The Autumn Breeze

Why, hello there! Time seems to have slipped out from beneath me and I look over my shoulder and it’s October 5th. No, wait. 6th. Good grief. Around here the breeze has turned in from the north bringing the slight chill of autumn that we’ve all been waiting for. I’ve thrown open the windows to circulate the recycled air from the summer out of our house and have invited the outside to come in. A welcomed cleansing. But wouldn’t you know it that the time of year when I like to start roasting vegetables and bake hearty breads that my oven would break? I know, I know. Does autumn really come when ovens are broken? It surely does. I’m actually not in a rush to buy a new one. We’re in a stage of life where I’m not working and money is very tight so we’re trying to fix things where it’s possible instead of tossing and buying. Rejecting capitalism and materialism by force rather than by romantic idealism. Living the dream. Ah, but anyways. I’m adapting. The stove top still works, so instead of biscuits from the oven with our vegetable and barley soup last night I hand rolled a few parsley dumplings and plopped them into the pot. What a delicious treat they were. Our bellies were full and the breeze was wonderfully cool.

Last night after supper, after Ruby was tucked into her crib and the boys were showered, the four of us settled into mine and Jason’s bed with a few books while we laid around telling stories and tickling feet. Wouldn’t you know that Myles read to us The Giving Tree in its entirety, without whining or complaining, but with a legitimate desire to read and finish it. I teared up, not from the old stump giving its dearest friend the only thing left that it had to offer, but from listening to my son read. What a long journey this has been for us all. This moment has come at a sweet time for our family. As you know from my last post over a week ago, I went around the house in a fit of being fed up and unplugged all of the electronics. I’m a bit confused because the boys actually haven’t asked to watch TV or play Minecraft but only a couple of times. I’m wondering if it was actually us who pushed all of the technology on them for one reason or another. What a revelation that has been. If I hadn’t have unplugged the TVs, I wonder if we all would have spent the evening together in bed talking and reading together. A memory that wouldn’t have existed. Honestly, the children have been better behaved over all. They’re not as grouchy. They play independently without any prompting from me or Jason. And we’re spending such better time together. Playing legos, building toothpick and marshmallow structures, reading books, playing games, sitting and talking. And Myles isn’t struggling with homework and reading these days. I’m well aware that correlation doesn’t imply causation. But if the shoe fits and the sun rises…

So, here we are. Broke and happy. Content with a broken oven and reading children. As embarrassed as I often get about our finances and the choices that we’ve made to get us here (graduate school for both of us, heaps of student loan debt, poor financial planning, and me not working) I don’t count it as a failure. Something about the shifting breeze has settled a contentment in our small house. Sediments of rest and peace have dusted the earth. Financial security and upward mobility have lost its grasp and drifted away. I’d also say that my desires to be thin again, trendy, and less grey have gone with it as well. Contentment. What a sweet gift. I hope you all are feeling the change of season wherever you are and that it pushes in a peace past your understanding, as well. Until next time.

Our Journey Through Technology: Or, Getting Rid of Screen Time

There are a thousand thousand reasons to love this life, everyone of them sufficient.

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Most everyone in southeastern Virginia is watching for the leaves to begin browning around their edges and preparing to fall into our yards as we start settling into new autumn routines and daylight rhythms. This is one of the things I love most about Virginia. We have such beautiful changes of seasons. I have grown to really appreciate the turn and the tilt of the earth as we move from summer’s extreme heat to winter’s blistering cold year after year. Our home life has turned away from the traveling, leisure, and late evenings of summer and is now more focused on new house projects, routines, and instruction. The beginnings of turning inward and spending more time in our minds reading, practicing, learning, and creating always start in the fall, continuing through the deep winter when we’re all tucked tight inside, hibernating. After the busyness of spring and summer, this time of year is always welcomed. This is actually the first time that we’ve put our older boys into any after school activities. They started both cub scouts and piano lessons this year. I’ve always been wary of over scheduling my children and structuring play out of their lives, but this feels slow paced and reasonable for our family. It also makes them seem older to me, which is a welcomed gift.

I’ve been watching my oldest son, Myles, a lot recently. He’s 7 and in second grade, quickly growing out of the innocence of young childhood and into an older child, rounding the corner into adolescence. Sometimes it’s tough watching him lose his innocence and navigate the world. This age is a particularly awkward as he gains more social awareness, constructs his peers and the world into hierarchies, and is yet still so clumsy and emotionally fragile. I can only imagine that it will become more and more difficult as he continues to grow up and we navigate through my and Jason’s parenting. We all have lots of learning to do, and still more failures and successes to accumulate over the years.

