E has found a new neighbourhood friend; so have I.
We met them at the community orchard on the weekend, where I was facilitating the kids’ tree-trunk painting (it repels bugs and prevents sun damage.) They had obviously heard about the program and came equipped with a bucket to hold their paint, just like the FaceBook post asked.
Because I needed to avoid walking on uneven ground, I asked E to please take our newest volunteers and explain the task to them. Off she went, explaining about the paint and the insects and which trees still needed doing.
An hour later, she and the little girl were running around and playing together, and clamouring for a play date. Turns out this family lives less than a five-minute walk from us. I invited them to come over and play in the backyard the next day.
Today our new friends came over again. The kids had a great time—lots of laughter, no arguments—and so did the parents. I really like this mom. The fact that they’re our neighbours is just the icing on the cake.
R and N are going to camp on Wednesday. Their bags are going up on Tuesday.
Packing was a pretty big ordeal last year. This year we did it in a day, plus a few hours. There are now four giant duffel bags on my floor, making it pretty hard to get around here on my crutches.
I’ve used crutches a lot. My childhood BFF came over yesterday, took one look at me, and said, “Oh, the crutches are back!” Between all the sprained ankles I sustained, plus the knee ligament I pulled on Grouse Mountain, she’s seen me on crutches at least half a dozen times when we were younger. I don’t remember crutches being quite so awkward or painful to use, though. I remember stumping my way through the hallways of my middle school, going from one class to the other every forty-five minutes. Thirty years later I’m exhausted just getting from my hammock to the bathroom and back.
I navigate the stairs only once a day, coming down in the morning and going up at night, which is why we did all the packing right on the living room floor. And, since I can’t exactly stand up and drag it to the car (or even the front hall,) on the floor it all stays until tomorrow.
Did any of you get a call from the ligament injury specialist’s office today?
Me neither. So much for that call from the ER doc on Saturday morning, when she said she was getting me an appointment for Monday afternoon and I should expect a call from the office on Monday morning telling me when to show up.
I’m also sitting here feeling very proud of R tonight. Despite my immobility and her siblings’ indifference, she committed to volunteering at the community orchard’s cherry harvesting night. I’ve noticed that her anxiety seems to disappear when she’s responsible for something, and she really does like to take charge. When I was at the hospital on Friday, she made all the challah (she had to enlist some help for the heavy kneading.)
Maybe, if we can’t get her an emotional support alpaca (her dream,) we can find her a few more leadership opportunities to reduce her anxiety. Or chores around the house—that would do nicely.
(And did I mention she brought home at least four litres of sweet cherries?)
“Remember when [husband] was traveling for business and you brought the kids to my house and we fed and bathed them together? That was awesome,” I said. And it really was: it’s more fun parenting in a tribe than alone.
I don’t think I’ve ever parented alone. We had our parents, of course, but we also had friends who had babies right around when we did. In that first year when everyone was home on maternity leave, there were plenty of music classes and park meet-ups. Socially I had plenty of peers. On a broader scale, our synagogue chesed (kindness) committee organized meals for new parents, so we had no need to cook in that first couple of weeks. When R was born, a friend came over later that day with a whole festive meal—challah, meat, kugel, veggies, dessert—because that night was the beginning of Sukkot.
In other words, Mr. December and I were probably the farthest possible thing from alone when our kids were babies.
I remembered all this because of my close friends whose baby was born six weeks ago tomorrow. “We’re really feeling the lack of a village,” they told me. COVID is part of the equation, certainly, but even without COVID, these friends do lack a village. My village was large from the get-go, with my close-knit extended family (all those aunties that aren’t technically my aunts, remember) and our synagogue community plus all our friends. But if you’re not blessed with an existing village—say, if you and your spouse don’t have siblings nearby, if your university friends are scattered across the continent, if you’re not part of any community groups—what are you to do?
Well, as I often say: ask for the help you need. Worldschooling families do this all the time, by planning their destinations according to other families’ availability: someone gets on FaceBook and posts, “We want to travel to [insert name of place here] in June, who else is going to be there?” and many messages later, they’ve got a group of families committed to the same destination at the same time. To the friends without a village, I suggested posting in a neighbourhood group for a walking buddy who also has a very young baby. Who knows—my friend might even luck out and become walking buddies with another mom who can introduce them to all the parents with babies in the neighbourhood. It starts with an ask.
