DIY · family fun · Homeschool · Independence · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 229: Reality Check

“Your kids play Little House on the Prairie? Wow! Look at them with the brooms and everything… this is how kids should play, you know?”

The kids had gotten tired of the trampoline, so R took charge and announced that they would play Little House on the Prairie. Moments later they were all doing their chores and waiting for ‘Pa’ to come back from hunting in the Big Woods. I happen to agree with my friend’s assessment: imaginary play like this is, in my opinion, the kind of play our kids need more of.

Shortly after that, the back door banged open and K emerged with several bowls and plates. “Who wants to taste-test my weird pasta flavours?” she hollered.

My friend turned to me with a questioning look, so I explained that lately K has started adding different flavours to the water when she boils pasta.

“Wow, that’s really cool. Your kids are amazing!”

“They have their moments,” I replied. “Oh, did I tell you that N is trying to teach himself whittling? I finally bought him a knife so he would leave my x-acto knives alone.”

That morning, sitting by the campfire in our backyard, we probably looked like a stereotypical homeschooling family: the younger children playing “wholesome” outdoor games based on the books they’d read, the independent teenager doing weird culinary experiments for the family to taste-test, and the boy with his own knife who is teaching himself to whittle.

That beautiful picture lasted all morning. Then I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and saw the formerly-tidy countertops strewn with bowls, colanders, and spoons. An empty cellophane pasta package was lying on the counter next to an identical bag that was half empty and wide open. K may have taken the initiative to experiment and share her pasta with others, but she did no cleanup whatsoever. In fact, I asked her to put away the bag of pasta five times throughout the afternoon before she finally did it.

That seems to be the norm these days. This morning I walked into the kitchen and immediately called Mr. December to come in and look. The microwave door was hanging open; there was an empty takeout container on the counter in front of it; a dirty plastic plate was next to that, and a plastic spoon lay beside it, dripping sauce onto the counter. “Who do you suppose finished the leftovers?” I asked sarcastically. Mr. December shook his head, sighed, and cleaned it up himself.

Meanwhile, R (the same one who came up with the Little House on the Prairie game in the backyard the other day) was on her third straight hour of playing Roblox on the computer. When I finally told her it was time to get off, she moaned about how there’s nothing else for her to do.

I’m not saying that my kids aren’t amazing—they are incredible, unique, and fascinating souls who will be wonderful adults one day. I’m saying that they’re kids. They do some wonderfully creative and independent things; they also do some thoughtless, lazy, and annoying things. It comes with the territory.

Every time a friend or stranger comments on something my kids do that is unusually responsible or mature, I feel the urge to show that person photos of the wet towels on the floor or the smoothie cups that went outside one summer day and have been on the ground near the trampoline ever since. You know, in the spirit of keeping it real. But the truth is that seeing my kids through someone else’s eyes is probably a more important reality check than the other way around. Every time I notice a wet towel or a tantrum, I see that my children are still children; when other people comment on my kids’ mature, creative, responsible behaviour, I get to see the adults they will become.

The COVID files · waxing philosophical

Day 227: An Upside of COVID

Hands up if you’ve heard me say this before:

“Our house is basically a revolving door of sick from October to April. And since there are so many of us, by the time person number six gets sick, the cold virus has mutated, so person number one gets it again.”

I always assumed that colds and runny noses were just inevitable. It was a fair assumption, one that has been borne out by experience every year of my life… until now.

It’s day 227. The last time anybody in this house got sick was 221 days ago, when I had strep throat. Since then we’ve all been healthy, thank God, with the exception of R and her seasonal allergies (poor baby.)

In the last few years, I had started to notice that anytime I felt significantly chilled, a cold would follow. Maybe my Buby was right, I began thinking, maybe you do get sick if you don’t bundle up properly. This year, however, I’ve felt quite chilled a number of times; not once have I gotten sick. I now feel confident that I was right all along: maybe getting chilled depresses your immune system, but unless you’ve been exposed to a virus, you won’t get sick.

