Category Archives: writing life

Brussels Sprouts Surprise; or, Not the End of Homeschooling

My 15yo (16 in two weeks!) passes through the kitchen while I am trimming Brussels sprouts—chopping off browning ends, halving them to roast.

“What are we having for dinner?” she asks, grabbing a glass for water, the better to wash down all that Easter chocolate.

“Kung Pao Brussels sprouts,” I say. “Oooh,” she responds. We’ve had them before, and everyone liked them, even though I couldn’t find the peanuts I had Just Bought for the recipe. (I saw them several days later at the bottom of a crisper drawer. Huh?) Everyone also agreed: add tofu next time. So I am.

As I keep slicing, I recall that when I was 15 I would have said “Ooooh” very differently – more of an “Ew!” – when offered Brussels sprouts. Though my kids annoy me sometimes when they get “full” of vegetables and then pile on the bagels and candy, I can’t deny that they are much more flexible, adventurous eaters than I was as a kid. I would not have been suggesting that we eat Brussels sprouts again soon, but next time with tofu. When I was 15 I would never have foreseen cooking Kung Pao Brussels sprouts with tofu for my own pleasure, let alone for the pleasure of children related to me.

In the last 15 (16!) years a lot of unexpected things have happened, after this weekend I’m ruminating on two of the big ones. I attended the Easter vigil last Saturday, the first one since my own baptism in 2002 (the vigil is not a child-friendly event IMHO). For all kinds of reasons, I’m still surprised to wake up and find myself Catholic, which was not a destination I had ever considered until I wound up there.

As for the other thing: On Good Friday, we went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family outing, to see the incredible Habsburg exhibit currently visiting. I was in Vienna just over two years ago, touring the museum from which most of the exhibition’s pieces were taken, and to connect with that again was to wonder anew at the opportunities have fallen totally unmerited into my lap.

But that’s not the other thing. We came home from the museum, my 11yo begging me to take her to Vienna ASAP, and gathered the mail. There we found my 15yo’s acceptance letter to our state arts high school: a two-year program designed to let artistically driven, academically strong students develop their skills in an arts area they are truly passionate about. I was thinking of it as a good test drive for a full-on 4-year arts school.

This was not unexpected. Admission is little competitive: about 60% get in, which seemed safe. Still, it was confirmation that she’d be enrolling full-time in a brick and mortar school in the fall, marking the end of an era that—possibly more than being a Catholic Christian—remains one of my most unlikely detours.

Obviously, that’s homeschooling. The 11yo is already attending a very loosey goosey brick and mortar charter school, and the 15yo is taking half her classes at a community college, so I’ve had a year to ease into the not-a-homeschooling-parent lifestyle. I won’t lie to you: the quiet is nice. And so very very sorely missed.

Homeschooling: the first month

Homeschooling: the first month

Still, homeschooling has so far been the most wild and wonderful adventure I could have taken while staying on the sofa in my pajamas. As I reach the end of this phase, there are so many things I could (and probably will!) say about the transformations and lessons of the past decade, but right now I am just drinking in the last days of this time of life. Sitting with my daughter today watching a video about famous Renaissance thinkers and artists—while the Brussels sprouts roasted in the oven—I could not have been happier. When the lecturer mentioned Petrarch – “pause it!” – Leonardo DaVinci – “pause it!” – or Savonarola – “pause it!” – I was so excited to take the conversation further with her. And she indulges me, because I get pretty passionate myself sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to indulge our passions.

So my time as a homeschooling parent is coming to an end—at least, that’s the plan. But my time as a homeschooler is not. I have a few helps-for-homeschoolers I hope I’ll finally have time to type up and make available: homemade curricula, dos and don’ts, admonitions and encouragements.

Homeschooling -- the end times?

Homeschooling — the end times?

Truly, that Brussels-sprouts-shunning 15-year-old me would be astonished by all of this: the vegetables, the church, the kids, the travel, the homeschooling. The Internet, for Pete’s sake.