There are ready-made communities, too, and it’s well worth seeing whether there’s one that’s right for you. It might be a religious community; there could be a local parent-and-child drop-in centre (maybe not during COVID); in some places, the local public health unit runs groups for new parents to ask questions and get support. Once you’ve found a group, become an active participant: show up, help other parents lift their strollers up the steps, start conversations, offer someone the toys your baby just grew out of. As in every part of life, you’ll generally get out of it as much as you’ve put in.
The point is, having a local “village” of friends, family, and acquaintances is crucial in order to parent your kids (or just handle life) without burning out. One can’t do it alone; humans were never meant to. So ask for what you need, tap all your networks, seek a ready-made group. It’s well worth the effort to build and nurture the village you want to have—it will nurture you (and your kids) in return.
So far I’ve given you a lot of words and very few images of our time here. Tonight’s post should correct that. I’ve captioned each photo to explain the context.
I’m ending my day with an extra child: one of R’s new friends—whose family’s AirBnB is just around the corner from ours—is sleeping over tonight. It’s so nice to have friends within easy walking distance… and weather nice enough to actually walk outside.
Ed. note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so now.
We pulled into the driveway of Finca Blanco Y Negro (Black and White Farm) and were greeted by two women and a very enthusiastic child. E seized the opportunity for a new friend immediately: within minutes, she and this little boy were chatting—she in English, he in Spanish, neither understanding the other—as they explored the farm. The rest of us introduced ourselves and met Maria and Paola, the sisters who own the farm (the little boy, E, is Maria’s son.) It was decided that we’d tour the farm and then eat lunch, rather than the other way around.
Over and over, I was struck by how much research and thought went into running this farm. Blanco Y Negro isn’t a high-budget operation; in fact, part of their vision is to make organic vegetables accessible to more people than just rich people and hippies, and to develop new techniques that other small farms can use to grow organic produce. So when they were planning their mushroom-growing operation and saw the cost of all the “required” equipment, they set out to learn the reasons behind all the expensive recommendations. Then they found cheaper solutions that work just as well. Instead of a completely dark grow room, they put thick black garbage bags over the mushroom containers; in place of an expensive sterilizer, they boil the hay for three hours in a huge boiler to eliminate all microorganisms before using it as a growth medium. They built the mushroom greenhouse on the slope of the hill so that they can easily hose down the floor to keep it clean.
The kids received their first challenge in the mushroom house: who could find and pick the largest mushroom? They all scampered off, looking at every row of hanging bags to find the winning fungus. In the end, I think R might have found the biggest one. Not that it really mattered: all the mushrooms, big and small, were taken to the kitchen to become part of our lunch.
Have you ever heard a flock of ninety chickens? Just hens, mind you, no roosters at all? They are loud. As we stepped into their yard, the chickens crowded around the gate, saying “bawk?” as if to ask what we wanted. The kids got to pet a chicken, and we saw where the chickens turn kitchen scraps into high-quality fertilizer. Then we proceeded with our mission: to collect eggs for lunch. Mr. December and the kids eagerly headed into the henhouse to swipe the eggs. The chickens appeared unperturbed.
In the next pasture over, some black-bellied sheep were eager to munch on the long grasses we held for them. Then we went to see the composting shed—far more interesting than you’d think. In addition to a classic compost pile, they also have various barrels full of fermenting liquids which they use to deter insects from around the vegetable beds and to add beneficial microorganisms to the soil. Paola cracked open one barrel for us to see the bubbles forming on top of the liquid. It smelled like olives.
We explored the vegetable garden and learned about pest control without any pesticides, synthetic or natural. The results spoke for themselves: I’ve never before seen a head of lettuce with absolutely no holes or ragged edges on its leaves. The kids had a chance to plant some celery, beetroot, and arugula, which they did with more enthusiasm than I expected; N even came up with a way to streamline the planting process, by having one person place the seedlings in the correct positions while two others did the actual planting. E and her new friend worked with N and planted several rows of veggies in short order. Meanwhile, K indignantly stated that similar plants should be put together instead of mixing them up; she went to the opposite end of the row and diligently planted some celery.
The adults stood around and chatted. When Maria learned that we were homeschoolers, she got really excited: she’s also homeschooling her son, but it’s a pretty new concept in Costa Rica and she gets lots of pushback from… well, pretty much everyone. So we talked about our homeschooling experience and the homeschool community in general.
Poor R—she was sitting inside the farmhouse by this time, because all kinds of things on the farm were triggering her allergies (it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring her allergy meds with us.) Not to worry, though—Maria offered to find some of the allergy meds she had for her son so I could give R a dose. Wonder of wonders—it was the exact same prescription medicine R takes. I gratefully took the bottle and spoon and went to offer R some relief.