This is definitely a positive side effect of the COVID-19 precautions. With reduced social contacts, masks, plenty of handwashing, and zero-tolerance policies for symptoms of illness, we’re seeing that coughs, colds, and flu don’t have to be inevitable or inescapable. The big question is: can we keep at least some of these precautions going after the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted? Please?

Picture it: Fewer sick kids missing school, which means fewer parents having to take days off to care for their children at home. Fewer work absences for sick days. Fewer hospital visits for people with asthma or kids prone to croup. Fewer visits to doctors, which means shorter waits for routine care, not to mention less cost to our provincial healthcare system.

With all the potential social and economic benefits, isn’t it worth trying to make some of our precautions permanent? Shouldn’t we always expect people with any symptoms of illness to stay home or at least wear a mask in public? Shouldn’t frequent handwashing become the norm for everyone? Obviously I think so. The real question is, how can we make this happen?

blogging · DIY · education · family fun · goodbye clutter! · Homeschool · Infertility · love and marriage · The COVID files · waxing philosophical

Day 224: Thriving

It’s a beautiful morning. Sure, it’s cold and cloudy, but I stand by my statement.

I’m writing this at 9:45 and this morning I’ve already enjoyed a dance party with E, a walk with my sweetheart, two cups of coffee, some snuggles, and a hot breakfast. In fact, all of those things happened before we started homeschool at 9:00.

We called the kids together for our morning stand-up meeting. As we waited, Mr. December commented, “Every school day should start like this.”

Yes. Yes, it should.

Happiness is a clear desk.

After my highly successful IKEA hack for cable management, I was feeling inspired; I spent an hour and a half yesterday clearing my desk and getting all the cables neatly tucked away. I finished the job and even did the unthinkable (for me): I cleaned up every last tool and speck of sawdust before I allowed myself to start something new.

“Is this some kind of ketone-fuelled cleaning spree?” Mr. December wanted to know (we recently started intermittent fasting again.) Maybe he’s right: maybe my fabulous mood and my productivity are the results of what I’m eating (or not eating) these days. Or maybe they’re just a function of the fact that right now, I’m living my best life; and right now that means working at a clean desk.

There’s definitely a part of me that feels a bit guilty about thriving right now; I know that many, many people—some of whom are people near and dear to me—have been doing worse and worse as the pandemic stretches on. And yet, as I learned when I was dealing with infertility and everybody else’s pregnancy was a dagger in my heart, happiness is not a zero sum game.

Something interesting is happening here: every weekday I wake up and get ready for the day, take a walk with Mr. December, and homeschool the kids. Many days, yesterday included, I’m working all day long, either teaching the kids or preparing materials for them, or sometimes doing things around the house. Mr. December and I usually try to go to bed right after we tuck the kids in. There’s not a whole lot of leisure time, and not much fun as most people would define it. I don’t take a lot of breaks.

You’d think this would be a recipe for burnout, right? I’d have thought so too. But I don’t feel burned out or run down. I feel energized. Focused. Productive.

I feel happy.

education · family fun · Homeschool · Jewy goodness · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 211: The only pickle I’ve ever liked.

Nothing goes together like poetry and peanut butter, right?

I wanted to make tea biscuits for last night’s Poetry Teatime, but we had no butter left. Instead, I ended up making super-easy three-ingredient peanut butter cookies and serving them with peanut butter chocolate ice cream. Everyone sat on the back porch couch under the infrared heater and snuggled under duvets. We read some Dennis Lee and some Mother Goose (some of my children are woefully deficient in nursery rhyme knowledge!) before I asked everyone to recite a poem they knew by heart. Mr. December recited The Raven, R managed a few verses of The Tyger before she hesitated and we all joined in to help her, and N recited a poem about how “Cats sleep anywhere.” It was a very relaxing end to the day—if you don’t count R yelling at N to share his blanket and N moving across the porch (and away from the heater) just so he wouldn’t have to share.

Today was a decent day, homeschool-wise. Everyone did their work, even K (but only after she yelled at me for a while about grammar and punctuation being stupid.) Two of my kids pointed out errors I had made in the Pirkei Avot copywork sheet, which made me want to sing, “My children have surpassed me!” (Here’s a link to the Talmudic story I’m referencing, for those who don’t know it.) I mean, really, I’m still way beyond them… but sometimes it just feels good to see what Mr. December calls “signs of life.”