And speaking of the Internet: I’m also going to start teaching at Online G3, which was about the biggest homeschooling help we ever found. Jaime Smith introduced me to the idea that homeschoolers are disruptive consumers, and over my years learning about education I believe that is true. Families taking part in innovative or experimental types of education are a small, grassroots market now, but the ideas and tools they generate will have the potential to improve education for everyone. I’m excited to be a part of that, and to find out what surprising turns we all might take in the next 15 years.

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Filed under gifted education, grown up life, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, Twin Cities, writing life

Happy Old Year

I know everyone is saying what a horrible year 2014 was, and we didn’t miss out on all that either. But my friend Heather posted a nice reflection on the past year and it gave me a good opportunity to remember just how many times I have felt ecstatically happy or just thoroughly content in the midst of it all.

I’m posting it here because a) I enjoyed doing it and though you might too, whoever you are, b) my response was way too long to post on my wall, and c) this way I can save it.

Here, give it a try tonight, or tomorrow, or this weekend — there’s no rush. It’s from a blog called Running Hutch, and this is her graphic, not mine.

Year-End-Reflection-by-Running-Hutch

Here’s what I came up with. If you feel like sharing, tell me in the comments, or on Facebook, or on the phone, or whatever.

10 Highlights
1. The whole Listen to Your Mother experience
2. Our Disney one-day marathon
3. Seeing friends in Reno
4. Spending time with extended family in Michigan
5. Seeing Elvis Costello and the visit with our friend Michael
6. An amazing colorful MN fall
7. Some very fun outings with local friends, camping, seeing shows, just chillin (and learning what an appropriate amount of alcohol is after 40)
8. Our SD trip, especially biking the Mickelson trail
9. Going to see the husband’s new band and enjoying having that as part of our lives again
10. Seeing my girls stretch out in a school setting

10 Disappointments
1. Auditioning for a local singing group and being told that I was amazing but not right for the group.
2. Spending a big part of the first few months with an injured finger
3. Getting the flu/pneumonia
4. Visits with my parents falling through due to illness or busyness
5. Not yet adapting to the new school schedule, so that I do more work during the day and have more time to relax with the family at night. (As opposed to being with the kids all day and working at night, as in the past.)
6. Not doing as much biking, camping, and swimming as I’d hoped this summer. Violet’s “summer school” issues and having 2 families with Victoria’s friends on the block move away really made this a bummer summer when we weren’t traveling or having friends.
7. Feeling unable and unsure how to help or make any positive impact on many difficult world events.
8. I didn’t do a lot of the writing that I planned to do.
9. My exercise schemes were constantly being derailed by injury and illness.
10. My time participating in our GT co-op and GT homeschooling group really petered out on a very negative note. This has been a hard one to get over.

3 Game Changers
1. Sending Victoria to school. Just talking about that seemed to open up more thoughts about how we all wanted to spend our days. Much like our first year or two of homeschooling led to lots of thinking about how we choose to spend our time.

2. Stepping down from my last leadership role. I have run something, usually lots of somethings, since stepping out of academia and into the world of motherhood, which is truly one volunteer role after another. This spring when I quit the board of our co-op, that was it – no leadership role in anything. This was terrifying, liberating, and sad for a variety of reasons. I love it and hate it.

3. Starting work with the first brand new client I’ve had in a while (worked with the same old for a long time). It’s a great opportunity to try new things, and also a goad to consider how I see my worklife in its middle third or second half. Funny how you can spend 20 years in a career and then feel like a novice again.

3 Foci
1. Work
2. Homeschooling
3. Procrastinating

3 Things I Forgot
The question is later rephrased as “What are the 3 main areas in your life that you neglected the most?” Based on my disappointments, I think the answers are obvious:

1. My well being
2. Being in charge of my work/writing life, instead of letting it happen to me
3. Saying no

How does this inform my plans for next year:

I am still in a transitional place, seeing about Violet going to school full time next year, thinking about what new kinds of writing work I want to pursue for pay, on the heels of my recent adventures. I also do miss running something. I’ve always liked the excitement of working with others to make interesting things happen, and it’s a good way for me to contribute to my various communities. But I don’t know that I’ve found the place where I want to do that yet. The kids’ schools are an obvious place and yet I feel like I’ve outgrown that kind of organizing.

