The Case For Traveling With Children

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If you follow me on social media, you may be aware that we’ve been living in a winter wonderland this week. Starting on Sunday evening our weather turned arctic. We got enough snow to bury all of our outdoor toys (yep, the same toys that I told the kids to put away at least 5,483 times) and cancel school for infinity days. During our unexpected immersive experience in the worlds of Narnia and Frozen, I had plenty of time to sit at home and dream about being somewhere else.

Thankfully, that “somewhere else” happens to be a place we’re actually going in the not-so-distant future. This spring we’re taking our whole family–Mom, Dad, 9-Year Old Trouble Maker, 7-Year Old Trouble Maker, and 4 Year-Old Barely Potty Trained Princess–to Europe. Like, on a 16-hour-flight-to-a-country-where-we-don’t-speak-the-language Europe.

When we first started planning The Big Trip, Hubs and I went back and forth on whether or not we should bring our kids with us or just bribe the grandparents to stay with our offspring so we could galavant carelessly across the pond. After all, bringing kids along on travels adds extra stress and expense and hardship. Traveling with kids can be a very different, very anxiety-producing experience for the adults in their party. In the end, though, we decided that the difficulty–the challenge–of traveling with our kids would be worth it: for us and for them.

For any of you who are scared off by the idea of traveling with your kids, let me present my case for why you should take them along for the ride:

Traveling with kids helps them contribute to decision making.
When we travel with our kids we let them help with some of the planning for our trip. We’ll look over guide books and websites about the places we’ll be traveling to and allow our kids to make suggestions of things they would like to see or places they would like to go. We don’t always heed every suggestion they make, but at least they start to feel some ownership for the experience they’re helping to create.

Traveling with kids helps them develop responsibility skills.
We have our kids help pack their travel bags and keep track of their belongings while we’re traveling. What? You can’t find your Hyper-Strike Battle Beyblade? And whose job was it to put all of your toys back in your backpack before we left the hotel? Yours?
Yep. Responsibility.

Traveling with kids helps them see the world from a different perspective.
Wherever you go–whether it’s a new city an hour away or a country on the other side of the world–will have people and experiences different from what your kids experience at home. Meeting different people living in different ways helps kids develop a more flexible idea of what “normal” is. In this way, seeing things from a different perspective can help kids develop empathy for others and challenge them to try new things in their own lives.

Traveling with kids forces kids to step out of their comfort zone.
Almost certainly, kids who travel will be forced to try new experiences. New places to sleep, new foods, new languages, new modes of transportation, new ideas. Sometimes–often times–those new experiences can feel uncomfortable at first. When there is no other option than “The New”, however, you are forced to try it…or at the very least observe it. These are the character-building encounters that every kid should experience.

Traveling with kids is great for family bonding.
By the very nature of travel, you will spend a significant time together as a family. In our upcoming trip our family will spend 336 consecutive hours together. Compared to the 140 hours we would spend with all of us together at home during the same time period, that’s a huge jump in Quantity Time points. And it’s not only a lot of time, but it’s quality time. We will try new things and visit new places and learn new things–all together.

Traveling with kids teaches them “forced flexibility”.
Every time something doesn’t go according to plan while you’re traveling–which is quite often–you have to be flexible. Delayed flight? Flexible. Missed the bus and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one? Flexible. Want to eat a cheeseburger but there’s only sushi on the menu? Flexible. There are a lot of uncontrollable variables in travel, and this forced flexibility makes kids more resilient.

Traveling with kids gives them real-world experiences.
It’s one thing to read about ancient Rome or tropical rainforests, but it is an entirely different thing to experience those things in the flesh. Actually seeing and feeling and learning about new places and cultures can spark a zeal for learning and further exploration that no other experience can.

Traveling with kids is good for socialization.
When you travel you are forced to interact with new people: taxi drivers, tour guides, waiters, commuters on the subway. By interacting with new people on a daily basis, kids can learn valuable lessons in how to approach and interact with people. By seeing and meeting people who are different–and yet the same–as them can help kids develop altruism and a greater respect for all people. When kids return home, these social skills can help them more confident and accepting when they meet new people.

Traveling with kids gives them memories that will last a lifetime.
Travel gives your family a shared experience and a shared history that you will all remember for the rest of your lives. Somehow even the bad memories of travel (I’m looking at you, puke-covered Fiat) tend to turn into good/happy/hilarious memories over time. I can’t tell you a single birthday gift that I received as a child, but I can easily recount for you in vivid detail every trip my family took together growing up. These memories are the ones your family will carry with them forever.

So, even though travel with kids is hardly convenient, it is always worth it. I can’t wait to make new memories with our kids this April–no matter how crazy or comical they end up being!

 

Hidden Potential

Spring is my favorite season–there’s just something about the transition from near-constant darkness to the hope of light that awakens everything within me. Winter is survival mode, but spring is life being lived at its fullest.

One of my favorite springtime traditions is an annual pilgrimage to the tulip fields in Mount Vernon, about an hour north of our home. It’s like a mini-Holland with hundreds of acres of tulips painstakingly planted and nurtured and manicured by people with thumbs much greener than my own. Mount Vernon in April is a rainbow fallen to earth, with dazzling colors stretching across the valley all the way to the mountain foothills in the distance. It’s quite literally breathtaking.

But it’s not always like that. Last January I drove through Mount Vernon and all I saw was an endless valley of dirt. Ugly, boring brown dirt. In fact, most of the year when you drive through Mount Vernon the fields look like a bit of a wasteland. Mount Vernon looked simple and unattractive that winter afternoon–hardly the explosion of brilliance that I’ve come to expect from this area. And yet I knew that beneath that boring brown dirt there was something happening. Bulbs were being nourished (by that boring brown dirt), roots were forming, life was beginning. Blooms were there, just under the surface. January was the season of becoming. Without January I’d never get to experience April.

Last week I drove up to the tulip fields again, this time in mid-April. As I made the drive up to the fields, this is what I was thinking of. January. And April. I drove with anticipation that the hidden work happening underground all winter would result in beauty.

This year has felt a lot like a January. A very long, long January. And, just as the hidden potential of January produces the flowers of April, I feel like the toiling of this year is producing beauty in my life. God has used this prolonged season of disruption to do a lot of work in my life and our family–the arduous work underground of becoming something new, something better.

In January (irony?) we decided to embark on a journey that has been a long time in coming, but we’d just never really known how to take the first step. Our oldest son has had many challenges over the years, and we knew he needed help…but we really didn’t know what kind of help or how to get it or how to even ask for it. So, we decided to take a step, not knowing if it was the right step or even if it was in the right direction. I figured at the very least if it was the wrong step then we’d tumble down and know that we needed to try stepping a different way.

So, I scheduled our son for a series of assessments and, after several months of walking down that path, we realized it was the path that we should have been on years ago. When the results came in (In April, of course) it was both striking and reassuring–for the first time we had confirmation that the challenges he’d been facing were real. We hadn’t been imagining the challenges or somehow failed at parenting. We now had an official diagnosis. We had names for those challenges. ADHD. Autism. Dysgraphia.

And with those names came power. Power over the fear and doubt of what we didn’t yet understand. Power from the knowledge of a better path forward. Power from knowing that our son was and is who he always has been, which is exactly who he was always meant to be. Power in knowing which path we need to walk forward on and the people that can help us walk it a little less clumsily.

Receiving his diagnosis was our April. The hidden potential of our son had been buried underground, and now we could finally see the brilliance of who he is. All of the hard work that has been happening behind the scenes is showing us a better way forward. We can now face tomorrow with a renewed sense of hope and excitement because we know the right path to walk on. I know that path will not always be easy–in fact, it’s probably going to be messy and difficult as we dig our way out of the weeds–but I know it will lead us to a better final destination.

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When I pulled off I-5 in Mount Vernon last week, I was not disappointed. The boring brown dirt had done its work, and the fields were a cacophony of color. The formerly-stagnant bulbs had sprouted into brilliant flower stalks, waving in the breeze and welcoming visitors to admire their beauty.

And as I gazed in wonder at the endless rows of perfection, I knew that the hard work underground was worth it. Because every good and beautiful thing is born from potential, from hard work in the off-season, and from time. Beauty does not just happen, it is created from labor and sacrifice. So, as our family moves forward with confidence into this new season of understanding, we will look for the beauty. Beauty created not just from labor and sacrifice, but from love. Because love is the most beautiful work of all.