The schedule boards all said “Movie Night” tonight. I turned to my Facebook friends for ideas and they came through for me. Out of a list of fifteen suggestions I picked An American Pickle. No spoilers. But if you can see it, do. The kids loved it almost as much as the grownups did.

Mr. December wasn’t planning on watching it, really. He had meetings tonight from 7–7:30 and then at 9; he told us to go ahead and he’d join when he could. “I don’t really like watching movies, anyway,” he reminded us, “so even if it’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing, I don’t mind missing it either.”

At 6:55 p.m. (45 minutes into the movie) Mr. December’s voice piped up, “Anybody want to take a short break for a bit? I kinda want to see the end of this.” I was going to give him my patented I told you so, except that I hadn’t told him so… so uncharacteristically for me, I kept my mouth firmly shut.

The kids gathered around the table with their bedtime snacks. “I don’t get it,” R reflected, “why was he so impressed that his great-grandson had 25 pairs of socks?” I explained that most people would only have had a couple of pairs of socks. This led to the story of my great-uncle who was punished by his father for ruining his shoe—it was his only pair of shoes and the family simply couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

“You guys,” I said, suddenly realizing the enormous can of worms I could open up, “The beginning of the movie? The shtetl, and the people dreaming of a life without Cossacks attacking them? That’s our history. Abba’s grandfather worked in a factory making buttonholes when he came to Canada. This whole thing is your story too!”

R’s eyes grew wide. “What about your grandparents?” she asked.

The story of my maternal grandparents isn’t the one you might expect: it’s different, more interesting, even a bit exotic. So I ran to the library to find Peddlers All, a book of memoirs of the Ashkenazi Jews of Barbados.

“There’s a chapter in here written by Aunty Leah, you know…” I said.

The kids perked up at a name they recognized. “Read it! Read it!” they demanded.

“Oh, and there’s a chapter that Savta [my mum] wrote.”

“Read Savta’s, then Aunty Leah’s.” R directed.

So I did. I stopped to explain, elaborate, and embellish. The children eagerly listened to every word.

Then Mr. December’s meeting ended, he joined us upstairs, and we finished the movie. I have never liked pickles, but An American Pickle was definitely the exception to that rule. It was possibly the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.

It was also an excellent opening to talk to the kids about Jewish history, Jewish identity, and how they are connected to this long, complex, vibrant story that is our people. I could have done months of Jewish history curriculum and not piqued their interest the way this movie did. I guess I’ll start curating a list of Jewish movies to watch… I wonder if Yentl has aged well?

bikes planes and automobiles · community · Homeschool · waxing philosophical

Day 202: The Local Life

I’ve long complained that school was the primary reason I was stuck driving a lot. Our kids never went to the neighbourhood public school, so every morning I had the dubious pleasure of sitting in traffic for half an hour after making the 8:30 a.m. drop-off. Then two of my kids went to a public school that, while not our local school, was nearby, and I had the pleasure of sometimes walking home from dropping them off.

Now that we’re homeschooling, I can finally realize my dream of giving up daily driving. I’ll have no commute, which comes with its own problems: if there’s nowhere to go, will we have days when we never leave the house at all? That can’t be healthy—surely it’s a good idea to go outside and look at the sky every so often—but I can see it happening. There must be some sweet spot between too much commute and too little.

On the upside, we’ve begun to patronize more local businesses. I’m still getting used to paying more for the same things (economy of scale is a real advantage for major retailers), but I do like the experience of having a small radius of travel, not to mention the pleasure of getting to know the people in my neigbourhood (apparently my goal is to live on Sesame Street.) On a single one-kilometre stretch of main road near our house we have our family dentist, an optical store (where we bought K’s glasses), a bagel shop (several, actually, but I have my favourite), a health food store, my chiropractor and massage therapist, and the paint store I always use. Oh, and there’s the health-conscious-and-also-kosher cafĂ©, the laffa restaurant, and the ice-cream parlour.