I’d like to think the first half of 2015 will be about looking at those kinds of questions, while the second half will be about acting on what I’ve learned. It may turn out, however, that the first half of 2015 will be about getting through the end of homeschooling and the second half will be about a second act for me – which is OK.

Through it all, I know better now than I did a year ago that there is no such thing as “no time for exercise,” or for sleep, or for fun. I burned out big time right around my 40th birthday because I ignored these things for so long, and it’s been hard to climb out of the hole. It seems like, for me, right now, it’s never a mistake to prioritize these things over work, homeschool, or anything else.

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The Sisterhood and My Traveling Pants; or, LTYM 2014

Many people have asked me about my experience reading for Listen To Your Mother – Twin Cities. This is my answer. It is not short.

Side note: I wrote most of it before hearing that Maya Angelou died today, but as the Internet filled with quotations I found this one especially apt: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

The Preparation

I did not practice my piece out loud alone, ever. In fact, even before my audition the only time I read it aloud was on a bench outside the audition venue, where it was about 35 degrees. Why I bother to wear makeup when any exposure to the elements turns me a blotchy pink remains a mystery.

I rehearsed only at rehearsals, briefly wishing I had honed my delivery better before choosing to pat myself on the back for not overthinking it.

I didn’t even obsess about my clothes. For a while I entertained the idea of buying something new, but fortunately I remembered that shopping for new clothes is at least as likely to be depressing as it is to be fun. Better to stick with the familiar: simple top, black pants. I had not seen the black pants in a few months, but no matter, they would materialize eventually. Wash enough clothes, and slowly they would rise to the top of laundry heap. Put it out of my mind.

Until the day before, when I still could not find my pants. Suddenly my pants and their absence were no longer a sign of my devil-may-care insouciance. My pants became the emblem of my unpreparedness for this event, if not for life in general. My inability to rein in or track down a single pair of black cotton-rayon blend pants was starting to represent the folly of the whole enterprise: exposing myself, quite possibly revealing that the emperor has no clothes.

After the drama these pants caused on my Facebook wall for days, I wish this story had a hilariously poignant ending. In truth I found the pants hanging on a hook in the kids’ bathroom, under a Hogwarts robe of the same black shade, the morning of the show, and that was that. Soul-searching time is over. Time to put on the big-girl black pants and read.

All dressed and ready to go

All dressed and ready to go

The night

I’ve auditioned for a couple of things lately, which has given me a chance to come face to face with what a chicken I’ve become. As a young woman auditioning for a cappella groups in college, I was self-confident to (past) the point of obnoxious. When a group groaned and told me they were tired of “Happy Birthday”–the song they told me to audition with–I said “Give me an A” and launched into a full recitative and aria from the Messiah, and then I turned them down when they called back. (Look, I’m just trying to be real here. I know it’s bad. Besides, I had a spot in the better group.)

So I’ve been surprised by the bundle of nerves that springs up when I poke my turtle head out into the world again. I’m presented with brand new, untried hurdles. Instead of “deep breath, best foot forward,” my self-talk sounds more like “she’s better than me, and oh no she’s better than me too, and what was I thinking” and so on.

I had been through this in the rehearsal process already, but the huge response the audience gave each reader made it all fresh and loud again. “My story isn’t that funny.” “My story isn’t that meaningful.” “My writing isn’t that poetic.” “My story isn’t that relatable.” And then, magically, my self-talk changed, and it said “Really, what are the odds that your story, your writing, your delivery are all the worst, that you’re the one who’s going to bomb when everyone else is doing so well?”

And they were doing so well. Every single woman stepped up and delivered the best reading of her piece yet. I was genuinely thrilled for each one, and it was truly like magic to watch each writer grow a little more expressive, a little more emboldened, sometimes a little more sassy. Every audience reaction, to the funny or the sad, provoked a fist-pumping “Yes!” in my heart. Throughout this process, without my realizing it, I had become a fellow bearer of these women’s stories. Their success was my joy, regardless of my individual performance.