The most recent topic that we are navigating through is our children’s use of digital technology. As they all get older their love for and immersion in so much technology is always a struggle for me. It’s something that we try to monitor and keep boundaries around, but often it almost feels like an impossible battle. And what are we fighting? At times it seems so benign and harmless. They love to play Minecraft and watch YouTube. It’s what they enjoy. And yet, so quickly it becomes all that they want or know how to do. I find that they even become more agitated and bored the more that they are connected to their games and television. When it’s turned off they pace around the house, become agitated at each other, and oh, do they whine. It’s as if they forget how to play and use their imaginations. They need something to stimulate their brains and flash across their eyes in order for them to function and participate in the world. And obviously, this concerns me. There’s a slew of research out that argues against so much digital technology for our kids. But there’s also a slew of research that supports it. Some would even probably argue that our world is becoming increasingly more digital so we should all rethink and restructure how and what we consider to be normal social interaction and play. Though, I do become wary when my children, and myself, need constant stimulus to function and interact with people.

Since the summer’s heat has finally lost its grip around here, I’ve been pushing the boys outside every day. And wouldn’t you know, they have no idea what to do. Jason and I set up their micromachine trucks and soldiers outside in the dirt and rocks and showed them how to play, attempting to spark their imaginations. While it takes a few minutes, they finally latched on and began to play. But as soon as another kid comes outside, the same fight ensues trying to keep them outside. They all want to immediately go in and play on a tablet or watch YouTube. Then it’s a hoard of boys pestering you to go to someone else’s house and play the xBox.

Well, over the weekend I had enough. I went through our house and unplugged every television. I put away their Leap Pads. I took out the Wii. I banned Minecraft and all access to the laptop. For the sake of my sanity and the health of my kids. Do you know what happened? The world continued to spin into autumn and my boys played outside. They spent hours building Legos. They drew on construction paper. They played on the swing with their sister. When a kid came over that wanted to take them to their house to play video games I said NO. I put my foot down. Yes, they whined a little bit. Yes, it was harder parenting. But they got over it.

Somewhere along the way this no-shame, no-guilt, parenting culture has turned into a game of survival that often overlooks what’s best for our kids and families. Sure, I feed my kids frozen chicken nuggets and turn on the television when life gets out of control and hard, but it easily and increasingly morphs into our daily lives and routines. And then out of nowhere I have a brood of digital addicts who don’t want to leave the house. And for what? So that my life is easier? Parenting is easier when your kids are staring at a screen. But that doesn’t mean it’s what is best. At least not all of the time. That’s not to shame parents who do it! We’ve all been there. But we can encourage each other to press into parenting when it’s difficult. We can set rules, limits and boundaries that teach our children how to use their imaginations and interact with others in the physical world. That is, I guess, if you value the physical world. The world that has natural rhythms and cycles and is moving our family into fall. And we’re not going to miss it.

Real Talk: Cultivating Kindness

Surely by now we all are friends. At least the distant digital kind that give a listening ear and kindness when we need it. Right now I need a real talk moment. Parenting has been quite a struggle for me recently. I find myself so easily agitated at my children, even the littlest one, barking orders at them, wishing the day away until it’s time for bed. It’s such a shame because I see how it affects their tempers and attitudes. How they’re treated is often reflected in how they treat others. These days it’s mostly with annoyance and anger. Sigh.

What’s the most difficult is that my two boys are absolute turds. I say that in the most loving, motherly way, but holy shit, they are so loud and fight so much. And you know, Jason and I try to teach them kindness and gentleness, but out come the punches and cries that someone took something that they were looking for and will neeeeever give it baaaaack, despite all of our modest attempts at guiding them to loving others. That’s about when I drop my head and wait desperately for 8pm reading, toothbrush, pj, and bed time. Okay, honestly, they could go to bed in jeans and cavities at that point. Just please, for the love of god, close the door and fall asleep. And there you have it. A vicious cycle of anger begetting anger, and more anger, and a heaping tablespoon of annoyance. No wonder my kids are just so lovely to be around.

I think that it was, oh, everyday this week that the boys were squabbling when I pulled them aside to talk to them about kindness, about honoring others with our words and our actions, loving others, treating them how they would like to be treated. They both darted their eyes around the room, squirming to get away from their nagging mom, and told each other sorry, now give me back boy toy, you thief! 

You know, cultivating kindness really is difficult. Everything in our flesh rejects it. It is a discipline to think of others and not yourself. To forgive when you have been wronged. To love when others hate. Selfishness and pride rule our bodies and minds. Well, at least in our family. And that’s really what I have been struggling with. My own selfishness and time. I want to do what I want, when I want it. So, naturally, that causes conflict between me and my toddler when she’s hungry right when I want to, oh, go to the bathroom or check my email. It also causes conflict when I don’t want to read or play games with my son after he’s been asking for an hour. And I get annoyed. Then he hits his brother. Like I said, it’s a vicious cycle.