Dear Me: A Letter To My Pre-Pandemic Self

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Dear Me,

I am writing to you from the future, in the year 2021. It’s early March, and as I look outside my living room window the world looks basically as it always has. The sky is shades of platinum that only a Seattleite knows how use to interpret the day’s upcoming weather. Our crocuses, resilient little things, emerged from the damp soil in our garden this week, despite my intentional neglect of all living things that don’t reside under my own roof. Woodpeckers frequent the giant cedar tree outside my kitchen window. It’s only a matter of time before they move over to our neighbor’s aging basketball hoop to show off to their would-be mates, their beak-on-metal birdsongs acting as our daily 5AM alarm. Our grass is starting to look like it needs mowing (Even though it’s full of giant 6-foot deep septic test holes, but that’s another story back-then-you doesn’t have to face yet so I’ll spare you the drama.). And even though the view from my window looks commonplace, this year has been anything but.

You don’t know this yet, but change–MONUMENTAL change–is coming. I don’t want to jinx the time-space continuum or anything, so I won’t tell you exactly what’s going on. But know this: this last year has been the strangest, scariest, saddest, self-stretch-iest time I’ve ever experienced in my life. There will be days that you experience first-hand what it feels like to be hanging on with just your fingernails at the end of your rope. And there will be days of self-discovery that make every struggle, every sacrifice worth it all. This year will tear apart your world–it will tear apart the world–but you will survive. And you will thrive. Because pain is part of the process of metamorphosis.

During The Big Change you will do things you never thought you could do. You will do things you said you would never do.

Like homeschooling.

That’s right. Homeschooling.

As in, your kids won’t enter a school building for an entire year and the classroom will move to your couch. And you’ll try to teach them and they’ll try to learn from you and some days you’ll get it all right and other days you’ll just notice all the gray hairs you’ve accumulated in the homeschool classroom. You’ll experience the elated joys of those “A-ha! Moments” that drove you to be a teacher decades ago. You’ll experience the despair of long-division and subtraction with regrouping. You’ll teach the kids vital life lessons like how to care for their own bodies and minds and souls. You’ll also teach them how to be bored (Lot’s of time for that with The Big Change!), how to scrub toilets (I miss our monthly housecleaner with the same ferocity that I miss sunshine in the middle of February.), and to just leave me the heck alone if the bathroom door is locked (Don’t tell them I hide chocolate in the top right drawer of the vanity.).

And through this homeschooling process, you’ll discover your kids in whole new ways. Some of the most important learning you’ll do during The Big Change is about these little people and what drives them and what they need out of you and out of life. You’ll realize some things your kids really needed that they weren’t getting before–the pieces of the puzzle just didn’t fit together until you spent all day, every day together without interruption for an entire year. And you’ll have enough fortitude after The Big Change to embark on some difficult journeys with your kids that you didn’t have the strength or the drive to face before. It will be hard and it will be good and it will be necessary. And you’ll all be better for it.

Speaking of homeschooling, you’ll get to see a lot of your kids during The Big Change. I don’t know if I should tell you this yet because you’re probably going to freak out, but basically *you and your kids won’t leave your house for an entire year*. Forget travel, concerts, museums, and restaurants. Even the little things will seem huge to you after The Big Change. You’ll look back fondly on the good ‘ol days when you could have daily adventures like dropping the kids off at school, going inside a physical store to do your grocery shopping, and visiting with the neighborhood moms at the bus stop every afternoon. The inside of Costco will feel like a distant dream of Nirvana.

The walls of your home will become your personal fortress and you’ll do everything you can to make it feel right. You’ll spend an unfathomable number of hours and dollars building a sound-proof home theater that doubles as an entertainment venue and a family-evading escape room. You’ll start meeting with an architect to draw up plans to blow up one whole side of the house and create an oasis in its wake. You’ll discover that new septic systems cost twice as much as new cars, but are at least half as much fun. A therapist-suggested “Mindfulness Exercise” will set you into a panic attack when you become mindful of the scuffs and dust and grime that cover every square inch of your home. You’ll leave the Christmas lights on the house year-round simply because they’re bright and they make you happy. Your home will become so much more than a home. It will, in a sense, become your whole world during The Big Change.

Your home will also become your husband’s workplace. You know how he’s always said that he wanted to work from home, and when we bought this house he insisted on having his own room that he could claim as his office *just in case* he ever got to work from home? Well, his dream came true (Maybe we’ll blame him for what happened next). Hubby has been working at home every day for over a year now, and he’s in paradise. Seriously, this is one of the best things that could have happened to him. Future Hubby will love not having to commute. He’ll love shutting his office door and having nobody interrupt him for hours on end. He’ll love having a recliner in his office where he can read and take naps during his breaks. He’ll be the happiest, most productive version of himself.

And you’ll be happier for the work-from-home scenario, too. He’ll be home with the kids if you need to run out of the house for an errand or a walk or a good cry in your car (this happens with regularity during The Big Change). He’ll be less stressed, and that energy will pass on to you and the kids. He’ll pop upstairs for lunch and breaks and you’ll get to connect in shared moments that you’ve never had in your entire 15-year marriage. You’ll see his incredible work ethic played out every single day, and you’ll love him more for it. It will be a serendipitous outcome from a most unexpected change.

There will be other unexpected positives that come out of The Big Change. You know those neighbors who you’ve always loved but hadn’t gotten to spend much time with before? Those neighbors will essentially become a second family to you. They’ll walk through life’s biggest challenges with you, give your kids a vital social outlet, celebrate milestones with you, and lend you rolls of toilet paper when there’s not a scrap of T.P. to be found on the planet (Don’t even get me started on this one. But maybe you should start amassing a significant supply of toilet paper and stockpile it in your basement. You know, just in case future-you might need it or something.).

You’ll make sacrifices for the greater good, and this altruism will color every aspect of your life. You’ll be more humbled and more grateful than you’ve ever been before. You’ll be reminded that you are not in control, and that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll connect with nature when the great outside becomes your only outlet. You’ll walk hundreds of miles around your neighborhood and the fields behind your house. You’ll eat dinner across the deck from your best friends in the middle of December just so you can do something “normal”, frostbitten fingers aside. You’ll embrace the (admittedly terrible) weather, and every member of your family will own full rain-proof regalia so you can venture outside even when none of you wants to.

You’ll wear one of three versions of the same outfit every day, and you won’t change out of yoga pants for a year (I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but you’ll be the most comfortable self you’ve ever been).

You’ll learn new Big Change vocabulary: unprecedented (We’re going to try something we’ve never tried before, and we’ll just see how it goes); robust (multi-faceted systems that continue to be multi-faceted and we will continually point out their multi-faceted-ness); asynchronous (the old-school pre-recorded setting on your DVR); “out of an abundance of caution” (This shtuff is super scary and super overwhelming and we don’t understand it at all so we’ve gotta shut it all down NOW!); Zoom (a necessary evil); maskless (selfish); essential worker (someone who can’t do their job from behind a screen); birthday parade (A 5-minute drive-by birthday party. See also: best invention for over-stressed parents EVER.); social distancing (people actually respecting your bubble of personal space); vaccine (liquid gold).

And through it you’ll persevere. It will be the strangest, scariest, saddest, self-stretch-iest time you’ve ever experienced in your life, but you will hold on to what is most important: Your health, the helpers and the helping, and your hope. By the end of the first year of The Big Change you’ll start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The darkest days will be behind you, and the end will be in sight. So you’ll continue to persevere with hope for the better days that lay ahead. Because life–no matter how unprecedented it may be–will always be worth living well.

Love,

Me

The Light In The Dark

The Light That Shines Through The Darkness – The Red Thread

Today is the winter solstice: The darkest day in what has arguably been the darkest year of modern history. Here in Seattle, the sun didn’t rise today until 7:55AM, and just 8 hours, 25 minutes, and 26 seconds later the sun will dip back down below the horizon. At this time of year the darkness is pervasive, and I find myself building my life around the presence or absence of The Dark. That’s physical darkness.

But this year, we haven’t just experienced the absence of light that ebbs and flows with the seasons. The Dark has new meaning in 2020. We’ve experienced profound mental and spiritual darkness, too. 2020 has reiterated darkness through sickness and struggle and discord in our communities and around the world. When our thoughts haven’t been plagued by the pandemic, they have been punctuated by political strife, racial injustice, loneliness, and fatigue.

And it’s easy in times such as these to be engulfed by The Dark. To think in terms of where I can’t go, of what I can’t do, of who I can’t see, of what I am missing. The Dark takes away, it obscures what is there. The Dark can blind us to rays of light that are hidden within its folds.

