Archive for October, 2007

Joined in harmony

Inspiration can come from many sources. A couple days ago my children and I were listening to Beethoven’s Wig, which features added goofy lyrics to various classical music pieces. This piece, Harmony, to the tune of The Merry Peasant by Shumann came on, and it just struck me as such a wonderful family ideal that I had to listen to it over and over.

Yesterday, my Above Rubies magazine came in and it had an article on family worship with a picture of children of various sizes playing various instruments. I can’t wait to read it. Interestingly enough, all the items my family owns for making music have finally been concentrated into one room, which was where we were at the time. That same room has also been mercifully emptied of a lot of stuff that would get in the way of making music.

I’m starting to think it’s time for me to dust off my guitar, my hubby to dust off his ukulele, give the girls some tamborines, drums and maraccas, and make some music together. It’s also still time to continue getting rid of the clutter so we can uncover the real treasures of our home. Funny thing is, that same Above Rubies magazine also has an article on fitting a large family into a small house. And some of the contributors had more children and less square footage than we do! I think I’m onto something.

Here are the lyrics to the piece that inspired me to at least make it possible for my family to make music together:

Sweet Clara Shumann played the piano well

And when she played her music cast a magic spell

Her husband Robert wrote the melody

The Shumanns were a family joined in harmony

They’d sing and play

Together every day

Together they made music merrily

The Shumanns were a family joined in harmony

They had some children in their happy home

So they would never ever have to play alone

When mom and daddy played their happy song

The children tapped their tippy toes and sang along

They played their song

The kids all sang along

Together they made music merrily

The Shumanns were a family joined in harmony.


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This past Friday my girls and I went to Harvest Farms with the Northern Colorado Home School group.  They have a corn maze, a place where you can feed and pet various farm animals, a barrel train, and wagon-shaped sandboxes that are actually filled with corn.

L wanted to play in the “corn box,” so we found one that wasn’t too crowded.  There was another little boy who appeared to be about two years old.  A retired woman, who I suppose was his grandmother was sitting on a nearby bench.  The little boy threw some corn at L, and his grandmother told him to stop.  A few minutes later, L and E started throwing corn, and I started telling them to stop.  The grandma interrupted me to mutter something about it being good for the children to socialize.  I nodded in agreement, but was a bit puzzled.  What did that have to do with throwing corn?  Fortunately, the girls found better things to do with the corn.

“What school do they go to?” Grandma asked.

“We’re actually here with a home school group,” I replied.  Then pointing to L, I added.  “She’s just in preschool.”  What I meant was L is just starting out the adventure we call school.  I think Grandma understood it as preschool wasn’t important.  In a rather tragic voice, she said:  “I retired from thirty years of early childhood education.”  I’m not sure I have the number of years right, but it was a significant amount of time.

The little boy had been playing with a bucket which L wanted.  L patiently waited for the boy to lose interest in the bucket, which he did.  L then had the bucket next to her but wasn’t actually playing with it.  At that moment a girl about her age from the next “corn box” came over and said:  “Can I have that bucket?”  L was focused on something else and didn’t answer the girl right away.  I worried that the girl would just take the bucket while L wasn’t looking, so I said:  “L’s been wanting to play with that bucket for a while and would be sad if you took it now.”  The girl nodded and went back to her box.

“She might have had a chance if she’d said ‘please,'” Grandma said.

“Huh?” was my intelligent reply.

“You should have told her if she doesn’t say ‘please’ she doesn’t get it,” Grandma said, the ire rising in her voice.  When I didn’t say anything, she went on.  “Come on now, it doesn’t sound good to say ‘Can I have this?’  You need to teach children how to be polite.”

At this point I was genuinely confused because the girl who asked for the bucket was not my daughter, and in my mind she asked politely enough.  I started to say something to that effect as in, what is the problem here.  I really wasn’t getting it.  There were more words exchanged but I don’t really remember.  I just knew I wasn’t tracking with Grandma, and she was getting more and more peeved-sounding.

“So is that the way you home school?  Is that what you are showing your kids?  Is that the kind of socialization you’re giving them?”  This time she’s sounding genuinely angry.  I’m still confused.  She goes on with more of the same, and she’s clearly upset with me.

“Are you trying to pick a fight with me?” I ask, which she quickly denies, then continues with her lecturing, which is making no sense to me whatsoever.  I can tell by her tone of voice that she’s criticizing me, but I can’t figure out what exactly she’s criticizing.  It took me forever to realize the little girl who asked for the bucket didn’t actually use the word “please.”  But her tone was congenial enough I can’t imagine that’s what’s making Grandma so upset.  I make a few more attempts to understand her, to ask questions, to explain myself (if only I knew how), and these attempts are met with more and more aggressive interrupting (which I read in a book is the equivalent of verbal shoving) and angrier and angrier sounding accusations about what a poor job I’m doing with home schooling because I’m obviously not teaching my children right.

Finally, I gave up.  “I don’t want to talk anymore.”

“It’s because you know you’re wrong, that’s why you don’t want to talk to me!”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.  Right now, two responses come to mind:  1.  The aggressive response:  “No, it’s because you are engaging in very antisocial behavior.”  2.  The assertive response:  “No, it’s because I’m feeling attacked and I don’t converse well when I’m feeling attacked.”