I was second to last to read–the last before our co-producer Tracy brought it to a close. There are not a lot of words to say about it. I don’t know how personal or profound my story sounded to the audience. I laid out there, as best I could, a description of a major life transformation for which motherhood acted as the primary catalyst. (Video to come.) Though I think it was mostly funny, it touched lightly on some of the most vulnerable parts of me. And in response, people laughed, and said “ohhh” and “awwww,” and then, at the end, 500+ people clapped and yelled and cheered. I have gotten criticism and praise for my writing and ideas for 40 years, and I have sung other people’s songs for audiences large and small. But being seen and heard and embraced by a live audience, well that engenders feelings I could not have anticipated and can’t quite describe.

The takeaway

That feeling, it’s a big takeaway, but it’s something I can’t even begin to share or even use, because I don’t know how. So here’s something a little more practical and immediate.

As people began to ask me what my experience was like, I wanted to recommend it to them. I told writer friends in cities with an LTYM, “you should do this!” But it didn’t take long to recall that I have really awesome friends who have stories (everyone has stories), but who aren’t writers. Some, no matter how smart and thoughtful, aren’t even all that great with the written word. Yet I wanted for them that same experience of being seen, and known, and appreciated.

I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I do not click “like” on Facebook unless I am really feeling some serious excitement. I am suspicious of exclamation points. In person, I sometimes do not say hello to an acquaintance because I assume they don’t care about hearing it from me. I am surprised how often I think I’ve said something out loud, but it turns out it lived only in my mind. There are many reasons for this: good, bad, unknowable, idiotic.

Nevertheless since my LTYM experience I am resolved to pay it forward, to push past my scruples or decorum or shyness and give out more totally gratuitous recognition of both close friends and acquaintances. Gratuitous, as in it costs me very little to call out “Hi Jen” instead of smiling and looking down, or to comment “thanks for sharing” when someone posts interesting news. Gratuitous, as in no one need do anything especially amazing to earn it. Who they are is enough.

This is the gift I received, thanks to the effort and support of many people, including LTYM founder Ann Imig, and our Twin Cities co-producers Galit Breen, Tracy Morrison, and Vikki Reich. It is a gift I can try to pass on with very little effort at all.

TL;DR:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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The Real Real World

I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.

Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.

Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.

This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”

I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.

I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.

Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.

Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.

I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.

Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.

Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.

This way to the magic.

This way to the magic.

While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.

Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?

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(Un)Frozen

If you are on social media at all, you know that the upper midwest is pretty much frozen solid. So, too, is my blogging. Not my writing, thank goodness. A lot of writing has been happening. But I miss blogging.

What finally convicted me (a nice, fancy, moralistic way of saying I checked myself) was a great post by about returning to my roots as a homeschooler. I just spent about 45 minutes trying to find it, so I can’t give proper credit, though I am sure it was either Bravewriter or Project Based Homeschooling.

When I think back on my happiest times as a homeschooler, they are intertwined with blogging. That’s in part because back in the aughts blogging was new and fun and felt a lot looser and a lot less contrived than it does now. It was fun to meet a lot of new people online, many of whom I still connect with via Facebook. It was exciting to be part of new things — homeschooling, social media, even parenting was relatively new then, for me.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think blogging helped me bring a level of intention to homeschooling — and to all the good personal and family stuff that sometimes goes along with homeschooling — that made it more immediately meaningful and rewarding.

I hope the blog will be a bit of a daybook, a chance to share more about homeschooling a high schooler, and (she said modestly) a place to pass on some of what we have learned as we head into our 9th year of homeschooling.

And because life is a little different now than it was 8 years ago, I hope it will be a place to talk more about reading and the writing life, and a place where what’s little and hidden, what’s imaginary, what’s pointless or beneath notice in “the real world” will be valued nonetheless.