And yet, those rays of light are always there. The good was never gone, it was just covered up. But no matter how much The Dark covers, light always finds a way to peek out from the hidden dark corners. So as I think back on this year–of the changes and challenges that rocked my world–I want to find those bright spots and bring them to the forefront. I want to recognize the bits of light in the darkness of this year and never forget the lessons they have taught me.

Slowing Down
This year has been the sudden screech of brakes when you’re cruising down the road at 40MPH and the car in front of you halts for an animal in the road. It has been a swift and sudden stop to the busyness that we had come to expect. Overnight, my days shifted from a rhythm of 6AM lunch-packing – 8PM sports practices to…well…nothing. Nowhere to go. Nobody to meet. No schedule to balance. And do you know what? I love it. Maybe I’m more of an introvert than I tend to admit, but I absolutely treasure these slow days of setting my own agenda–even if (especially if) that agenda involves staying in our pajamas until lunch. I have realized that we don’t need so many balls in the air and we don’t need our plates so full. There is a beautiful balance in the empty space that remains when we remove some of those balls and make room on our plates for what will be.

Simplicity
When the fluff is stripped away, you’re left with the bones of a more basic way of life. This year we have replaced museums and movie theaters with nature and togetherness. I miss the museums and the movie theaters and all the rest, but I see the value in really simplifying how we spend our time and resources. We have discovered beautiful places that we were too busy to see before. We have experienced creation in new and wonderful ways. We have used our creativity to turn simple things like a walk in the woods into a treasure hunt. Through simplicity, our bodies and our minds have been used in new ways that will strengthen us for years to come.

Community-Building
This year–the year of being physically separated from just about everyone I know and love–I have felt more connected to my community than ever before. Through our common shared struggle, we have been brought closer together. I can not think of another time in my life where literally everyone I know has gone through a shared experience together. It’s mind-boggling! My friends down the street are going through the same struggles as my friends in Ireland. My family in Washington is facing the same challenges as my family in Alaska or Arizona or California. And there’s something unifying about that. We understand each other in new ways and have come together to support each other like never before. If there is one take-away from this year, I hope it is that we will continue to love our neighbors sincerely and deeply.

Drive-Thrus, Curbside Pick-up, and Online Ordering
Ok, this one isn’t very profound..but gosh darn it, it’s one of the most important turning points in my life! Can we PLEASE keep remote ordering and drive-thru everything forever?! As a mom with 3 young-ish kids–and a mom who once had 3 toddlers at the same time–I have literally dreamed of this day coming. Order my groceries and never once have to set foot in an actual store? Pure bliss. Get takeout from my favorite shmancy restaurant so I can have a date-night at home without having to pay this month’s mortgage to a babysitter? Done deal. I could go on and on about my love for delivery apps and curbside pick-up, but you people have other ways you need to spend your day.

Activism
I don’t know if anyone has made it thought this year without becoming an activist. From politics to systemic racism to poverty and home insecurity to the rights and role of public education, this year has shone a spotlight the rights-and-wrongs of our society. There are causes that have spoken to us. There are opinions that have been shared and contested by others. There are problems that we didn’t even know existed until they were shoved in our faces. For all the sifting of sand that has happened in 2020, the stones that remain are worth our attention. What a privilege to think deeply about hard things. What a privilege this opportunity is to work toward a better tomorrow.

Togetherness
This is a bit cliché at this point, but I really have loved the togetherness our family has experienced this year. With Jon working at home and the kids learning from home since March, this has been the longest stretch of togetherness our family has ever had. The benefits are hard to even quantify–the relationships we’ve built with each other, the new understandings we have of one another, the moments we have shared and the memories we have created together are priceless. I will forever be grateful that we were given this year to just be together.

Big Change
Our family went into 2020 with a great need for Big Change. The details of this season for our family are personal, but I want to share the results of our Big Change as a way of giving you encouragement and hope.

In January we were at a pivoting point. I didn’t have the courage to make the necessary changes. I knew we needed a Big Change, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that change would look like or how to even take the first step. I didn’t have the courage to make the Big Change on my own, so I was in a bit of a holding place–waiting for the right moment, the right circumstance to take that leap of faith.

Then 2020 came. Everything changed, and so we changed. I couldn’t hide behind comfort or complacency any longer, and so we just did what we had to do. When everything else was stripped away, the truth and the way through became apparent. Our Big Change has literally changed our lives, and I think it may have even saved us. I still don’t know how we’ll move forward once things go back to “normal” (Gosh, that word gives me goosebumps!), but I know now that we can do this one hard thing. I have built confidence. I have gathered resources and support. Hard things do not have to break us, they can actually give us a new and better way forward.

The Light That Never Leaves
I couldn’t end this post without acknowledging the light that never leaves: Jesus. During this year, and especially during this season of Advent leading up to Christmas, I have been moment-by-moment reminded of the hope that comes from faith. These sufferings–and I do believe we have all suffered in some way this year–have been profound. These sufferings are mourned by a God who loves us. But these sufferings are not in vain. And these sufferings are not a surprise. Suffering is something that is actually promised to us (Luke 13:1-4)–but there is hope in our suffering. Hope because Light once came into The Darkness and changed the world forever. Hope because this, too, shall pass (2 Corinthians 4: 17-18). Hope because there will be a better tomorrow (2 Corinthians 4:17).

So, as this year-of-all-years comes to a close, don’t be too fast to push it all behind. There are bright spots all around if you’re willing to find them. And once you find the light that speaks to you, hold onto it and remember it. Because light always defeats The Dark.

My Favorite Family Christmas Traditions

**This post was originally published in December 2015. I have updated the post this year–the year of all years: 2020–with a few additional family Christmas traditions that we’ve added to the mix since then.**

The Christmas season is finally upon us, and it truly is the most wonderful time of the year! Even during a year full of as much uncertainty as this year–maybe ESPECIALLY during a year such as this year–our kids deserve to feel and experience the magic of the Christmas season.

During this magical season I love making special memories with my kids. Part of that memory-making involves creating new traditions–or reviving favorites from the past–with your own family. Our family has several Christmas traditions that we begin each December. If you’re looking for some new ideas to add to your own family’s repertoire, here are a few of my favorites!

Wrapped Christmas Books
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Every day in December my kids take turns unwrapping a special book for us to read together (after all, tearing off wrapping paper is one of the most exciting parts of Christmas!). The first book is always a brand-new book–an actual gift–and the rest are favorite books that we already own or that I’ve checked out from the library. Over the years I’ve collected enough Christmas books to last us through the month, but any books would work just as well (or, if you’re looking to add to your collection, just check out your local used book or thrift stores).

Advent Chain

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Kids love counting down to Christmas–and parents love having a tangible way to show them how much longer they have to wait for their most anticipated day of the year! I’ve tried several countdowns, but my favorite is a simple advent chain. This year we are using a “names of Jesus” countdown chain that shows 25 different names of Jesus with scripture reference each day.

My Secret Angel And Me

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This is a Christian alternative to the ever-popular Elf on a Shelf. The Secret Angel kit comes with a book about the true meaning of Christmas and a plush angel that “flies” to a new spot in your house each night. The kids have fun looking for their angel each morning, and I like that the focus with this kit is still on Jesus.

DecemBear Activity

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When Jon was growing up his mom made this charming activity board for him and his sister. Every day of December you move the little bear to a new designated spot on the activity board so he can look for Christmas (our version is made of fabric and the bear attaches with Velcro). In all of her resourcefulness, my mother-in-law created extra sets of the DecemBear activity so she could pass them on to her children when they were grown and had families of their own. While you can buy your own DecemBear panel on Etsy for a small fortune, your wallet might be better off making your own countdown with clipart and a printer.

Felt Christmas Tree

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Jon’s sister Stefanie made this for our family several years ago and my kids all LOVE playing with it! The tree and ornaments are all made from felt, and the ornaments attach to the tree with Velcro. We have several personalized ornaments with the kids’ names and favorite characters. Find DIY instructions here.

Fisher Price Little People Nativity Set

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I bought this set many years ago when David (now a giant 10 year old) was a toddler, but all of my kids still enjoy playing with it. The pieces are all made of durable plastic so it’s perfect for keeping within reach of curious hands. All of the pieces are movable (you can even make the angel spin across the top of the stable and, if you spin her fast enough, you can even spin her right OFF the top of the stable. HIL-AR-I-OUS). Plus, it can play music (At least, theoretically it can play music. I’ve deliberately removed the batteries from our Nativity, so we’ve been enjoying the “silent night” version for the past several years.).

