Sunday, March 29, 2020

a COVID-19 confession of being ordinary

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” -- Victor Hugo

I am not doing anything very significant right now.  I wake each morning thinking I ought to join some great movement to provide aid or relief to people, or perhaps to find a way despite social distancing to share uplifting music with others, or at the very least to deliver handwritten notes to each of our neighbors, but somehow each day seems to bring with it enough on my proverbial plate.  It is enough just to keep my children fed and cared for, to prepare for the rapidly approaching arrival of our fourth child, to keep our home from falling into chaos.

I am not doing great things, and if I am honest with myself, I am not even heeding Mother Theresa's call to "do small things with great love," for sometimes I cannot seem to summon in myself the great love.  There are in fact times in each day when I'm doing small things not with great love but with great impatience, or with great annoyance, or even with great bitterness.

I am sitting at the table, three meals a day, reminding children to chew with their mouths closed, to not interrupt one another, sometimes just to take another bite without complaint.  I am ushering children into coats and boots to take them out of doors for a walk, and wondering why at least one of them seems to be fussing at any given moment.  I am folding loads of laundry daily, and loading the dishwasher again the minute it's been run and emptied.  I am reading aloud through frequent irritating interruptions.  I am wiping hands and bottoms, giving baths, and reminding these small people, over and over, of the the rules and expectations of our family.  It does not feel like a great thing, this life of mine, but somehow, nonetheless, it can be enough to exhaust me.

+ + +

The world is a weighty place, and we are all feeling it right now.  People are sick and some are even dying.  We are staying home, and we are waiting as the data unfolds in real time.  Knowing that the numbers represent real lives and deaths.

But there are beautiful things happening too, even if I'm not contributing to them.

In the past week, I've been touched by a few things personally: a delivery to my doorstep of a bag of flour when Nathan couldn't find any at the store; a package of my favorite almond butter cups from Trader Joe's brought to my porch; conversations held through the doorway; a friend bringing a gift for our new baby; a bunch of forsythia from a friend's yard; another doorstep delivery of labor and postpartum supplies.  And in my gratitude for these moments of mine, I've also been humbled in the realization that I have not done very much for others lately.

+ + +

Nathan's work must feel, I think, more meaningful than any of mine at a time like this.  The music he coordinates for Sunday worship services has become a lifeline to many people right now, with more than a thousand people tuning in to the livestream each Sunday to hear the music as well as the sermon and to participate, such as they can, in worship.  

For my own work, my spring gigs have all been canceled.  I'm continuing to teach violin, albeit virtually for the time being.  Two weeks ago I could never have imagined that I would someday feel strangely thrilled to see the faces of students on my computer, to feel that saying hello to a middle schooler or chatting briefly with a beginning student playing Twinkle would become a bit of a lifeline, a glimpse of humanity outside my own door.

+ + +

Life is changed for all of us right now, in our work lives and in our home lives.  And isolation, I am learning, is not always good even for an introvert such as myself.  Even for us, a family who already homeschooled and thus was accustomed to life with children home all the time, nothing feels very normal right now.  Our rhythms and routines are disrupted.  And where things do manage to continue as normal, a blanket of anxiety can threaten to envelop me at any moment of the day.

If I read too many news articles in one day, I can feel the creeping fears -- While we are hoping to have a home birth, will I somehow end up delivering in a hospital situation where my husband is not permitted to be with me?  Will my family and friends be able to remain healthy through this epidemic?  How many will have lives inevitably altered by this, either by disease or by financial ramifications?  I have to put down my computer, go outside for a bit and breathe the fresh air, try to find a sense of normalcy.

Amidst these global concerns, I am confronted daily with my own pettiness and selfishness.  I think of things I had wanted to do before the baby comes -- updating the framed pictures from eight years ago hanging on the living room walls, changing a few decor things to create a space I'll enjoy being in when I'm nursing a new baby.  And yet, a trip to Michaels to update my walls or even a trip to Target for baby essentials is suddenly not possible, or at least not advisable.  I find myself feeling a petty sense of self-pity that I won't be able to take the new baby out in the near future, won't be able to go through a Starbucks drive-through on a particularly wearying day, won't be able to see any friends in those early newborn days.  I know that none of these things are particularly weighty problems in light of a world battling a global disease, nurses overworked and patients dying, and yet I cannot seem to help feeling them.