But you know, I could go off and read a list on how other families have worked to cultivate kindness – writing encouraging letters to each other, baking each other cookies, shooting rainbows from their… I’ll stop – but those lists always leave me feeling like a pretty big failure. My kids don’t donate their allowance money to starving kids in Haiti. Hell, I can’t even get them to loan me $5 for a coffee at Target. They have Minecraft paraphernalia to buy! But what we can do is cultivate forgiveness. When they do wrong they can confess, ask forgiveness, and be forgiven. Maybe that will cultivate more kindness in the long term. To know that you’re forgiven and loved would motivate anyone to be kind to others. Even me.

Bed Sheets and Black Holes

 

This morning at 6:30, Myles crawled into my bed and snuggled next to me. Jason was already downstairs drinking coffee and answering email, leaving me alone in our dawn soaked room with the fan whirring and cooling the air. Bundled under the comforter Myles asked, “Where are black holes?” We started the day in bed together slowly uncovering the universe. He used his hands to demonstrate the earth’s orbit around the sun and how days end and nights begin. His little imagination and curiosity eager to wrap around the workings of time and space.

Our Origins

And we pray, not for new
earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.
What we need is here.

-Wendell Berry


If you could hear the silence that I’m sitting in. Still. Soft. I almost forgot that such quiet exists. The boys are at school today. Their first day back. It was an emotional morning for all of us, one that only months of being so close together can bring, where we all wanted to be apart but still near. Owen was worried that he’d be lonely at school. Myles was worried that he’d get picked on while riding the bus. I worried that they’d get homesick. But here I am. In the quiet. Ruby is napping. My mind can wonder; I wonder how they’re doing.

here i am. I am in Virginia. The place where I was made and have made myself in the world. I see the creek out of my window that pulls out and pushes in slow over its muddy banks and up to the top of the bulkhead. My sons walk outside and down the sidewalk towards their bus stop, readying to push out with the distant tide that will take them to their own here. I hope their here is here. With me. Where my sighs breathe out of the ground, in and out with the tide. Washing words on the muddy banks of our home and belonging, the songs of the osprey, who calls out in a voice over glassy water, perched high in its pine towards the east, words that fly to the banks of their origin.

 

Vacationing Well Enough

I really struggle with vacationing well. Do you know what I mean when I say that? What I mean is that some people are just natural born vacationers. When they get to their destination they just seem to release. On a deep exhale their hair unravels, a mojito falls into their hand, and they simply exist. They relax. They know exactly what they want to do and somehow find a way to do it. Or they don’t do it. Life is their oyster, or whatever that expression is. Well, I want an oyster, damnit.

We’re currently on vacation in the Outterbanks of North Carolina in a small fishing, beach, and tourist town this week. It’s one of my most favorite places in the world. Granted, I haven’t actually been to that many places in the world, but I love it. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. But what I remember the most as a kid is that vacationing is so much easier when you are 11. Part of what I struggle with as an adult is actually growing up and realizing that life wasn’t actually better when I was a child, it’s just that I was a child. I ate Doritos that my parents paid for and crisped in the sun and salty waves all day. Well, now I can’t seem to let go. To just be. I’m always thinking that I’m wasting my precious vacationing time and should be out taking advantage of the day: spending more time at the beach, taking more naps, doing more biking, seeing more sights, playing more games, making more memories, reading more fiction, and it gets quite exhausting being so anxious about relaxing.

But I’m sure you can relate. Even now, we’ve been here less than 48 hours and I’ve already snapped at my kids and Jason more times than I’d like to admit because they just aren’t being relaxing enough. How sweet of me. Though, it is funny and hopeful for me. No vacation has ever been enough. I know that when I leave later this week that it will have not been relaxing or long enough. That there wouldn’t have been enough time enjoying my children or touching my husband (because one of my goals this week is to touch my husband as much as I can. Oh, I’m going to be romantic with 3 kids around. Don’t you worry!). I can only just stop and tell myself that this is enough. That even though we didn’t make it to the beach yet today and have only sat in the driveway eating Doritos and riding bikes, it’s enough. And it is good. That’s the kind of grace that helps me to rest and vacation well enough.

Perceptions of Beauty: How Speaking About Anti-Racism Is Not Divisive

When I was a child my grandmother and I would watch QVC in the evenings while she got ready for bed. Sitting at her vanity, she’d slather on her cold cream with her hair up in pin curls while I laid across the bed next to her with my feet kicked up and picked at the loose threads on the knit blanket. Her favorite segments on QVC were the Fenton glass basket sales and the porcelain dolls. She kept the TV turned down low during the makeup demonstrations declaring that the women looked like a bunch of hussey clowns in all of that lipstick, but when the porcelain dolls came on she turned up the volume and watched with her full attention.