Christmas Dates

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When I was growing up my parents always took each of us kids out for a special one-on-one date during the year: a date with Dad for our birthday and a date with Mom for Christmas. My first mom-and-daughter Christmas date happened when I was about 4 years old, and we haven’t missed an annual date since then!

Every year our date is different: going to the Nutcracker ballet, seeing a play or a musical, riding on the Christmas ships, spending time at the spa. Jon and I are continuing the date tradition with our kids, and I’m looking forward to spending this special time with each of them as they grow.

This year our dates will probably look a bit different–maybe a special drive to look at Christmas lights in our jammies, going into the mountains to play in the snow, or decorating gingerbread houses together over egg nog and hot cocoa. With a bit of creativity, every tradition can continue.

Santa Photos
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So…this one is a bit controversial: We don’t celebrate Santa in our family. In our family we just explain Santa to our kids as a fun game, a neat story, and that Santa represents the spirit of giving. We also teach our kids about the real St. Nicholas and the true story of Christmas from the Bible and about the greatest gift the world ever received (You can read more of my thoughts about Jesus and Santa here).

And, even though we don’t celebrate Santa per se, I do love myself some fun Santa traditions. Our Santa photo tradition is one that my parents started with me when I was a baby and that I love carrying on every yearwith my kids. It’s amazing to look at our collection of photos each year and see how the kids–and our family–has grown and changed over the years. I now have 38 years worth of Santa photos, and each these photos represent treasured memories.

In this unconventional year we had to get a bit creative with how we will continue this tradition. We were able to find a local theater that is providing “socially distanced Santa” photos–the kids will pose on a Christmas set while Santa peeks at them through a window. I just hope everyone is being nice when the big guy stops by!

The Manger Project

This year our church provided building kits for us to work together as a family and build our very own life-size manger. The kids had a lot of fun helping to build our manger (especially when Dad brought out the power tools for them to try!), and it was a great project for them in following directions and working together.

Over the next few weeks we will fill our manger with food and supplies for a local food bank so we can bless neighbors in our community that might need a bit of extra help this holiday season. 

In the years to come, I plan on bringing out our manger each year as a symbol of preparing for the coming Jesus. We will get a bunch of straw, and each time someone from our family does something to honor Jesus (a “gift” for Jesus) they will place a handful of straw in the manger. On Christmas morning the kids will discover a baby-doll “Jesus” in the manger they prepared–the greatest gift this world has ever known.

Christmas Lights

Zoolights Tacoma at Point Defiance Zoo

Driving or walking around to view Christmas light displays is a great socially-distant way to celebrate the season of light. Here are a few of my favorite local options:

22 Light Displays in the Seattle area
Woodland Park Zoo Wild Lanterns
Point Defiance Zoo Lights
Woodinville Festival of Lights
Drive-Thru Lights of Christmas at Warm Beach
Redmond Lights Walk

Sparkle Box

Amazon.com: Sparkle Box (9780824956479): Hardie, Jill: Books

This is a beautiful Christmas book about the true meaning of Christmas. If you want to check it out, you can read it online for free here or watch a read aloud of it here. 

The Sparkle Box is a gift box for Jesus that you place under your Christmas tree and open on Christmas morning before you open any other gifts. This year I plan on making our own “sparkle box” and putting it under our Christmas tree (Super fancy: a shoe box covered in sparkly duct tape from the Dollar store).

As a family we will come up with a special way we can honor Jesus with a special gift for his birthday. Ideas of gifts include sponsoring a family through a local or international aid organization, providing help or resources for the homeless, or making a donation to a charity. I’ll let the kids take the lead on this one so we can choose a gift that is meaningful to them. We will then wrap our gift in the sparkle box (or print off some info about the gift we provided). Our sparkle box will be the first gift we open on Christmas morning, and I can’t wait to experience the joy of giving AND receiving that day!

Additional activities and family resources for the Sparkle Box are available here.

Now it’s your turn–what are some of YOUR favorite holiday traditions?

Should Schools Reopen In The Fall? Absolutely. Not.

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Back to school.

In our Pre-COVID world, this simple 3-word phrase was wrought with emotion: excitement, nervousness, last-minute FOMO to squeeze the most out of summer, relief, maybe even dread. But now, in our pandemic-stricken society, “back to school” is stirring up a whole new mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, disbelief.

What will back to school look like this year, and should our schools even reopen?

This is a hot topic that has blown up to epic proportions over the last couple of weeks. There seem to be two pretty distinct teams that have emerged from the debate: Team School and Team No Way.

Team School argues that we need in-person instruction. It is the government’s responsibility (and the tax-payer’s reward) to have full-time instruction available for all students. We need schools open, and we need them now.

Team No Way is reading CDC guidelines and WHO statistics and shaking their heads. Those curves we wanted flattened or diminished are looking more and more like the first uphill tick on a roller coaster. They’re all gripping the lap bar with white knuckles as they wait to see what terrifying turn of events will happen next.

So, where do I stand on this subject? Which team am I rooting into the World Series?

Neither.

And Both.

When looking at the dilemma of whether or not schools should open, we need to acknowledge that education is only one of the many functions of capital-s School. School as a societal function on the surface appears to be merely a place for teachers pouring knowledge into the empty vessels of students. But, as anyone who has spent more than one microsecond on the other side of a whiteboard will tell you, School is not only for education.

In fact, I would argue that education is not even the primary function of School. I am a former teacher and, in addition to “educating”, my years in the classroom included the following roles and job responsibilities: counselor, mediator, nurse, childcare provider, special learning needs intervention specialist, disability services manager, mandated reporter, lunch lady, snack monitor, bully remover, recess supervisor, parenting trainer, financial advisor, culture and race ally, safe haven. School is not just a place, and its function is not just education.

You see, we need schools. And not just because schools are school. Allow me to illustrate.

One of the hardest years of my life was teaching Spanish Kindergarten in a highly-impoverished charter school in California. Every single one of my students was poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Only two of my 28 students spoke any English at all. Not a single one of my students’ parents had attended college; most had never graduated from high school, and a handful had never even completed elementary school. Privileged white girl teacher was in culture shock…and still had to teach kindergarten. In Spanish.

During the course of that manic year I received a crash-course in the true multi-faceted function of School. Those kids arrived at school every day–usually by themselves, because Mom had already run off to her first job (she worked 2 or 3 jobs) and more often than not, Dad was not in the picture–and, as a class, we marched over to the cafeteria for breakfast. After breakfast we learned about things like how to line up and raise a hand, because none of these kindergarteners had ever attended preschool or music group or library story time. I taught them how to tie their shoes and use a tissue. We practiced paying attention for 2 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 5 minutes until, by January, we were able to get through an entire lesson in one go. Sure, those kids learned their letters and numbers and all that, but they also learned essential life skills. School was vitally important for them.

And, just as school was vitally important for my students, school was vitally important for their parents as well. Those parents knew that they could go to work during the day and support their family because their child was safe and supervised. Their child’s physical and mental needs were, to the best of our ability, met every day. They knew that, even though they had never received an education themselves, their children now had this opportunity. They knew that their child with Autism or Dyslexia or Vision Impairment would get the services they needed but could not afford. They knew that, even though they did not yet speak English, that their child would learn the Language Of The Land and be able to help communicate for them–at the store, at their job, in court. They knew that their child would come home with a full belly and a full mind, and that was everything.

I have thought of those families often during this pandemic. How on God’s green earth are those families surviving this? Do those parents have jobs, and if they do, are they dangerous “essential worker” jobs that put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus? Do those families have health insurance during this pandemic? Do those children have food to eat every day, and is it healthy and accessible and guaranteed? Do those children have supervision during the day while their parents work outside the home? Did those children have access to technology or learning tools during last spring’s school shutdown–and if they did, was anyone able to help them with their education at home?

Those children need School.  Not just “I’m tired of having my kids around all the time” need-School, but their very lives depend on it need-School.

And yet, COVID rages on. In some areas of our country positive COVID cases are at an all-time high. We can not go to school.

So what are we to do? How can we have in-person school while guaranteeing the health and the safety of the millions of students, staff, and families “back to school” involves?

We can’t. It’s an impossible situation. As much as I love cake (and I LOVE cake!), this is not the time to have your cake and eat it, too.

