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. 

 

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.

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.

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.

fall 2020 “firsts”

The first day of school this fall was a first day like no other. We took the obligatory first-day pictures of our fourth grader

…and our seventh grader.

But no one got on the bus. The boys logged in for Google meets, though I think the middle schooler missed a few. Distance learning is no one’s favorite around here, but we’re focusing on the positives. No long bus rides. You can take breaks when you want. You get to have a hot lunch at home – and you don’t even need to pack it.

The back-to-school shopping was different this year too. In addition to typical things like jeans and shoes – which were still necessary because they’re both growing like weeds – we bought a globe, a couple of magazine subscriptions, and portable desks (actually TV trays). Now everyone has a designated work space (including mom and dad).

Another, perhaps more exciting, first happened this week. We got to return to our local public library for browsing. It was the first time since March that we could wander through the stacks. (Though we were thankful for contact-less pick-up to tide us over.) We came home with a nice selection of library books, which we can hang on to for a whole month if we wish.

Other firsts have included a socially-distanced outdoor fourth-grade meet up, joining a masked soccer league, and the first day of youth group. We’re developing resiliency as we figure out how to thrive in this new normal. Some days are exhausting, some days are tear-filled, and some days I feel like I’ve accomplished almost nothing. But I’m holding out hope that one day we’ll look back at this period of time and remember it with a certain fondness. Here’s to the memories we’re making!

grateful for our garden

 

When my Hungry Mungries believe they simply can’t wait until the meal is cooked before they eat, I tend to pull out the vegetables – carrot or celery sticks, frozen peas (served still frozen), cucumber slices… Today their “first course” at lunch was all from our garden plot. Can you believe I had to ration the green beans?

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nature photo journal, late July 2020

You immediately registered your dissent when your mom suggested we all grab our iPads and try our hand at nature photography. But, as usual, it turned out better than you were expecting.

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Our first stop was Villa Park, where we immediately saw the egret-in-residence wading at water’s edge. But it was hard to get a good shot among all the trees. Our amateurish attempts did yield a few memorable pictures of the bird as it decided we were getting too close for comfort.

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Then there was the green heron, perched peacefully just near the shoreline,

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the deer that was calmly browsing, pausing several times to stare back at us,

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and some cool fungus that seemed particularly photogenic.

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After taking these photos, we headed to Harriet Alexander Nature Center, where we mostly kept our iPads tucked away, protecting them from potential pond water mishaps. We paused several moments to watch this caterpillar up close, gobbling up its dinner.

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As you and your dad were walking toward the parking lot, your mom managed to capture a photo of some bees busy collecting nectar.

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Across the street, at the arboretum, your brother found the gravel just as fascinating as the flowers.

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The blacked-eyed Susans were as lovely as ever,

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and the silver sage looked so soft you may have had an impulse to pet it.

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It turned out to be a lovely evening for a walk, and a bit of cloud-gazing. And the picture-taking added a fun new twist to our outdoor time that day.

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some defining words of fourth quarter

ACEACE92-F184-4BAD-9B4B-8AB66499B421This week we’re closing the books on a school year like no other, complete with some big life lessons and the unique twists and turns of distance learning. Let’s recap by reviewing some of the defining words of this last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.    

Racism. You got a glimpse into just how much racism continues to plague this nation. The disturbing images on the news in recent weeks have left us all grieving. It’s been a bit overwhelming to witness such injustice, rage, and brokenness in our system and in our city – even in ourselves. You’ve grown up in a household in which two different races and cultures are represented. You have seen that people with different skin colors can live together in harmony, that our lives are richer for the diversity within our family and  reciprocal friendships, and that different perspectives can be an asset when working together toward a shared goal. Your parents still have much to learn, but we hope we have at least been an example of recognizing our own shortcomings and working through misunderstandings with grace and humility. We are confident that you can be agents of positive change in this world as you discover your purpose in life and live out your part in the ultimate redemptive plan. 

Fragility. We rarely like to think about our own limitations, but this pandemic has reminded us of our vulnerability and our mortality. It has shed light on the truth that we are not as in control of our world as we tend to think. As concern and fear of the coronavirus spread, leaders felt they had no better option than to call a halt to life as we knew it. We stayed home. Nearly everybody stayed home – all the time. You heard stories of empty grocery shelves (didn’t see them yourselves because you were at home.) You’ve grieved the loss of our familiar routines. You’ve felt pangs of isolation, missing friends from school, missing all the casual, commonplace interactions in a given day. We have all felt emotionally exhausted. We have been crankier than usual. We have been more easily moved to tears – or emotional outbursts. We have gotten lots practice asking for and extending forgiveness. We’ve grown closer. And stronger.
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Resilience. You have shown yourselves able to adapt in the midst of adversity and stress. You have applied yourselves and learned the academic content your teachers delivered online. You have turned our kitchen into a science lab while floating foil boats, observing chemical reactions, and twirling convection snakes. You have become better problem solvers. You’ve asked good questions as we read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn together. You’ve been reminded that using one’s skills and time for the benefit of others is our responsibility and privilege. You have held on to hope. One day you will come to understand just how much fortitude you’ve gained by overcoming the challenges and frustrations of these past few months.

You’ve learned a lot this year – we all have – and we want to celebrate that learning. It has been a privilege to grow alongside you and help you develop in ways that will serve you well for years to come.