on the table. 

His ten year-old-brother grabbed the book when he had set it down and looked over the ingredient list. “As long as you leave out the green onions,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I could just sprinkle some on my piece after it’s baked.”

So I made the pie crust, fried the bacon, and delegated most of the other preparation tasks to our teen. He likes his vegetables raw, he pointed out. The unstated message was clear: resist any urge to add something green to the dish. So made a cabbage and kale salad to serve as a side. Once the quiche was in the oven, he jumped onto a Google meet with his Computer Applications teacher, and I was left to keep an eye on it during its time in the oven.

It turned out to be a lovely lunch, we all agreed. The leftovers were great, too, but one of the best parts is that he’s starting to take more ownership for his cooking lessons, which officially began last month as his mom’s addition to the studying-at-home curriculum.

someplace to go

“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are,” Mason Cooley wrote. We’re so thankful for our libraries that have been keeping us supplied with “places to go.” In our read-alouds recently we’ve visited Warsaw, Germany, Switzerland, and Mississippi, USA. But my sons have also been doing plenty of their own armchair travels to other locales, racing through the Bone series by Jeff Smith and the Yoda Origami series by Tom Angleberger.