But there are positive steps we can take in the right direction. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution that can solve this impossible situation, but there are some guiding principles that could help make this transition more manageable:

Money
Doing anything safely at this point is going to cost a boatload of money. Extra staff, sanitization, PPE, improved technology services, upgrading buildings and ventilation systems, hazard pay for teachers (this is not a thing, but it should be). All of it will cost actual US Dollars. Lots of them. Someone (I’m looking at you, US Government with a $721 BILLION DOLLAR annual military budget…) needs to pay up. And, no, asking teachers to pay for this in any capacity is not an acceptable answer.

Schools Must Open
This is not even a question. In-person School is an essential service in our world, and many students and families will not make it to the other side of this pandemic in one piece without it. Parents need to work. Students need to learn. School in all of its capacities is absolutely essential.

We need to find a creative way to start School services…and that may or may not be in actual school buildings with our usual army of teachers. Maybe we utilize the (many) shuttered spaces in our local communities and the (many) unemployed adults to help provide daytime childcare for children so their parents can get back to work.

Maybe we send school buses full of food on their usual bus routes every day to distribute 3-squares to every man, woman, or child that needs nutrition. Maybe we send (well PPE’d) OTs and Speech Therapists to childrens’ neighborhoods to provide essential special education and therapy services. Maybe we employ college students who can’t return to their university campus this fall to facilitate remote learning with pre-recorded lessons from certified teachers. These lessons could take place in empty movie theaters with a handful of students at a time. Or in a community park. Or whatever. The point is, School does not have to happen within the four walls of an actual school.

Families Must Have The Choice To Stay Home
After months of shuttering ourselves away (“sheltering in place”) we can not expect families to willy-nilly throw their children back into the mouth of the lion. There are a million reasons why a child or a teacher should not be in a physical classroom with even a dozen other humans for multiple hours at a time right now. Just Google it.

We need real, equitable, well-planned, well-executed modes of remote education. Teachers need specialized remote-teaching training. Students need access to physical learning tools, books, and equipment. Parents and tutors need access to remote teacher training and teaching materials–we need to equip everyone involved and set them up for success.

We need parents to have the choice to unenroll from public education for however long this pandemic rolls along without any negative impacts to the local school district. Funding should not be withheld from local schools just because a family needs to make a different choice during an uncertain time. Parents must have the ability to make the right choice for their family–whatever that choice is–without negative repercussions.

Teachers Need To Have A Say
You guys, some of my best friends are teachers. Some of them are terrified right now. They’re afraid to return to the classroom because they don’t want to get themselves or their families sick. They don’t want to accidentally kill their parents or their neighbors or their grocery store clerk. Some of them are pregnant or have babies and young children at home, and they don’t want to infect or orphan their children. Some of them are cancer survivors. Teaches are already heroes, we don’t need them to be martyrs, too.

Some of them–all of them–have 8 days of paid leave for the year…which is not enough for even one 14-day quarantine if they are exposed to COVID in their classroom. Some of them will lose their health insurance during a pandemic if they don’t teach this year. Some of them are being bullied by administrators to suck it up or get out the door. Some of them have PTSD from being thrust into online teaching last spring and they don’t know how they’ll manage it for another year.

They’re all tired. They’re all waiting for an answer that values their life and their opinion and their needs and their desires. We owe them a voice in this decision and a guarantee that they have options.

Temporary Shifts
We need to acknowledge that any changes we make now are temporary. It feels like COVID has been going on forever and it will never end. But it will. And when it does, we need to have a mechanism in place for change. We will need to swiftly remove the parts of this temporary plan that are not best practices moving forward in whatever new world we find ourselves in on the other side; crisis School may not be used as precedence for the new world.

By that same token, we need to be able to continue the parts of the crisis changes that actually do work. If increased technology or the different solutions we come up with to survive crisis schooling do work in some ways, we should hold on to those ways that do work and not throw them out with the face masks and respirators at the end of this whole thing.

Every change that is made during crisis schooling needs an asterisk *This is temporary*. Schools need to be given the autonomy to rebuild themselves in the right way when this is over. Some things will be the same, and some will be forever changed, but schools themselves need to have a voice in how the new world of School will look.

***

We are in an unprecedented time. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. My hope is that each family and each teacher will feel empowered and validated to make their own right choice in regard to school this year. Impossible as it is, we will all get through this. And even if the choice my family makes is radically different from the choice your family makes, we will all be stronger if we walk through this uncertain time together.

This, too, shall pass.

And until then, let’s be the best advocates for each other.

Stronger together, forever.

A Day in the Life of COVID-Summer Vacation

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

We made it.

I just have to declare this fact because, to be honest with you, there have been days over the last few months that I didn’t think I’d ever get to write those words. Back in March when I first heard the words “Novel Coronavirus” (Are we talking about a fictional book? A Mexican beer? A seasonal cold?) I had no idea how much our lives would change in such a short amount of time.

The whole world flipped on its head overnight: school became home and the classroom teacher became me. School this year had its challenges–and its rewards–and then some more challenges to round things out. But we made it. We survived the first wave of Epidemic Crisis Schooling that the world has ever endured, and I’m pretty sure we can survive anything now.

Except maybe summer vacation.

Because if you’re anything like me, you’re just as confused about “summer” as you were about “E-learning”. Quite simply, summer in the time of COVID is about the most stressful, labor-intensive, hair-pulling period of relaxation I’ve ever experienced. For those of you not lucky enough to have young children at home with you this summer, allow me to give you a glimpse into a typical day of summer vacation 2020:

Tuesday, June

7:40  You wake up to the sounds of your 4 year old screaming your name from down the hall. She’s not hurt or incapable of moving out of bed on her own. No, she just wants you to remember who’s boss in this family.

7:45  You bring the screaming child downstairs and find the older boys already awake and playing video games. They ask you if they can have your real American dollars to buy video-game-nonsense-dollars so their avatar can wear a shirt with a “sick flame” on it. You politely decline. For the 10 millionth time this week.

7:55  Start making breakfast and realize there are no clean dishes. Start emptying the dishwasher that you ran overnight (this is the first of up to 3 loads of dishes you will run through your dishwasher today with all of these people home eating food 24/24 hours of every day).

8:00  An alert pops up on your phone that today is supposed to be the first day of that super awesome summer camp you signed your kids up for 12 months ago. Of course the camp has been cancelled, so you delete the calendar entry and replace it with the sobbing emoji.

8:15  Return to the breakfast situation. It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the last time you picked up a curbside grocery order. Prepare the best available option: granola bars AND fruit leather, because you like well-balanced meals.

8:30  Announce breakfast and turn off all screens in the house. Earn the title “Meanest Mom Ever”.

9:00  After breakfast you ask the kids what they’d like to do today. The boys want to stay home and play video games so they can whine at you about buying video game dollars. The girl wants to go to a princess party just like Cinderella. In your head you debate your options because after 4 months of house arrest with these kids, you just need to get out of here. Compromise and tell the kids we’re going to find a quiet park where we can be outside and physically distanced from other people. “It will be fun!” you say, “It will be our own little adventure!”

9:30  Pull up Google Maps on your phone and look for green spaces (usually parks) that you’ve never heard of (maybe nobody else has heard of them either). Pick a promising green patch in the middle of nowhere and pack some snacks for the adventure.

10:00  Before you leave the house, tell the kids to bring a face covering with them since we’re going into public. One child comes downstairs wearing underwear on his head.

10:30  Pull up to the “park” you found on Google Maps and realize it’s mostly just some bushes on the side of a road. Consider your options and decide check it out anyway. After about 20 minutes of the kids throwing rocks into the bushes and one kid falling into some blackberry brambles, decide to call it a day.

11:00  On your way home you drive past one of the kids’ favorite parks. They haven’t been to this park in nearly a year and they all beg for you to stop for just a little bit. Since the first stop was such a bust you decide to give the park a try.

11:05  Before you get out of the car, remind the children that they must stay at least 6 feet apart from all other people, wear their masks, not touch anything, and basically try their very hardest to not enjoy themselves. Remind the children that the playground is closed so we can’t play on it anyway. We’re just here to look and reminisce, and then back into the car we go. They agree to abide by the law of the land as they pile out of the car.

11:10  You walk into the park and notice that the playground is no longer roped off. You weren’t prepared for this. We already had the “we don’t touch anything” talk in the car, and now this playground is just sitting there like a siren in the wild beckoning to eager children. Thankfully the kids haven’t noticed the playground yet, so you stop in your tracks and point wildly into the sky: “KIDS, LOOK!!!! A BALD EAGLE! NO, MAYBE IT’S A DRAGON! OR A UNICORN! QUICK! LOOOOOOOOOOK!!!!”. As the children avert their gaze heavenward, you huddle them together and usher them back toward the parking lot. The middle child swears he saw the dragon.