Straight and tall, the creamy white dolls stood on their stands with bright, glossy eyes and ringlets of yellow, red, and chestnut hair falling down their shoulders from under boater hats. Decorated in Victorian lace and bows, these angels of the house were so beautiful. After a long day of housework my grandmother gave them all of her attention. She dumped her burdens and absorbed them. The camera panned across the line of dolls and stopped at the end to zoom in on the one with smooth dark porcelain skin. Her deep black eyes stared out unmoving but knowing and they pushed my grandma back into her chair as she looked away and finished wiping the cold cream off of her face.

“Oh, grandma look at that one. She’s beautiful,” I said wispily.

Jerking around with pinched brows, my grandma looked at me and said, “Now, you know that doll is ugly as sin. Don’t go saying stuff like that.” She turned off the TV and finished her night time beauty routine. Twisting hair. Smearing cream.

*****

It’s quite amazing how years later old memories can apparate into our realities. I thought of that story of my grandma and the black porcelain doll this week after I packed up all three of my kids and went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for lunch. Waiting in the check out line, Ruby was sitting in the front of the shopping cart by me while the boys flipped through magazines. When we finally moved up a spot, we stood next to a young black lady in the line next to us with a little girl around the same age as Ruby in her cart. As I was in the middle of telling the boys, yet again, that they could not buy any candy, an older white man that was in line behind the black lady and her child walked over to Ruby, rubbed her hand and said, “Why hello blue eyes! Aren’t you a beauty!” I turned around to see him fawning over Ruby and I immediately felt my skin begin to glow as I noticed the young black man behind me give a knowing look to the other child’s mom. She looked at Ruby, then at the old man, pinched her mouth shut and turned around towards her baby. The old man continued on saying that Ruby would be a heart breaker one day and that she was just so sweet and pretty.

He didn’t notice a thing. Because what really just happened? Did anything happen? Did I read into the faces of the people around me? Impose my intuition on them? I don’t believe I did. Something very subtle and culturally big happened. And I thought of my grandma’s dolls. I remembered back to my grandmother telling me that the black doll was as ugly as sin and I felt ashamed. And angry. What happened in the grocery store with Ruby was so subtle that it was almost unnoticeable. Well, unnoticeable to the white man. The little black baby sat in his direct line of vision for minutes. There was no fawning. No talking. Almost as if the baby wasn’t there. And then we strolled ahead of him. He craned his neck and walked across the aisle towards Ruby to show his admiration for her beauty. I noticed. And so did the black adults around me. I was immediately uncomfortable for what he had done and I felt complicit. I was complicit. And, sadly, so was Ruby. My little girl has been born into a racial system that places her at the top of what is considered beautiful: blonde hair, blue eyes, creamy white skin. And there’s my grandmother again: “that doll is ugly as sin.”

There’s this myth out there among white people that if you bring up or talk about racism or oppression against people of color that you are in some way creating racial division. That uttering into words the everyday experiences of racism is what actually creates division and unrest, not racism itself. We think that if we keep silent about it, ignore it, only talk about chipper white-ass things, it will somehow magically not be there, if it was really there to begin with. I’m always perplexed by this cultural myth. It isn’t until something crosses or saddens us (white people), our own friends, our own family, or our own values that we feel compelled to share our grievances and concerns. In those moments we don’t consider bringing up how we’ve been wronged to be divisive. We consider it to be a part of the process of restoring justice. And it is. But this moment at the grocery store happened. That other mother’s beautiful little girl was ignored and vanished under the system of beauty that my child has privilege in. The people around me felt it and witnessed it. The division was there. It’s still there. Is my mentioning it and telling the story creating more division? Or, is it me warning us, white people, to open our eyes. To look around. To look at and see the faces of the people of color around us, these faces that have for centuries have been told are “ugly as sin.” It’s a lie. Look at them and remember that it’s always been a lie.

I think my daughter is so beautiful. Parents tend to always think that about their own children. And the other mother thinks the exact same about her daughter. If only our culture didn’t choose sides. As I was standing there watching the black adults around me groan at the display of centuries worth of racism, racism that they see every day, I didn’t know what to do. What could I have said or done to decenter this old white man’s perceptions of beauty? What could I have done to have made it right? I didn’t do anything. I just stood embarrassed and in disbelief. The old man went back to his place in line and silently waited for his turn to check out. I herded my kids back to our van and drove us all home. I played the scene over and over in my head for hours and couldn’t get the looks of the black man and woman out of my mind.They knew exactly what happened.  And I wish I could tell them that I’m sorry. You’re so, so beautiful.

I decided then that this story had to be told. There are those that believe that these stories are divisive, that they create racial tension. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is already a divide. It’s been there for centuries. It’s told to our children when the beauty of black baby’s is ignored because our grandparents told us that they’re ugly as sin and dangerous as hell. Well, no more. No more.

Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 12.11.46 PM.png