(We used to walk to the pharmacy, too, but ironically at the same time as I was trying to do more locally, their service really deteriorated and I switched to an online pharmacy. I regret nothing.)

What am I missing, exactly? In my perfect world all our parents would live nearby, so that we really wouldn’t have to drive unless we desperately wanted to… but given how much we love my parents’ home with its ravine setting, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s probably too much to ask, anyway. We have neighbourhood friends, parks, shops, and (some) health care; I’m basically living my dream of a walkable lifestyle. Now it only remains to be seen whether I actually enjoy the lifestyle I’ve craved for so many years.

blogging · family fun · Fibro Flares · Jewy goodness · Just the two of us · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 194: Higher Highs, Lower Lows

The children sat around the fire, faces glowing from the light of the flames, shouting out more and more absurd suggestions for the Corner Grocery Store song. When I switched to something slower, they put their hands on each other’s shoulders and swayed to the music. We sang the blessings for havdalah, using freshly plucked cedar leaves as the spices. The wind blew hard, and K tenderly helped E zip up her sweater and hugged E to her side.

It’s true, what someone once told me about parenting: the highs are higher, and the lows are lower.

Some days it feels like everything is on fire and we have to put it out using nothing but our wits and a seltzer bottle. We careen from one meltdown to another, coordinating the minutae of four young lives with all their appointments and therapies, all the while judging the soundness of our parenting decisions. Those are the days that make us reminisce about our brief stint as a child-free couple living downtown: “Wasn’t it great that if we wanted to go out for dinner we could, without coordinating child care? Remember just crossing the street and being at the movie theatre and the bistro?” The irony is that over half of that time, I was praying that we’d have children soon.

And then there are days like yesterday and today, when everyone’s singing and embracing, the children are helping each other, the sky is clear and the lake is beautiful. Yesterday we all swam together in the (slightly-warmer-than-last-week) lake, made challah, and enjoyed Shabbat dinner on the deck overlooking the water. Today was a bit more difficult for me—all those hikes have caught up with me in the form of a fibro flare, methinks—but the kids and Mr. December had a great time in the water while I slept for three hours. And then there was our havdalah and campfire tonight, and now I’m sitting by the fire with my laptop, listening to the waves and typing this post.

I won’t say the lows aren’t that bad: they really, truly are. But I’ll take them, partly there’s no return policy for kids, but mostly because I wouldn’t give up the highs for anything.

family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 192: Crevasse exploration and the Five Stages of Going Out

We went on the coolest hike today: the Standing Rock and Caves trail near Collingwood. It was two hours of scrambling up and down boulders, navigating huge crevasses, and finding out who the chickens are in our family (hint: I’m one of them. Bawk!).

We also had an impromptu sex education class when we came across what looked like a giant fuzzy bee. On closer inspection we saw that it was two bees: one very large one, and a smaller one attached to the big one’s rear end. I presume the large one was the queen and the small one, the drone. She stayed entirely still while the drone moved furiously back and forth.

“This is very rude! Nobody wants to see that!” R complained. “Can’t they find somewhere more private?

“Well, this is awkward,” was K’s observation. “How long are they going to keep it up?”

I’ll hand it to the drone, he had some serious stamina. When we left our resting spot fifteen minutes after arriving there, he was still pumping away. I guess he was prolonging the inevitable, seeing as drones die after mating.

Towards the end of the fun part of the hike, Mr. December looked at the smiling, rosy-cheeked children and asked, “Are you guys having fun?”

“Yeah!” The kids cheered.

“When I ask you later how the hike was, what are you going to say?”

“Meh, it was okay.”

That’s the problem in a nutshell. To get to the point where they were having fun and begging to be allowed to explore “just one more” cave, we had to go through the forty-minute ordeal that is getting the kids out of the house, which I believe has stages similar to Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: Announcement, Denial, Insistence, Refusal, and Acceptance.

The Announcement phase begins with one or more adults telling the kids that we’re going somewhere, so please get ready. This phase might be prolonged by questions from the children about our destination.

Denial is just what it sounds like. The children deny having heard us, or they deny ever having expressed an interest in the proposed outing. At this point you might hear the parents repeating the announcement in an increasingly irritated tone.