11:15  When you get back to your car there is another family unloading right next to your car. Fortunately/unfortunately they are friends from school. Fortunately, because THEY’RE REAL LIVE FRIENDS!!!!!! Unfortunately, because OH MY GOSH WHAT DO WE DO?!?!  Humans! Gah! The kids all want to hug and play and just be kids. You glance at the other mom and reach an unspoken understanding: We’ve all been quarantined for so long that it’s in our health interest at this point to allow the children a few minutes to catch up. Relish the quick reunion while you pray under your breath that nobody present is an asymptomatic COVID carrier.

12:00  Upon returning home from the morning’s adventure (AKA the most excitement we’ve had in half a year!) set to work preparing lunch. The kids decide on Unicorn mac-n-cheese (the girl wants it because it’s magical, the boys want it because they want to bite the heads off the unicorns).

12:30   After lunch, send the kids outside to play in the back yard. Return a couple of emails and check the “news” to see updates on which of the 10 Plagues of Egypt we can expect next.

1:30  Call the kids back inside and tell them that we have a fun game to play this afternoon. The game is called “Living With COVID Challenge”. Here’s how you play: everyone gets a face mask and they have to wear it while completing “challenges” such as reading aloud, taking a math test, writing a letter to a friend, or “shopping” in our pretend store. The goal is to leave your mask on for the entire challenge without touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. Players can earn bonus points for washing their hands, checking their friend’s temperature with a temporal thermometer, wearing gloves while disinfecting a surface with non-toxic cleaner, or engineering a plexiglass shield.

You make it exactly 2.6 seconds before all 3 children fail the challenge.

Consider writing (another) email with the updated results of your at-home challenge to the members of the school board that will be making the “safe return to school” plan for this fall.

2:00  The kids say it’s too hot outside and they want to go swimming. A quick Google search shows you that every public pool within a 100-mile radius is closed, the nearest lake is full of toxic algae, and the nearest river is still full from spring melt-off and has a no-swimming advisory. Tell the kids to put on their swimsuits anyway, because we’re swimming in the upstairs bathroom “Bathtub Pool”!

2:45  Check on the kids in their bathtub pool and realize that 90% of the water has now migrated from the bathtub to the bathroom floor/walls/ceiling. As your blood starts to boil, notice that you already have “month-3 of summer vacation patience” rather than the actual “week-1 of summer vacation patience” that should be accompanying this moment.

3:00  After you mop up all of the water from Bathtub Pool, tell the kids that it’s reading time. Since you’re pretty sure the only learning your children accomplished in the last 4 months involved Roblox obby hacks, you count this daily reading time as sacred.

3:15  Since your husband is still working from home in his basement “home office” cave, you sneak out of the house for a quick solo walk while the kids are busy reading. These 20 minutes walking around your own neighborhood are the highlight of your day.  5 minutes into your walk a cyclist passes you on the road. It’s not until the cyclist is out of view around a corner that you realize you’ve been unconsciously holding your breath since you saw the other human approaching your air space.

4:00  Bake something. Because COVID.

5:00  Start preparing dinner. Again. For the 4,376th day in a row.

6:30  After dinner, have “family movie night”…also for the 4,376th day in a row. Whisper a silent prayer for the timely providence of Disney+ during a worldwide epidemic.

8:00  Tuck the little one into bed. You tried to order her new bedroom furniture 4 months ago for her birthday, but so far only her mattress has arrived because everything else is backordered indefinitely due to the COVID shutdowns. So, actually, just tuck her into mattress instead of tucking her into bed.

8:30 Despite their pleas to stay up later, tuck the older kids into bed because you are D.O.N.E. DONE. Promise them chocolates in the morning if they just stay in their rooms and don’t bother you for the rest of the night. If quarantine has taught you one thing, it’s the power of bribery. And chocolate.

9:00  Go downstairs and immediately notice the filth that is covering  every square inch of your house. Debate cleaning it up while the kids are tucked away in their bedrooms, but decide against it. After all, we need to save some fun for tomorrow’s COVID-Summer adventure!

***

Happy summer, everyone–stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane!

My Quarantine Bookshelf

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I’ve always loved reading. I am the kid who (literally) had my 10th birthday party at a bookstore (As you can now tell–if you didn’t know it already–I was the cool kid in the class). Since we’ve been in quarantine, though, I’ve picked up reading again with a voracity that I haven’t known in years. Basically I’ve taken this quarantine lockdown as my own personal Silent Reading Mandate. My bedside table is covered in stacks of books that I’m actually reading. It’s fantastic.

In a time like this when we are physically confined, reading is the ultimate escape. Since the COVID lockdown officially began about two months ago, I’ve been using books as a way to take mental vacations every single day. I’ve trekked through the Swiss Alps, gone backstage at San Francisco comedy clubs, spent time on the beaches of the San Juan Islands, experienced Gold Rush California, and taken an ancient pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. All from a safe social distance, of course.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your own virtual retreat, here is what I’ve been reading:

Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious YouFierce Free and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker
Oh, how I love Jen Hatmaker. She writes from the heart with humor and grace and moxie–it’s the perfect combination. Some of my fondest book memories involve Jen Hatmaker, including the time I drove across the state of California with an infant to hear her speak…only to get stuck in California traffic and nearly miss the whole conference (All’s well that ends well, though, because my sob story landed me a private audience with Jen–see, we’re buddies–and a book signing while she held my baby).

This book was released mid-quarantine and, truly, it is the perfect quarantine read. It’s inspiring and heartfelt and makes me want to implement positive changes in my life RIGHT NOW (well, as soon as I can pull myself out of my yoga pants-induced stupor fueled by home-baked sourdough bread).

Rick Steves Switzerland (Tenth Edition) by Avalon Travel
I’ve had this book sitting on my nightstand for half a year as we planned our epic trip to Switzerland scheduled for earlier this month. As we all know now, that trip never happened (Still heartbroken. Still complaining about it. Not over it.). I’ve kept the book on my nightstand because I still like to dream…and what better place to dream of than idyllic mountain villages covered in cheese and chocolate?

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life by [Ali Wong]Dear Girls by Ali Wong
This was a lucky last-minute find at the library right before the world shut down. I heard a rumor–with about 2 hours notice–that our library might be closing with no scheduled re-opening date. I dropped everything, threw the kids in the car, and proceeded to check out nearly 200 books from the library to hold us over through whatever impending disaster might be looming on the horizon. I had been waiting for this book from the library for several months, but my number still hadn’t come up in the queue. I happened to find it in the (aptly named) “Lucky Day Collection”–basically, it’s a high-demand book that you can check out on the spot, but you only get it for 2 weeks and then you have to give some other lucky library patron their chance at winning the book. It’s like winning the lottery and Christmas all at once. This is why I love libraries.

Anywho…the book is written by Asian-American comedian Ali Wong (If you haven’t already, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials. You’re welcome.). Each chapter is written as a letter to her two young daughters (to read when they’re much, MUCH older). It’s hilarious but quite raunchy, so read it if you want to take down your filters and just laugh.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by [Kelli Estes]The Girl Who Wrote In Silk by Kelli Estes
OK, funny story with this one. My sister’s mother in law sent me a book a few months ago written by the same author as this book–she had bought it when she was here visiting from California, and she liked that it was written by a Washington-native author who shared her same last name. Long story short, I found out that the author actually lives in the same town as me, and now we’re Facebook friends (Hi, Kelli!). So, of course, I had to read her other books!

This book is set in the same locations–Seattle and the Orcas Island in the San Juans–in two separate time periods (the present day and 1886). The novel follows a young woman who discovers an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in her deceased aunt’s house. As she begins to unravel the story that is being told in the embroidery, she sees how closely her life is intertwined with that of the artist who created it, a young Chinese-American woman who lived a century before and was escaping the prejudice and violence against the Chinese people in that time period. It’s a beautiful story about doing what is right in the face of adversity, and the power that our own stories hold.

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford by Roland De Wolk
This was actually one of Jon’s birthday gifts that I stole from him before he even got a chance to read it. This book is a biography of Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University–and it doesn’t hold back any of the ugly truth of who this self-made man was.

When Jon was in grad school at Stanford I spent quite a bit of time learning about the Stanford family so I knew the basics of who they were and how they started the school, but I was curious to know the gritty details. This book goes into backstory of Stanford’s life all the way back to his middle-class birth and upbringing in the early 1800’s in upstate New York, follows him through his apathy and absolute failures throughout life that moved him continuously westward, and sheds light on the cheating and stealing that made him one of the wealthiest Americans of all time. Through all of his failures–and an incredibly devastating tragedy–however, he went on to found one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. It was an interesting read and an enlightening history lesson. (Side note: I’m glad I will never have to meet Leland Stanford in real life.)