+ + +

This morning a timely online sermon reminded me that God never promises that we won't be in the valley of the shadow of death.  But he promises that he will be with us.  The presence of God.  I want it to be tangible right now, to myself and to my children, but instead some days I feel as though I'm reaching around in the darkness unable to quite grasp ahold of his presence.  I'm grieved that we won't be able to go to church during Holy Week or for Easter.  And while I usually love celebrating these special times and observing them in many ways in our home life, instead of feeling empowered or energized right now to do this even more for my family, I feel... tired.  Overwhelmed.  Isolated.  Sad.

+ + +

So, I'm not doing great things.  Today's small accomplishments included beginning a good and timely chapter book with my kids, and baking two loaves of sourdough bread that, for the first time in a couple of weeks, actually rose beautifully and turned out nicely.  With the heat in our house only working sporadically, along with a shortage of flour until recently, I have had depressingly dense loaves lately.  So it felt like a victory to have this morning's loaves bake up the way I wanted them to at last.

We dipped chunks of fresh sourdough into homemade hummus tonight, and we were grateful.

God reminded me of his presence in a loaf of bread today - our daily bread, our needs provided for.

+ + +

So this is me today, right now: not inspirational, not a world-changer.  Just getting through each day, tired and rather hugely pregnant, waiting for the time each evening when I can fall into bed.  Despite a million clever and creative ideas flooding the internet with things we could all be doing with our children lately, I am just maintaining the normal around here for the most part.  Not doing spectacular craft projects with my children, not making medical supplies, certainly not nursing patients back to health or even brightening anyone's day, really.

Just baking two loaves of bread and feeding my husband and children.

The pastor I listened to online earlier today said this, repeating advice he was once given when he had reached a low point: "Be faithful.  Do the next thing that you're supposed to do, and do it well."

So I shall continue to do the little things I've been given to do each day, even on the days when all is grey and rainy and my tasks feel unimportant.  And when I have accomplished my tasks, I will go to sleep, because sleep is something I seem to require a lot of right now.  And I will remember Victor Hugo's words: "God is awake."  He is present.

Friends, if any of you are like me, and not feeling that you are accomplishing great things in these difficult days, you are not alone.  Remember that the little things matter, and remember most of all that you can go to sleep after your day's labors, knowing that God is present with us and he does not sleep.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

how to enjoy your kids during the coronavirus

Well, the COVID-19 concerns have officially set in, along with extensive social distancing as we as a country attempt to "flatten the curve."  Schools are closed, events are canceled, and we are all staying home.  As a second-generation homeschooling mother who is naturally an introvert, I've been training my whole life for this moment.  A few glances at social media sites, however, have assured me that not all parents are feeling peaceful about these coming weeks of isolation.  A lot of parents are feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for increased time spent in close quarters with their children.  I get it.  If it's not what you're used to, it can probably seem like a lot to have an entire day to fill with these small humans, and then to do it again the next day, and the next.

I originally had no intention whatsoever of adding to the clamor out there.  I mean, my goodness.  The "COVID daily schedules," those color-blocked moment-by-moment methods of recreating the intense structure of public school in your homes!  The cutesy, picture-perfect unit studies all over Pinterest!  And the homeschooling programs that have realized they are one sector of the economy that could possibly thrive in this difficult time, suddenly filling everyone's feeds with endless options for free curriculum samples, discount codes, and more!   What could I possibly have to add with all these options?

Allow me instead to attempt to subtract, rather than add. Take it from someone who has been overwhelmed by the options before.  When I was choosing not just how to fill a few weeks of extra time with my children, but selecting entire curricula to begin in each subject when we began the task of officially homeschooling two years ago, I was overwhelmed.  Nathan finally walked by me one day, nose buried in my computer, and declared, "No wonder you're overwhelmed!  Allow me to close fifty tabs on your computer for you and you will feel better."  In this era of the interconnectedness of the world wide web, there are so many options.

And many of them are good options.  But you really don't need to download 50 curriculum samples, 95 free worksheets, and daily and weekly schedules to get through these next few weeks with your children.  In fact, I believe that you can not just survive these weeks, but you could find yourself thriving in them.  I have even gone so far as to think to myself that certain sector of society -- not everyone, mind you -- may enjoy their life of telecommuting, decreasing daily activities, and increasing time with their families so much that they may want to continue in a simpler, less scheduled and structured way of life even when this is all over.