Finally, it was lunchtime! My kids were obnoxiously picky (we might need to have another talk about trying foods that are offered when you’re a guest somewhere) but Mr. December and I thoroughly enjoyed the tomato soup with local cheese and mushrooms, hard boiled eggs (they don’t get any fresher than that,) spring mix salad with beets (which I’m not usually a fan of, but it was delicious,) homemade bread with roasted garlic, and grilled vegetables. The kids deserted the table pretty quickly because Maria’s son called them over to see his kittens; all four of my kids were smitten and spent the rest of the time cuddling the kittens—even R, who declared that any allergic reaction she had would be worth it. Even dessert, which was homemade ice cream with berries on top, only held them for a few minutes before they went back to kitten wrangling.
We loved our time at the farm. By the end, I felt like we were visiting with friends. I was pleased when Maria shyly asked for my contact information—we exchanged numbers and I extended an invitation for them to visit us in Toronto. I hope they take us up on it.
Sunday morning saw us wandering around downtown looking for breakfast. There were a few restaurants whose menus the kids didn’t like and one they did. Too bad the one they liked didn’t have a table for us—or at least I thought it was too bad. We ended up going into the attached shop and choosing from their deli case: tomato-basil-feta salad for me, muesli for R, fruit and a danish for K, spicy mango salad for Mr. D, a croissant for E, and a baguette for N (what a surprise: the carbivore chose bread.) Everything was delicious; we ate it all sitting on rocks at the edge of the water.
Then we drove over to Fort Henry and explored everything from the General’s quarters to the jail cells. I fulfilled my sometimes-used threat of putting my kids behind bars (to be fair, they thought it was fun.)
Just like at every other place of interest we’ve visited as a family, I probably learned more at Fort Henry than the kids did. I learned about historic innovations in rifle technology; why the best bayonet is a triangular fluted one; and why barrels containing gunpowder had copper rings instead of iron. I also finally put two and two together and understood the origins of the phrases “lock, stock, and barrel” and “flash in the pan.”
We made it back to our hotel in time to grab our swimming gear and meet T at the dock downtown. We hadn’t had lunch yet; disappointingly, the pizza place on the island was closed when we walked over there, so we headed to the island’s lone grocery store instead, where the kids chose ramen, bread, and peanut butter. Back at J’s house we added some wild grape jam to our peanut butter sandwiches and polished off the ramen as well. J’s daughter, H, had baked cookies that morning, which we all ate; My ever-helpful kids heard H say that she thought the cookies too salty, and K in particular spent some time analyzing the problem (“I think it’s not really too salty throughout. It’s just that sometimes out of nowhere there’s a clump of salt.”)
After lunch we all squeezed into the boat and T drove us out to a shipwreck for some snorkeling (sans snorkels.) It was cold—the kind of cold that takes your breath away—and it was a bit of a task getting our kids to jump in. Eventually they did, though, although R was completely freaked out by the weeds that grew to five feet below the surface. I eventually coaxed her to hold my hand and swim with me, and then later to turn her head slightly to the left to see the ribs of a decaying ship. After that brief glance she hightailed it back to the boat as we all congratulated her on facing her fears.
After her nerve-wracking encounter with water plants, R wasted no time chilling out when we got back to J’s dock. She took a bag of tortilla chips in one hand, a huge Guatemalan floor cushion in the other, and tucked her Percy Jackson book under her arm. R set herself up on the end of the dock and stayed there for an hour while I paddled a couple of kilometres in the kayak and the others swam close to shore.
J hosted a potluck for dinner on Sunday night. Our contribution was some homemade challah, which was just about the only thing that three out of our four kids would eat. I did have the presence of mind to ask if we could set aside some plain black beans for the kids to snack on.
The potluck was well-attended by family, friends, neighbours, and relative strangers (a.k.a. us.) I honestly don’t remember most of the conversations I had with people, but I do remember how friendly everyone was. The other thing that struck me was how much of the food was grown in people’s gardens (to be fair, there were three different kinds of coleslaw. The cabbages must be ripening.)
The weekend was both relaxing and invigorating. I heard, “Can we move here?” dozens of times, or so it seemed. The confluence of gracious hosts, a warm community, and a beautiful location was almost irresistible to me, too (yes, we checked the Realtor.ca listings when we went back to our hotel.) I already know we’ll go back for a visit next summer, because we’ve been invited and the kids have already accepted on behalf of our family.