Insistence is two-sided: the parents insist that the children comply immediately, and the children insist that we stay home and do nothing. Insistence sometimes involves the children using physical tactics such as tickling, dogpiling on Mr. December, or biting (!) to delay or abort the outing.

Refusal is when the children and parents both dig in their heels. The children simply refrain from any behaviours that look like preparation to leave the house. The parents, meanwhile, stop listening to the complaints and begin moving towards the car, all the while spouting bizarre logic like, “If you don’t put your shoes on right now, you’ll be hiking with no shoes. I mean it.”

You’ll know that the Acceptance stage has been reached by the extensive use of the word “FINE.” There may also be sighing, arguments about who sits where in the car, and complaints of, “I can’t find my shoe! WHO TOOK MY OTHER SHOE? I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU GUYS WOULD—oh, nevermind. I found it.”

These stages are an intricate dance as consistent as the sun rising and setting; for our family, at least. Kind of makes me wonder why we’re surprised every time it happens.

family fun · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Kids · waxing philosophical · what's cookin'

Day 186: A Different New Year

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown today. Normally our family would celebrate with festive meals with the extended family, and five-hour-long services at synagogue (there were always kids’ programs, babysitting, and breakout sessions too.) This year synagogue services aren’t happening in the same way and we’re not even at home; so what are we going to do?

Here’s what I’ve planned:

Friday Night
We’ll have the usual festive meal (minus the extended family) with round challahs, kiddush over the wine (or grape juice,) and sweet foods (for a sweet new year.) We bought five different types of honey from a local honey farm, so we’ll have a honey tasting and see which one is the family favourite. We’ll also have a game that relies on puns and randomly selected foods to create blessings or wishes for the new year. Some ideas I’ve got so far:

  • Peas (May this year bring us world peas)
  • Turnip (May the right opportunities turnip for you this year)
  • Root vegetables (May you have lots of people rooting for you this year)
  • Grapes (May we all have a grape year)
  • Tomatoes (May you be able to say ‘I feel good from my head tomatoes‘)

You get the idea. It’s corny, and the kids will love it — N especially grooves on word play.

We’ll do a few of the Rosh Hashana-specific prayers, including the one on which the Leonard Cohen song “Who by Fire?” is based (and yes, we’ll teach the kids “Who by Fire?”). We’ll discuss one of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings, probably the one about Akeidat Yitzhak, the “Binding of Isaac.” We’ll bake, decorate, and enjoy a birthday cake for dessert (because in the prayer service we read, “Hayom harat olam,” which has sometimes been interpreted as “Today is the birthday of the world”), and I anticipate reading all of our Rosh Hashana storybooks.

I’ve planned to go hiking at a nearby waterfall. We’ll do tashlich (a ceremony in which we symbolically cast our sins away) with water-soluble paper; we can each write or draw what we want to cast off this year and then watch it dissolve as soon as it touches the water. Another possibility is to write it on leaves using wet-erase markers so that the leaf is washed clean in the river, a play on “turn over a new leaf.” I’ll also blow the shofar over the lake in the morning, and maybe again at the waterfall. We’ll end with havdallah and a campfire.

On a more personal level, I’ve been reflecting on the changes we’ve seen in the past year and what possibilities I want to embrace in the coming year.

I want my life to be joyful when possible, purposeful otherwise, and always intentional. I don’t want to wait til the end of the year to evaluate and change course. If something doesn’t work for me (or for us as a family,) I hope I’ll have the courage to change it.

I’m raising my expectations this year: we should all be able to thrive, and if we’re not, something needs to change. Since the schools closed in March I’ve seen all of my children thrive in ways they hadn’t before. None of us should just be passing the time between waking and going to bed.

I want to express my gratitude more, and in ways that are more evident to my children. I am deeply grateful for everything I’ve been given in life — I certainly didn’t earn it! — and I want them to see and understand the world that way too.

On the physical plane, I will give my body more of what it needs: adequate sleep (we’ve been getting 9 hours a night up at the cottage and I feel great,) food that nourishes me and makes me feel good, and exercise to keep me strong and healthy.