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't KnowTalking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and they’re always thought-provoking and help me to see things from a totally different perspective. This book about how we interact with strangers–and how our biases, our assumptions, and our desires play out in those interactions–makes you see social interaction in a totally new light. Right now is quite interesting timing to read a book on social interactions, especially as nearly all of our social interactions have become virtual. This book has given new meaning to “stranger danger”. I just may never speak to a real-life stranger again.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a FaithA Pilgrimage To Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan
This is the memoir of a man who takes an ancient pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, a thousand-mile trek through the theological cradle of Christianity. He begins in Canterbury, England before passing through France, crossing the Swiss alps, and continuing south to the Vatican in Rome. While on the journey he grapples with his own troubled past with the Catholic church and searches for meaning in a world that is often difficult and full of pain.

I love books like this where I get to be a bug-on-the-shoulder and get a free ride through someone else’s adventure. I loved seeing the ancient castles of England, the beautiful scenery of the French countryside, the majesty of the Swiss Alps. I indulged in patisserie in Arras, took a tour through ancient wine cellars in Châlons-en-Champagne, and tasted sumptuous testaroli in Pontremoli. All this, and I never even had to pay for a plane ticket or suffer through blisters on my toes.

*** Bonus Children’s Books ***
I’ve chosen to include a couple of children’s books for good measure because I spend at least an hour a day reading to my children (Again: grateful I checked out those 100 books from the library right before lockdown went into effect…).

Emily’s Idea by Christine Evans
I just have to include this beautiful book on my list because my dear friend Christine wrote it and I think it’s a masterpiece. The book was released during the quarantine, too, making it an appropriate addition to anyone’s quarantine reading list.

This story follows a little girl (Emily, based upon Christine’s real-life daughter Emily) who has a wonderful idea that spreads around her community and around the world. The message is inspiring for kids and their grown-ups alike, and there’s even a template in the back of the book to make your own paper doll chain (Hello, quarantine Arts & Crafts!).

Indescribable: 100 Devotions For Kids About God and Science by Louie Giglio
Every morning since quarantine began I’ve been sitting down with my kids and doing a 10 minute Bible time. This regular Bible time has been grounding for me (and, hopefully, also for my kids) in a time when everything feels so up in the air.

I started going through this devotional with my kids a few weeks ago and we’ve all enjoyed it. Each story ties in a Bible verse, some cool “weird science” phenomenon from the real world, and a way to connect the lesson to your life today.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading for the last couple months of lockdown. I’d love to hear what’s been on your quarantine bookshelf so I can get some more ideas. Happy reading!

An Ode To Bota

 

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to our amazing dog of nearly 14 years, Bota. More than a pet, she was a treasured member of our family. And while we’re still grieving this loss, I want to remember her. I want to remember the friend that she was and the unquestioning love that she gave us; the shenanigans she got into and the lessons she taught us. Bota lived a life full of the best qualities: love, adventure, loyalty, and undying patience.

Jon and I got Bota in 2006 when we were still newlyweds and she was still a tiny puppy. Actually, that’s not quite right. Jon got Bota for me so I would quit pestering him for a human baby. And it worked.

On Christmas morning in 2006 I unwrapped my gift from Jon: an adorable red dog collar no bigger around than my forearm, and instructions to a location that would hold the rest of the gift. He had scouted out the perfect puppy farm for my Christmas gift–a literal Christmas tree farm (with a side hustle of Border Collie breeding) out in the countryside.

The next morning we drove out to the Christmas Tree farm where 4-month old Bota was still living with her doggy mama, Kate, her doggy daddy, Bo, and one brother from her litter. This little pack of Border Collies had free reign of the farm, and I’m certain this is where Bota’s adventurous spirit was born.

During that first year of Bota’s life she did an excellent job of training her humans (her humans, on the other hand, were pretty clueless and easily frustrated by the human-training tactics employed by their puppy). Since Jon and I were both working, we had to come up with a plan for Bota during the day while we were away.

At first we tried keeping her in a crate, but that was just sad. Then we tried letting her roam around our house, and she managed to open the pantry door and eat through all of the food and beverage containers–including a fresh 12-pack of almond milk–that were at puppy snout level. Then we tried keeping her in our garage, whereupon she decided to chew off all of the drywall at puppy snout level. Next, we tried putting her in our backyard…whereupon she chewed through all of our deck rails at puppy snout level. We even tried coming home from work in the middle of the day and walking her across the street to our little neighborhood park, whereupon she would round up all of the stray children and herd them into a squealing clump in the middle of the field. We never did find a great solution to keep our very intelligent (easily bored), very energetic (would never wear out of new ways to destroy things) puppy occupied. Thankfully for all of us, life changed course just in time.

After our first year with Bota we got news that Jon had been accepted to grad school at Stanford, so we picked up our little life and moved to California. We (me, Jon, and my parents) drove down the west coast with a little moving truck and my even-littler Jetta full of every possession we’d accumulated up to that point in our lives. It wasn’t much, but it included Bota. During The Grad School Years, Bota was an incredibly important, central part of our lives. While I was at work during the day, Bota would keep Jon company as he studied in our tiny one-bedroom apartment. We were lucky to have a little outdoor patio at our apartment.  Jon would lie on our only piece of furniture (a Futon), in the only room of our apartment, near the open front door and Bota would lie in the sun just outside the door so she could keep watch over him as he toiled away.

When I would get home from work we’d take her to the park across the street every day and throw the ball for her for hours. Literally hours. Then we’d go for a run or a hike or a walk around the block. And then we’d throw the ball some more. And then she’d chase black squirrels up the trees or across the fences. And then we’d try to make her run some more. Or we would take her to the beach and she would chase ocean waves as if they were stray sheep that needed to be herded into place. She would run up and down that beach yipping at every single wave until she would literally pass out in the sand from exhaustion. And, finally, she would calm down enough to let us sleep at night. She was our original parental sleep trainer, before we had to throw midnight nursing or diaper changes into the mix.

By the time we left Stanford I was 6 months pregnant with David, and we entered into a whole new phase of life for Bota: The Baby Guardian. When David was born Bota literally changed over night. She went from being our hyper-energetic, non-stop, go-go-go puppy to an aged sage who would lay down her life (or even just lay down for a hot minute) for this helpless human. When David was sleeping, Bota would be curled up at the foot of his crib. When David was going for a walk in the stroller, she’d be half a step ahead so she could keep an eye out on the road ahead. When David started crawling and chasing and dog-hair-pulling and in-your-ear-screeching she just took it. Like a champ. She never got defensive or retaliatory. She didn’t even run away from home (she would have been right to do so). No, she just stood by that crazy baby’s side as if he belonged to her.

Not even two years later, another baby bounced on the scene. And, again, she stood loyally by our side. Even as our time and attention shifted from the dog to the ever-demanding tiny humanoids, she never flinched. She knew she had a job and a purpose to watch over those babies, and she did it with her whole heart.

Just before Jacob’s first birthday we decided to uproot our family again–and this time, we were doing The Big Move. As we were preparing to move to Ireland we had to make some pretty big decisions in regard to Bota. Would she stay in the States or come with us? If she came with us, would it even be worth it (when we began looking into this option, dogs entering Ireland had to be quarantined for up to 6 months). In the end, the timing and the logistics worked out and we were able to bring her with us across the pond.

I am sad to report that the move to Ireland was not easy or fun for Bota…or for us. It was incredibly stressful, expensive, and not at all the sane choice to make. The cargo airline that shipped Bota across the Atlantic to us lost her in transit and Jon quite literally almost punched a helpless airline employee in the face. There was endless paperwork and vet visits and protocols that had to be followed. But Bota was part of our family, and she was worth it.

When our time in Ireland was done, we had to go through the reverse process of re-patriating Bota to American soil. This time we had the wealthiest tech company on the planet footing the dog transfer bill, though, so she got to ride in style. A courier arrived at our home in Ireland, placed her in his special dog transport truck, drove her to the Big Airport 3 hours away, settled her into her first class accommodations on the plane, and then a second courier picked her up from the American airport to drive her to my parents’ house for safe-keeping until we arrived. When the American dog transport pulled up to my parents’ house, Bota was riding in the passenger seat with a grin on her face.