(Just to let you know, this post is only going to cover the first day of our visit. It was supposed to be the whole weekend, but apparently I have a lot to say. I’ll post the rest tomorrow.)
Our weekend was outstanding. We went kayaking, tubing, and snorkeling over shipwrecks; we explored an old fort and learned about nineteenth-century weaponry; we discovered an island that we barely knew existed; and we met some incredible people.
We first connected with J on the recommendation of one of Mr. December’s former co-workers who retired at age 33 to travel the world with his wife. When Mr. December told this guy that we want to travel with the kids, he gave us J’s email address and suggested we call her. We ended up having a half-hour Zoom call with her, talking about homeschooling, worldschooling, and travel. She invited us to come visit her on the island anytime before the end of the month. She followed up our call with an email that essentially said, “That invitation was sincere and enthusiastic. Hope you can come.”
We left home early on Saturday and drove three hours until we arrived in Kingston, Ontario. We texted J to say we’d arrived; she arranged to meet us at the public docks to ferry us across to the island. When we finally found the spot, there she was with her husband, T, smiling and waving.
The ride across to the island took about ten minutes, with the kids sitting on the floor of the small motorboat and the grownups crowded towards the front. Our kids enthusiastically—and loudly—filled any and all gaps in the conversation. For the first time that weekend—but not the last—I was thankful that J and T have been there and done that, parenting four kids. The energy and volume that our kids bring everywhere might have triggered some nostalgia for them, but never impatience.
After lunch at a waterfront patio on the island, we took a walk through the village to retrieve J’s Instant Pot from a friend. Said friend warmly welcomed us and invited the kids to come in and meet their many pets. On the way back to J’s house we stopped for a while so R could climb a tree that grows next to the public library. A dog had escaped from its home across the street and came towards us with a stick in her mouth; I think it was the first time my kids had ever played fetch with a dog. We were officially on island time, where life moves at a walking pace and there’s plenty of time to climb the trees, smell the roses, and pet the animals.
T generously offered to drag the kids around the bay on a giant tube; in the end they must have been out there for over an hour. Apparently once tubing got old, T let the kids take turns driving the boat. They came back wet, tired, and happy. In the meantime, I took out a kayak—a proper one with foot pegs and knee bracing—and spent some time out on the water.
We met three of J and T’s kids over the weekend. Amazing human beings all, and the kids particularly gravitated towards their oldest daughter. She went tubing with them, and by dinnertime on Saturday they were all snuggled up to her watching funny TikTok videos.
Dinner at their home was a fix-your-own tacos affair with two of J’s kids as well as her parents, who were pretty interesting folks in their own right. As the sun started to set, we got into the boat and T ferried us back to Kingston, with the most beautiful dusky sky and almost-full moon in the background.
We checked into our hotel, then went out to walk around downtown Kingston for a while. We enjoyed watching a busker—who juggled fire while walking across broken glass—in the square, introduced the kids to BeaverTails, and enjoyed our dessert in the colourful Muskoka chairs outside before going back to our hotel to sleep.
Not for the insanity of the Jewish holidays (5 in one month!) or for the end of the summer break; no, I love it for the weather. Cool (but not too cold) at night and warm (but not too hot) during the day. It’s shorts-and-a-sweatshirt weather. The sky is clear and blue, the trees still have their leaves. It’s just a pleasure to be outside these days.
Actually, there are a lot of pleasures these days; More and more I’m noticing my feelings of contentment at odd times of the day and night. I’ll be reading in the back-porch hammock, or turning off lights someone left on in the library, or even emptying the dishwasher, and suddenly I’ll stop and think, “I love our life.”
I love Mr. December, of course, and I love how great a team we are. I love the house we’ve built together—seriously, I love this house so much—and the family we have together. I adore the kids and what’s more, I love seeing them together and I love watching them grow up. Our parents are all alive and well and living in the same city, and they’re a tremendous help and support to us. We have very good friends and neighbours.
We live in a neighbourhood that’s beautiful and safe, with public parks and a subway and shops nearby. We have biking paths, a community orchard, and a local farmers’ market.
I am, in short, lucky. Insanely, improbably so. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that life is completely unfair and often random; and it’s generally been unfair in my favour, which I appreciate every day.
There’s really nothing like this sense of great contentment, especially at this time of year. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going outside in my shorts and sweatshirt to sit in a hammock and sip some tea, and contemplate how very much I love this life.
Our day started early. We were scheduled to be at the community orchard for volunteer duty at 8:30; the kids resisted the idea of an early (for a Sunday) wake-up. In the face of their complaints, Mr. December and I did what any good managers would do: we added an incentive.