I wish all of my readers, Jewish and not, celebrating and not, a sweet and good year (even if not necessarily happy) in good health. May you have everything you need and most of what you want.

See you next year!

family fun · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 182: Bubbles

Today was better.

It might have been because the sun was shining, or maybe because we went out in the canoe to explore an uninhabited island. It might have been the fact that I had a plan for the day.

Most likely, though, it was the bubbles. It’s impossible to feel bummed when soap bubbles are involved; even more so when the bubbles are the size of a watermelon.

This morning, after breakfast, I pulled out one of the project books I had brought along with us and showed the kids the page titled “Giant Bubbles.” Appointing N the potioneer-in-chief, I stepped back and watched them mix warm water, corn starch, glycerine, baking powder, and dish soap according to the instructions. I helped E make bubble wands out of dowels, metal washers, and string.

Finally, an hour later, we stood on the dock and tried to create giant bubbles. There were mostly failures, and then suddenly there was a huge bubble that stayed intact. It floated on the breeze and then descended toward the water. “This is it,” I thought to myself, “it’s gonna pop.” It didn’t. Instead it bounced off the surface of the lake and floated upwards again, a wobbling globe of rainbow colours.

It’s hard to say who was more enchanted by the bubbles, the kids or I. We stayed on the dock for an hour, gradually peeling off layers of clothing in the hot sun, and worked on replicating that first bouncing bubble. Eventually we got the hang of it; but even after dozens of successful bubbles, it never got boring. We only stopped because it was lunchtime.

Our collective mood changed for the better today. Whether it was the element of the unexpected (which bubble will pop? which one will last beyond the next dock over?) or just the sense of beauty and delight the bubbles inspired that did it, I don’t know. I also don’t care. Bubbles are magical; and whose vacation can’t benefit from a little more magic?

family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 181: The summer break of our discontent

You know how they say that planning a vacation is more enjoyable than actually taking that vacation? They’re right. Although that could just be because this vacation kind of sucks.

There. I said it.

True, we’ve had a couple of great day trips. And there was a day, maybe a day and a half, where the weather was warm and swimming was fun. But it feels like a lot of our time here is spent moping around the place doing nothing. This is not how I pictured a month at the cottage.

I was probably operating on the assumption that the kids would want to play in the sand at the water’s edge, that the water would be a comfortable temperature for swimming, and that we’d spend the days on the dock, reading our books in the sun. I imagined giving my kids a few small lessons on paddling technique and then exploring the shoreline. I certainly didn’t expect how windy it would be here; and Mr. December and I both seem to have forgotten that “high of 23” doesn’t mean it’s 23 degrees all day long, but that it will hit 23 degrees sometime between 1 and 2 p.m., and otherwise it’ll be more like 17.

I’m trying to be phlegmatic about the whole thing: some days are good, others are less so. I often tell the kids that boredom is good for them: maybe it will be. I’m trying to figure out things to do that will make our time up here feel worthwhile. But Mr. December goes back to work (online, remotely) tomorrow and his one week of vacation has been rife with whining, complaining, and sneezing (did I mention that I forgot to ask the owners whether their cottage was pet-free? It wasn’t, three of us have allergies, and I spent much of last week vacuuming everything I could.) I feel vaguely guilty about that.

Mr. December has always been keener than I on the idea of planning and scheduling our free time. It’s something I generally do under duress — it does not come naturally to me to make a timetable of how we’re spending every hour of our weekend, and yet I made the effort to do it every week until COVID hit. Let me be clearer: planning our free time goes against my grain and rubs me entirely the wrong way… and yet I try to do it.

The notion that we couldn’t manage to entertain ourselves at a house on a lake, with a dock and watercraft and a fire pit, seemed absurd to me two weeks ago. Now I know better. R has started asking to go home. We’ve said no, because Rosh Hashana is next weekend and we want the kids to be with us. But every time she asks I’m tempted to say, “Only if I can go too.” If it weren’t for the fact that the rest of our stay here is non-refundable, I’d probably start packing up to leave.

Of course, it might be sunny and bright tomorrow and I’ll be back to rhapsodizing about the magic of getting kids out in nature. We’ll just have to wait and see.