Instead, awkward silence reigns.  She’s not moving, and I really don’t want to drag my daughters away from their play, which they are clearly enjoying.  I do my best to focus on playing with them.  Very hard to do when someone is burning holes in your back.

Finally Grandma spots the barrel train in the distance, and calls to her grandson.  “Look, the train is here.  Let’s go ride the train.”  He seems reluctant to leave the “corn box.”  She insists, and shows him the train.  He allows himself to be picked up.  While Grandma–who is about three feet from L at this point–is picking him up, she says:  “You don’t want to play with these home schooled kids anyway.  You’ve got better things to do.”

They leave.  My heart is pounding.  I’m really bothered that she said the last thing where L could clearly hear her.  Even if I was doing the worst possible thing to my child by home schooling her, it’s not as if she made that choice.  She doesn’t deserve to be insulted over what her parents have chosen for her.

I explain to L that this lady was very rude and had bad manners, and not to pay attention to anything she said.  Maybe I made it worse by saying something.  Maybe L didn’t hear her at all–she really can be focused on her play.

L glanced at her leaving with the little boy.  Then she’s worried that Grandma is going to hurt the boy.  “What if she kills him or something?” were her exact words.

“I’m sure she loves the little boy very much.  She won’t hurt him.  She just forgot her manners today.”  I go on to explain that sometimes I forget my manners too.  I want to leave the “corn box” too, and I suggest a visit to the petting zoo.  L obliges and we have a wonderful time there, until the animals get a bit too rowdy, but that’s another story.

I’ve heard stories about people being criticized for home schooling their children, but I figured that was back in the day before home schooling was cool, like when my husband Erik was being home schooled and parents had to worry about visits from the truant officer and social workers and family and friends looking at them like they’ve decided to move to the North Pole.  Now, pretty much all my friends have considered home schooling.  Many of them do send their children to school, but it’s clear that out of all the legitimate education options out there, home schooling is definitely one of them.  Some people have expressed guilt that they’re not home schooling.  It’s almost becoming the new standard in parenting excellence.  So, I was shocked to have been on the receiving end of such harsh criticism over my decision to show up at an event with a home school group.  That really was all the information Grandma had about me.  For all she knew, and as young as L is, I could have been just checking out my options, and to be honest, I haven’t completely ruled out formal school at a later time.   If I was riding the fence about home schooling, I’m sure this exchange would have put me more firmly in the home school camp.  While my children may forget to say “please” every time they ask for something, I don’t really want them behaving like Grandma did that day.  I hope she wasn’t like that while she was teaching school; I hope she was just having an off day.

I’ve only been officially home schooling for a month or so, and I already have a war story.

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Opportunity cost

I’m in the midst of an interesting dilemma, one I didn’t imagine I’d be in so soon as a professional writer.  It’s the issue of too many opportunities.  I’ve been asked by a number of people to write or edit various things.  Some of those opportunities are paid and some are volunteer but good resume builders.  The opportunities aren’t super numerous, but my time is super limited so I’m faced with choices.  I can’t write for all those interesting entities out there.  An interesting situation is that I actually have more paid opportunities than I have time to attend to unless I choose to pass up the volunteer opportunities, as well as give up some non-writing things I’m involved in now.

Choices are always good, but one of the difficult things about having choices is that it forces you to prioritize.  You have to look at each option within the greater picture of your life’s goals.  You have to have life goals.  The choices you make, no matter how you make them, direct your life.  When there are so many, you start having to think about what that direction is.

Taking care of my children and my home is what I spend most of my time on.  My writing has to fit around that.  Some days it fits better than others.  This morning, my husband took some time off because he had to work part of Saturday, giving me the opportunity to conduct some phone interviews for a couple stories I’m working on for the Coloradoan.  Not one person was available to talk during the time that my husband took the girls to the park.  But wouldn’t you know it, most of the people returned my calls in the afternoon after Erik left for work.  And every single conversation except one was interrupted by a not so quiet plea for toileting assistance.  To their credit, the leading businessmen in Northern Colorado on the other end were cool with it.  They all have children of their own.  They understand.  They also know the publicity they get from being quoted in a published story.  Once I get my interviews done I can write the story while my children are sleeping.  Most people don’t want to be called at 11:05 pm.  But if you’re reading this and you do, we can talk all night, at least until E needs her middle of the night feeding.

In addition to working up to deadline on a couple feature stories I’m also preserving a bunch of vegetables I picked last Monday on a gleaning trip.  My vacuum cleaner needed a new belt and while it was getting repaired, my car gave out, so I can’t pick up my vacuum cleaner until the car gets fixed.  Not to mention our water filter housing broke and maybe I should get the computer checked out too.  Yesterday my husband winterized the swamp cooler and blew out the lawn sprinklers, taking a special trip to the hardware store to buy an air compressor for the job (he’d always managed to borrow one from work before).  Last night we had a frost that might have done damage to the swamp cooler line had it still been full of water.  The funny thing is that earlier in the day I actually ran the swamp cooler.  That’s Colorado for you.