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Not Too Busy

One of my favorite life mentors, someone I worked with at my first church, told me years ago that she had struck the word “busy” from her vocabulary. She told me, too many people – many of them moms – seemed to be in a misguided competition in which a state of near collapse was a sign of winning.

She was going to abstain, helping to make a space where other women could be OK without proving their worth by the lack of unclaimed territory on the calendar. You can see why I would think of her as a mentor.

What she said really struck me, because I was, at the time, always busy. Always telling people I was busy, tired, “crazy,” and often too busy for whatever fun activity they were proposing. I’d never met a volunteer position I couldn’t fill or a freelance client I couldn’t add to the roster.

I tried to take what she said to heart. I really did. But instead I pretty much rode the roller coaster of energy bursts, depression, burn out, guilt, hyperproductivity, resentment, and “yes, sure, I’ll do it.” The only difference was I tried not to talk about it. This did not help.

Sadly that mentor floated out of my life. She took a new job, I moved and went to a new parish, and life closed over that particular connection. But her words come back to me from time to time. Times when I’m saying “no” to everything that matters to me and “yes” to stuff that no longer fits.

It’s not even that the “yes” stuff is bad. Sometimes I’m slow to let go because for a while it was a source of joy or satisfaction. Sometimes it’s because I feel like I must, because it’s expected, whether by people who will be disappointed in me, or by myself, me with the impossibly high standards for what is enough. It turns out, for some of us, enough is never enough.

But it hasn’t been for nothing. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way, and I’m getting better at pruning to make new and healthy growth possible. My best one, I think, is overschedule the good stuff.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you came and looked at my living room you’d know that I do too. Creating space in the calendar is wonderful, but let’s be realistic. If it were so easy for you—you, meaning you who are like me—to keep that space open you wouldn’t be pondering the tyranny of busyness again and again.

Find some new “yeses” to hold that space open. Make them easy, and involve other people, who will hold you to it even if they don’t know they are part of your secret plot to be less crazy. Dessert, wine, coffee, a walk, a tea party, a Wii party. Making apple pie with your kids.

Say you’ll go to a movie even if there’s no time to go. Go for a walk in the woods before you get your work done. You’re hyperresponsible: there’s no way you’re going to miss that deadline, but there’s a good chance you’ll miss a lot of other stuff.

I found my old mentor on Facebook today and refriended her. I don’t know if we’ll reconnect, and it’s OK if we don’t. But if we do, I won’t make lame excuses about being busy.

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Teen Reading List for Spring

I had been worrying throughout the fall that my 13yo wasn’t reading enough. She was doing a lot of rereading old books, leafing through comics, and checking tumblr, but not poring over new novels like years past.

This semester will be different thanks to her co-op activities. A few teens have organized their own weekly book club, and these are their choices:

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
Maze Runner, James Dashner
Chosen, Ted Dekker
The Card Turner, Louis Sachar
The Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
The Last Dragonslayer, Jasper Fforde
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak

What a great list, right? All the books were proposed by the kids – they have excellent taste. So far they have organized their discussions themselves: the first meeting they mapped Maze Runner and for the second one of the kids made a Jeopardy-style game about the book.

For the class I am teaching – and it is kind of interesting having your own kid sitting next to you in class, alternately being a teen among teens and being your kid – the reading list is crazy, but awesome:

Jonathan Swift, “The Ladies Dressing Room” and “A Modest Proposal”; Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”; P. G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters; Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest; Flannery O’ Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”; Chaucer, “The Miller’s Tale”; Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan; and short works Joseph Addison, Dorothy Parker, Italo Calvino, Woody Allen, Mark Twain, David Sedaris, Edward Gorey, and Garrison Keillor.

I am feeling torn about “The Miller’s Tale.” I did promise flatulence in the class description, but I didn’t count on how hard it would be for a few of the kids to talk about body stuff in front of each other. Looking for substitutes, I Googled “great farts in literary history.” Do not do this unless you have a strong stomach.

On reflection this seems a little light in mood/substance compared to previous reading lists, but after a fall of dystopian literature, that’s probably a good balance.

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Filed under Books, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, writing life