During our next three years of living in California, Bota settled in to herself. She was happy to return to the California sun, and we often referred to her as our “cat-dog” for the way she would lounge in the rays. It was also during our second stint in California that Bota welcomed the third baby into our family.  By now Bota was a seasoned pro, and she resumed her spot at the foot of the bassinet–this time more to protect the squirmy pink baby from her ever-destructive big brothers than anything else.

While I was busy homeschooling and tending to the new baby around the clock, our boys discovered new ways to entertain the dog. One of our houses in California backed up to a creek full of smooth, rounded rocks. They found that Bota loved chasing the rocks into the creek when they’d throw them. What they (and we) didn’t realize, is that she also loved to catch the rocks in her mouth–mid-air–thus chipping away at her fragile old-dog teeth. 7 tooth extractions and a sizable vet bill later, we learned not to throw rocks for dogs.

Three years ago today, we moved back to Washington state. We said goodbye to the California sun and the nice, smooth creek rocks and we made our way back north. The home we bought here in Washington was, in part, for Bota. Up until this point in her long dog-life we’d never really had a yard. We’d had patches of grass and creeks to explore, but never an actual yard with room to run and roam free. We determined that all of our kids–Bota included–needed a real yard in whatever house we chose. So we got a house with the biggest yard we could find and, finally, Bota was home.

***

Yesterday was a really hard day. But I don’t want to hold on to the one really hard day. I want to remember the 5,000 wonderful days. I want to remember the days we spent walking together and dreaming together (Trust me, dogs have the best dreams!). I want to remember the days we taught each other better ways to live. I want to remember the way my heart swelled with love every time I saw her sweet face and the comfort I felt when I would pet her soft fur. I want to remember the way Jon would pick her up and cradle her in his arms like an infant (and how that sweet, old dog would allow him to even do such a thing). I want to remember the way Bota could calm down David when his Big Feelings got too big. I want to remember the way Jacob would chase Bota through the fields. I want to remember the way Hannah’s eyes would light up when she’d see Bota in the room. I want to remember the way she helped form our family, and the ways she will always be a part of our family. Because that is the most important part.

Bota girl, we love you. And even though you won’t be with us here in person, you will live on forever in our hearts. Because you loved us and we loved you, our hearts are forever changed. Chase some squirrels in Heaven today–until we meet again, sweet girl.

 

Fortunately This Will All Be Over Some Day

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Today marks 6 weeks since our school district announced they would be closing for in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six long weeks that have essentially thrust me into a time warp. From that fateful day onward, our world began to slowly (and then quite rapidly) shut down around us–and what a whirlwind it has been!

I have started a routine with my kids each morning where we write down the day’s date together–not so much because I care what day it is, but because if I don’t write it down I fear we will never find our way out of the COVID-chasm again. You could ask me a question such as what I had for breakfast this morning or what day/week/month the International Olympic Committee announced their deferment of this summer’s games, and I would simply look at you with the same dumbfounded look. I just don’t know. We have entered a supernatural realm where time nor space nor work nor former purpose seems to hold any significant meaning. For better or worse: The world has changed.

And, speaking of “for better or worse”, I like to play a little game when life becomes tragically hilarious as it has at this moment. The game is called “Fortunately/Unfortunately” and it goes a bit like this:

Fortunately the world is still spinning.

Unfortunately everything in the world has had to shut down.

Fortunately, my 3 adorable/precious/loved/needy/not-yet-self-sufficient children still have school.

Unfortunately, all of their schooling has moved out of the classroom and onto “the cloud”.

Fortunately, “the cloud” is not an actual cloud, because all of the airlines are shut down and it would be quite difficult to reach the clouds by our own might.

Unfortunately, this means my children are doing school at home. Yes, even the preschooler.

Fortunately, we have internet access and computers and *me* to oversee the daily learning/weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Unfortunately, even teachers working in one of the most tech-savvy pockets of one of the most industrialized nations on earth run into tech issues during remote learning. And Zoom is full of perverts.

Fortunately, my son is too preoccupied with turning his computer background into a mythical Pokémon creature during his Zoom lessons or typing “toot” in the private chat bar to notice any of the tech glitches that may or may not occur during this time.

Unfortunately, he still has to learn the material presented during lessons. Even if they’re on a cloud.

Fortunately, his mom has basically given up on hardcore academics at this point and is pretty well appeased by “good enough”.

Unfortunately, school is not our only preoccupation.

Fortunately, baking and consuming massive amounts of empty carbohydrates is not a difficult task to pull off.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the new jeans that I bought back in February will fit me any more.

Fortunately, I haven’t even tried them on since February (#yogapantsforthewin). Ignorance is bliss.

Unfortunately, diet and exercise is still important. Even when you’re in lockdown.

Fortunately, I have a 100% legitimate excuse for not making it to the gym.

Unfortunately, the gym being closed is not a legitimate excuse for sloth.

Fortunately, my husband is a born-again Cross-Fit converter and we have enough gym equipment in our basement to make Gold’s Gym shudder behind their no-cancellation-policy long-term contracts.

Unfortunately, simply possessing gym equipment does not somehow make you magically fit.

Fortunately, my friend makes Facebook Live videos of her workouts so I can join with her to sweat it out.

Unfortunately, my kids and dog always want to join in my workout fun (Sidenote: The best part of working out is that you do it without your kids and dog.).

Fortunately, I have learned that I can sit my kids in front of a screen for an hour, slip outside with my yoga mat, and nobody ever even realizes I’ve tried to do something without them.

Unfortunately, no good thing lasts forever, and eventually you have to return to the screen zombies.

Fortunately, my children are totally fine with me turning off screens and they never throw a fit or scream or stomp or cry when screen time is over.

Unfortunately, this is a true story. Children losing screen time without losing their minds is a paradox that does not exist in reality.

Fortunately, our TV is password protected and I’m now strengthened from my invigorating bout of exercise. Off go the screens!

Unfortunately, now I have to make dinner. The children are not pleased. They are *just a colossal smidge* tired and cranky and demanding my attention, even though I’ve basically done nothing today except give them my attention.

Fortunately, I have a fridge full of food because I just picked up my once-weekly grocery order last night.

Unfortunately, I have to cook all of the food. Again. For the “Every meal of every day”th time since this lockdown began.

Fortunately, as with all things in my life at this point in time, my acceptance of mediocrity has reached an all-time high. Hot dogs and chips it is.

Unfortunately, this dinner is lacking a bit of pizzazz.

Fortunately, there are several dozen wineries in my town that are now offering free at-home no-contact delivery. Which brings me to my next question: Which pairs better with fire-roasted frankfurters and crispy tortilla strips: Syrah or Zinfandel?

Unfortunately, after dinner we still have to kill a few hours until bedtime.

Fortunately, family movie night has become a nightly occurrence.

Unfortunately, even with Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, Plex, PrimeVideo, and a collection of old DVD’s there is nothing to watch.

Fortunately, all of the movies my kids had been anticipating being released in the theaters are now being directly released to home streaming.

Unfortunately, the new Trolls movie costs $19.99. To rent.

Fortunately, it’s still light enough outside in the evening that you can just send the kids outside to play instead.

Unfortunately, your kids seem bent on climbing high trees and jumping off of moving objects. You remind them that they may NOT, for any reason, break a limb right now.

Fortunately, your kid who broke his arm in September and had to wear a cast up to his armpit for the first 6 weeks of first grade understands the severity of the situation. He implores his siblings to comply. Kind of.

Unfortunately, we have spent most of the evening arguing over unwatched movies and safe outdoor playtime tactics, and now it is time for bed.

Fortunately, it is time for the kids to go to bed.

Unfortunately, the kids will not stay in bed forever.

Fortunately, we are putting the kids to bed. Right now.

Unfortunately, the kids getting to bed can not happen soon enough.

Fortunately, both parents are equally motivated to get the kids to bed and we move them through the bedtime routine in double time.

Unfortunately, one kid has a wiggly tooth (WHY AT BEDTIME MUST YOU HAVE A WIGGLY TOOTH?!?!?!) and another kid has somehow outgrown all of their pajamas.

Fortunately, the tooth fairy can still make house calls during quarantine and Amazon carries pajamas.

Unfortunately, everything I order on Amazon is now taking approximately 23 years to arrive.

Fortunately, we’ve sorted out both the tooth and the pajamas, and the kids are finally in bed.

Unfortunately, we have to do this all over again tomorrow.

Fortunately, we have another tomorrow. Another chance to do life a bit differently, to take a step back, to lower our standards, and to try something new. Tomorrow is a gift, and even this will all be over some day.