So life goes on, throwing me its various curve balls and I think I’m finally starting to really figure out that I can’t do it all just because I want to.  No matter what I can write.  It’s just a matter of what I write and for whom.

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Is it the house or the stuff?

The past three weeks I’ve been working with L on a preschool program.  It’s been lots of fun, but seems to require about three hours of planning for every hour and a half of teaching.  Needless to say, I got behind on the housework and served my family macaroni and cheese more than I’m comfortable with.  I learned that you can still “do school” when the house is a mess.  That’s good to know because if I waited around until I got the house cleaned, L might still be missing out on preschool.

I have two responses when life gets overwhelming.  First I try to escape.  I read books, I find any excuse to check my email.  I get lethargic.  Then I look around at the house and all the stuff sitting on shelves (and on the floor) that I haven’t needed since I don’t know when and decide that it’s time to declutter.  My husband and I are both loath to part with our possessions so I’ve found a way to at least get them out of our house.  We pack them in boxes and stack them up in an outside shed.  The boxes are all numbered and the contents inventoried.  That way if we want to retrieve an item, it’s a matter of looking it up on the computer.  In fact, except for the hassle of having to go get the box, it probably will be easier to find said item now than it was when the item was in our house in a pile somewhere.  If the item is a book and I want it, I go online and request it from the library.  Let someone else do the retrieving.

I just finished packing up seven or eight boxes and the house looks nicer.  I figure I will be boxing things up until the house reaches a point where it more or less keeps itself clean.  That will be the magical point where everything has an easy to reach place and can be easily put away.  If things are too difficult to put away, they tend to stay out of place ad infinitum.  Erik and I have an ongoing friendly argument over whether our house is poorly designed for actually living in (his opinion) or whether it’s just that we have too much stuff (my opinion except when I’m feeling lazy in which case it’s more convenient to blame the house).  Our house is small by wealthy American standards (1300 square feet), and when it’s messy, four people make it seem very crowded.  Erik’s right in that some of the features of the house make certain things difficult.  The kitchen opens directly to the outside so all the mud and dirt gets tracked right into the kitchen.  The living room is not far from the front entrance either so dirt gets tracked in there too.  The front door and the front closet open up such that the doors touch when they are both opened, making the front entrance claustrophobic.  The house also has some really nice features that give it the sense of greater space–lots of windows and slightly vaulted ceilings really open things up.  The master bedroom and bathroom are quite roomy, even bordering on luxurious.

I’ve tried various furniture arrangements and have found that all that openness can be closed right up with the wrong furniture arrangement, or too much furniture.  Sometimes even a little extra piece can really mess up the open effect.  One of the articles I wrote for the Coloradoan was about home staging, and that was an eye opener.  “Less is more” is not just a cute truism, it’s a credo when it comes to showing your home.   Barbara Schwarz, who coined the term “staging” in reference to a home for sale, talks about how she lives in her own staged home.  Once you experience living in a staged home that you quickly sell, maybe you’re not as eager to unpack all your boxes in the new house.  Maybe you really don’t need all that stuff.  We’re not anywhere near selling our home, but why not work towards staging it?  Why should I wait until it’s on the market to make it look nice?  And anyway, the more junk I can get rid of now, the easier an eventual move will be.

I’m not in any way attached to my current home.  In the fullness of time we hope to move into something bigger and better.  A third or fourth child might make this place truly too small.  But I am enjoying the challenge of making this home work for us.  It’s getting easier to see the less stuff I have around blocking my view.  When I’m trying something new in the kitchen (right now my thing is sprouting every grain I can), I fantasize about the features that would make it truly convenient, then get to work on making it happen in the kitchen I have.  Sure it gets awkward, but it happens.

When I was a child I lived with my family in a rented house for eight years.  My mom thought it was too small and mentioned that many times during those eight years.  Then we moved to a really big house and I think my mom loved it, but I was already living in the college dorms.  It wasn’t too long afterward that my parents relocated and now they live in a small house and once again I hear the litany of the too small house.  So I guess I have a certain resistance towards blaming the house for being too small or too poorly designed.  I’d rather spend that energy learning how to best use the space even if I am also dreaming about the day we’ll move to something bigger.  Erik, on the other hand, grew up in a house that really did have problems (a fixer upper that still isn’t finished), and his mom was pretty stoic about it–figured living in a house without finished interior walls was a situation God had put her in to make her a better person.  So I guess Erik has a certain resistance to being too accepting of an imperfect home.   We find our own subtle ways to rebel against our upbringing.

Last weekend I toured a few really beautiful spacious homes and told my dear husband I was coveting those super wide entryways, those spacious kitchens, those huge basements, and even those walk-in closets that could fit a bed inside.  This weekend I set to work boxing up more stuff so that I could recreate in our little house something of the vastness of those parade homes.  The fact that I can even approach an impression of that kind of spaciousness in 1300 square feet tells me some thought had to have gone into the design.  It really is a great home for what it is.  It just was meant for people to live in, not to be used as storage space.  I do hope that we get to the point where we are living in it to its full potential (at least on the inside) before we move out.

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