So do yourself a favor and close some browser tabs, and trust that it will all be okay.  Your children can survive without school, and they will not fall behind academically.  You, their parent, can survive this.  You'll find a way that works for your unique family, and it may or may not resemble the color-coded schedules you've seen online.  It may or may not involve worksheets.  You might choose to set aside the worksheets, in fact, and do something that could be, in the end, far more memorable.  You can use these weeks for unexpected snuggles, for reading books together that will make you laugh and cry, for spending time in nature together, for baking favorite recipes together, for creating art together.

In a nutshell: you do not need to buy a curriculum to spend the next few weeks with your children.  You do not need to suddenly undertake the task of "homeschooling."  Take a deep breath.  Your children, while probably challenging at times, can also probably be a lot of fun.  You've got this.

+ + +

First of all, a disclaimer: My children are almost-eight, almost-six, three, and due-next-month.  So I have spent almost eight years parenting, which I realize is not very much time in the broad scheme of things.  I don't have experience parenting teens or even pre-teens.  But if you, like me, have young-ish children, you may find a word here or there to be helpful.

+ + +

Perhaps most importantly, I'll begin with this: my three main strategies to swiftly turn around a day that is going poorly (and we all have days or moments like that):

1) Go Outside: Send the kids out, or better yet, go out all together, because it's as good for a parent or caregiver as it is for the kids.  Run around in the yard.  Sit on the patio furniture and listen to the birds.  Take a walk.  Go on a hike.  Children are less grumpy out of doors, they argue less, and they are more pleasant.  Just go outside!

{Go outside.  Even if it's messy.}
2) Turn on Music: We like a variety of music around here, including lots of classical music, music from ballets which our girls love to dance to, and folk music by singers like Elizabeth Mitchell.  Turn on music and watch the kids get happier.

3) Involve Water: This could mean running a bath and putting young kiddos in it, or it could mean letting someone splash in the kitchen sink and play with measuring cups.  It could mean letting them help wash dishes.  It might mean pulling out water beads, which are great fun.  It might mean swiftly tossing whoever is the grumpiest into a bathtub and adding bubbles and watching at least one other young kid decide to jump in, too.  Children forget to be grumpy when they're playing with water and bubbles.  (And it probably goes without saying, but supervise young children around water.  Of course.)

{Sometimes #1 and #3 can be combined, like playing in a bucket of water outside, a totally winning combination.}

+ + +

Now, let's say there's no particular grumpiness going on, or you've already dealt with it using one of the above strategies or one of your own tried and true methods.  Now what should you do with your children all day?

I would humbly submit that you don't need a curriculum, or even a big pile of worksheets, to enjoy a few weeks with your children and to watch them grow, learn, and thrive.  It might take them a few days to adjust to the total change in their lives and schedules, but they will adjust and learn how to play, how to fill their time without bells, buzzers, or teachers telling them to switch tracks every 50 minutes, and suddenly you'll be surprised to realize they've been engrossed in a project of their own creation for two hours, coming up with something cool and fascinating (or maybe bizarre and only fascinating to them, but still!) all of their own accord.

So, if your school hasn't already assigned work to be done from home during the Coronavirus school closures (and I know some districts have and others haven't), or even if they have but you have other hours in the day to fill, here are a few thoughts:

Get dressed

Have your children get dressed.  I promise, the allure of days at home in PJs will wear off quickly, and you will find it is easier to love them if they are wearing something clean and pleasant, and their hair is combed.  Dress yourself, too, because you will feel more like a human being instead of a sleep-walking zombie surrounded by wild zoo animals as soon as you put on clothes, and maybe even a necklace or a pair of earrings.

Morning Basket

This idea is definitely not unique to me, and if you've spent even a little time in Charlotte Mason homeschooling circles you will have come across this phrase.  I can't recommend it highly enough!  Into a basket you want to put some books that will help you start your morning with something beautiful and meaningful.  Some of our favorites include a book or two of calendar poems or other seasonal poetry, perhaps some A.A. Milne poetry, our family notebook of poems we've memorized or are currently memorizing, a folksong or hymn we are learning together, and maybe a book of artwork by an artist you are studying or just an artist you love.  I keep our morning basket easily accessible, and during breakfast when the children's mouths are full and they are sitting reasonably still and wreaking less havoc than usual, I read to them.  A Psalm, a few poems, maybe a chapter from a current read-aloud book.  They love it and beg me not to stop reading, so in between sips of coffee, I just keep going.  Before you know it you've front-loaded your day with literature and poetry and beauty, and if the rest of the day goes a little off the rails, at least you've got that to show for your day.   It's no small thing, and it has saved many a day over here from feeling like a failure.