“Here’s the deal: Abba will be walking to the bakery to get fresh bread, and then he’ll head to the park. If we get there by 8:10 we’ll have time to eat our fresh bread for breakfast before the volunteer shift starts.”
It was beautiful out this morning as we enjoyed our fresh (still warm!) bagels and cream cheese at the long harvest table in the park. The kids even got there early enough to play for a bit before our work began.
Our job is to monitor the insect traps: we have to empty them through a strainer, examine and identify the bugs we caught, then rinse and refill the traps with bait and return them to the trees.
All the kids were on board a few weeks ago when we built the traps and mixed our first batch of bait. But this morning, as they saw the bugs collecting in the sieve, three of them backed away and asked the Orchard-Person-in-Chief for a different assignment. R and N spent some time digging and weeding in the pollinator garden bed while E was assigned the task of inspecting all the fruit trees for gypsy moths and ladybugs (squish the former, save the latter.)
K was my partner in entomological fun. She took some remarkably good pictures of the bugs we found. We spent a significant amount of time googling moth identification images and trying to figure out why the colouring was off; geniuses that we are, it was twenty minutes before we realized that the colouring was off because the moths had been sitting in a molasses-and-cider-vinegar bath for a few days. Of course. We confirmed that they were gypsy moths and then identified the cherry fruit flies (did you know they have stripes on their abdomen?). We even found a huge spider and her breakfast leftovers—half of a fly.
By 9:30 Mr. December and the two older kids had headed home to start their school day; R kept on weeding the pollinator bed while E and I went hunting for ladybugs to relocate to the aphid-infested plum tree.
I’m sure you had no idea—I certainly didn’t—but getting immature ladybugs off of their leaves is worse than getting four kids to leave the house… and the ladybugs can’t be bribed with bagels.
After the fresh bagels, the volunteer time in the orchard, and learning formal logic with the kids, I discovered that my feet fit into youth size six shoes. Why does this matter, you ask? Because I want a pair of Keens, and the kids’ sizes are nearly half the price of the adult ones—and they come in way better colours, too. And, as I put it to Mr. December:
“If I can buy kids’ shoes at half the price of the adult ones, does that mean I can get two pairs?”
Today was one of those full days that ends with a feeling of great satisfaction. Unfortunately, the fullness of the day has also left me with a feeling of significant pain; still, I feel like I made the right choices.
I can barely believe how much E has been practicing her flute. Anytime nobody else is in the library (which is also our music room,) she’s in there with her music on the stand and her flute at her lips. Her work really shows: she’s sounding better and better every day. Now I just have to teach her about eighth notes.
When I finally got my hands on the three older kids—which is getting to be later and later each day as Mr. December gets carried away with whatever he’s teaching them—I sat them down and assigned them some substantial writing, which they immediately started brainstorming for. Later we had art class, where we once again tried to make pottery in the style of Ancient Greece.
Last week I taught the kids the coil method for making a pot. This week I took a slab-building approach, using balloons as our moulds. It wasn’t particularly successful, and only N’s pot was still standing by the end of the hour. Mine looked beautiful, but I tried to smooth “just one more lump” and… POP. With the balloon gone, my whole pot collapsed in on itself.
Around 5:00 we all went to the park. I was there on a mission: the apricot trees in the community orchard are already in bloom, but tonight’s snow and freezing temperatures threatened to kill all the blossoms and any fruit they might bear this summer. An email went out this morning asking for volunteers to bring tarps, plastic bags, and tie-downs and help cover the trees. That’s why we found ourselves in the park, tying multiple tarps together and then raising them over the trees—like a giant chuppah—before tying them down. The best part was that, once again, my kids were doing useful work to benefit the community they live in. There’s no substitute for that experience.
After dinner we started watching Animal Farm (the 1954 animated film, not the 1999 live-action one.) The kids were riveted. Our next step will be a read-aloud of the book, as part of our literature studies.
And then it was bedtime. I could hardly believe that it was 8:30 already. Where did the day go? Oh, yeah… we did stuff today. Lots and lots of stuff.
I definitely overdid it today. And yet I did it knowingly; sometimes I need to feel normal and functional (especially if I’m not) more than I need to be pain-free. Besides, these past six (or seven?) weeks have taught me that resting won’t guarantee me a pain-free day anyhow, so I might as well do at least some of the things I enjoy.
Now… if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my bed with a heating pad and my banana popsicles for the next day or two.