Read Aloud

I'm pretty sure all parents know the importance of reading aloud to your kids.  Whether they are not yet independent readers, or are struggling readers, or are already solid independent readers, the research is clear: reading to your kids will help set them up for a lifetime of loving to read.  Just get started and watch their vocabularies blossom, their comprehension grow and amaze you, their ability to recall it all astound you.  (Nell and I are finishing up The Little Duke by Charlotte Yonge at the moment, and if you had read me even a paragraph of this book two years ago and told me that by age seven my daughter would be loving this book, I would have laughed.  And yet here we are, and she is engrossed with the story and loving it.)

Aside from academic advantages, reading aloud as a family will give you a shared family lexicon of beloved characters and stories that will become intermingled with your own family story in a way that is really special.  One of my go-to websites for book suggestions is Sarah Mackenzie's Read-Aloud Revival.  It's a great place to go for book lists of every kind: Seasonal book lists! Books about math!  Audiobooks that are on sale for pennies! Books divided by age or grade level!  Favorites for all ages!

{Because it's too cute not to share, a picture from our Little House in the Big Woods literature club with friends back in November.}
Don't forget to utilize Hoopla, Libby, or Librivox apps for audiobooks when your own voice gives out or you just need a break.  I borrowed the Complete Ramona Quimby Collection on Hoopla a couple of weeks ago and since then my two older girls have powered through all 15 hours of Ramona books not once but twice, and are midway through a third time through.  They are quoting it, living it, laughing about it.  They are deep into Ramona's world at the moment, and loving it.

A few other favorite read-alouds and audiobooks around here have included: The Wizard of Oz (read by Anne Hathaway on Audible), Charlotte's Web (read by E.B. White himself), The Trumpet of the Swan, The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, and the other Melendy family books, Half Magic by Edward Eager, Thornton Burgess books, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, the Narnia books we've read so far, books by E. Nesbit, The Princess and the Goblin, Astrid Lindgren books like Pippi Longstocking and The Children of Noisy Village, the Winnie-the-Pooh books, which you are never too old for really, Heidi, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, the Clementine books, and.... well, goodness, I'll stop myself for now.  So many good ones!

{Don't forget to help littler ones find things to occupy themselves while you read bigger read-alouds to older children.}
Say Yes

My kids wake up every day with about six hundred ideas of things they want to do.  Just by saying yes to some of them, we can fill our days pretty easily with meaningful activities.  Just today Nell asked if she could sew a tutu for her doll, and while I couldn't manage it today due to teaching quite a few virtual violin lessons over FaceTime today, I told her that YES!  We can absolutely do that tomorrow!  Marie saw a basket of yarn and wanted to crochet something yesterday --YES!  Molly wanted to take a bath with her new birthday bath toys -- YES!  Nell wanted me to read to her from her geography book -- YES!  The older girls are deep into a phase of coloring book obsession and can't get enough of working through our stash of wonderful Dover coloring books -- YES!

{Building a model covered wagon yesterday after finishing a book about the Santa Fe trail. Sometimes it takes courage to say yes to, or even propose, something involving glue and hammers and small nails.  Take courage; it'll be worth it.}
Scatter Things With Intention

In case your kids don't have one hundred overwhelming ideas of things they're dying to do each and every day, or if you're all just going through a bit of a slump and need some inspiration, you can thoughtfully choose a few things to leave out in conspicuous places that you think your kids might see and subsequently want to do.  A basket of fabric, a jar of buttons.  A pile of favorite picture books you haven't read in a while placed nonchalantly on the coffee table for them to re-discover in the morning.  A jar of coins they can play with and practice counting.  Or maybe you just want to begin an ordinary task and watch them wander through and ask if they can join you.  Sure, kiddo, you can help me reorganize the kitchen cabinets!

Kitchen Help

If your days are anything like mine, by the time you've made breakfast, spent a rich and meaningful hour pouring over the books in your morning basket, tidied up from breakfast, and read aloud for an hour or two from a pile of good books (oh, and don't forget to read to the littlest ones first sometimes!), it'll be almost lunch time.  Let the kids help choose if there are choices to be had, and then, let them wash the veggies or fruit, slice the cucumbers or peppers or apples, spread the peanut butter on the sandwich bread.  They'll love being part of the preparation process if they are still young, and they'll thank you for teaching them these life skills someday.  They're also more likely to take ownership and actually enjoy eating the meal if they've helped prepare it.

{You might even be bold enough to say yes to a stark naked toddler "helping" you with the sourdough bread sometimes.}

Quiet Time

Friends, this is essential.  Do not under any circumstance neglect the importance of quiet time or rest time or whatever you want to call it.  We all need it, from the youngest toddler to the oldest and inevitably most exhausted parent.  Maybe everyone goes to his or her own space, or maybe a few children play quietly together or listen to an audiobook while coloring side by side.  Whatever works for your family, during this time, you as the parent are not in the least bit responsible for entertaining them.  My goodness, you've just filled their minds with a few hours of good stories and food for their young imaginations, and maybe you've even done a handicraft or art project with them, too.  You've fed them not one but two meals!  Congratulations, you are now totally and completely entitled to go "offline" for a bit.  Read your own book, work on your own project, or lay down and take a well-deserved nap.  They'll have a great time playing together.  You, the parent, are not actually obligated to entertain your child or children or to pretend that you want to play trains with them.  It is my firm belief that adults don't need to play with children for most of the day unless you are the sort of adult that actually wants to do this.  Nope.  Say to your children, "Go play," and they will do it.  They want to!  If they've temporarily forgotten how, they'll soon remember.  Don't despair.  Children accustomed to a rather long school day of constant structure may need a little time to "de-school" and get reacquainted with their imaginations, but it will happen.  Before you know it half the recycling bin will be mysteriously emptied, the scissors and tape will have gone missing, and your kids will have constructed an adobe village at the end of the Santa Fe trail or something, all because you read them a book recently and then gave them time and space to be kids.

Clean Up

Do yourself a favor, parents and caregivers.  Teach your children to help with the cleanup.  This way of life, with kids in your home doing interesting and wonderful things, is a messy one.  You will lose your ever-loving mind if you don't teach them, by gently coming alongside them in the cleaning up process, to clean up their messes, preferably one at a time before they create too many new ones.  These skills won't come overnight but they will gradually grow and your future sanity will thank you later for building these habits in your children.

{a couple of real-life "before" pictures.  AKA what our life looks like multiple times each day.}

Need another afternoon activity?  You don't need to do anything fancy, but if you want to help your children begin to create their own notebooks they can enjoy adding to and looking back on later, we have two favorites.  Each of my older children keeps a "nature journal" and a "book of illustrations."  We don't fill a page a day by any means, but we try to get an entry into each one about once a week, which to be honest, sometimes ends up being less frequent.  But it's something I want to do better at, because not only does it cement things in their memories, it gives them meaningful work of their own doing to look back on gathered into one nice and neat place.

The nature journals contain pencil sketches, water colors, and colored pencil drawings of favorite things they've discovered in nature or science- / nature- related things we've read about in books.  The books of illustrations contain drawings related to read-alouds we did for fun, as well as illustrations sometimes accompanied by "narrations" (recaps in their own words) of school books like history, stories from Shakespeare, etc.  They treasure these notebooks and love looking back at their previous work and remembering the stories and the discoveries we've shared.


I know many parents who are used to working full-time while their kids are in school full-time may not be accustomed to embracing a regular and somewhat early bedtime, but if you are spending much of your days home with your kids, I cannot recommend bedtime highly enough.  Spending the day with your kids is quite different from spending the day apart from them and needing those precious evening hours to reconnect.  We put our three-year-old to bed by 7 pm, and the older girls get ready for bed at the same time, and can look at books or listen to audiobooks or music in bed from about 7:30 or, at the latest, 8:00, until they're ready to sleep.  Meanwhile, I go do something separate from them, recharge, and get ready to do it all over again the next day.

+ + +

Congratulations, you've made it to the end of my unwanted advice.  

If you're still thinking you need a "curriculum" to occupy these weeks with your children, Ambleside Online has a great page of ideas for a "crisis curriculum."  It's simple, it's uncomplicated, it's a great starting point for reading good books with your kids, connecting with them during this time when they may be worried or unsettled, playing math games, reading good books, and keeping it simple. 

{Lest you think I'm "anti-worksheet," here's Marie happily doing a book of word worksheets she utterly adored completing.}
Your kids probably won't remember doing a random worksheet, no matter how thematic or cute or age-appropriate or academically challenging or what-have-you.  If they love worksheets then by all means give them a few to do, but what they will remember is this strange, unexpected time at home with their family.  Which may yet turn out to be unexpectedly wonderful in one way or another.