This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.
On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”
That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.
Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.
This refrain has been moaned repeatedly by certain children of mine over the past year. I have about as much sympathy for it as I do the other oft-whined complaint: “I’m bored!”
They’ve heard the practical considerations: the expense and hassle of traveling with four young children, the 33 animals (last time I counted) that depend on us, the jobs and activities that constrain our schedule.
Sure, there are obvious benefits to travel for young children: It’s educational and world-expanding. The same could be said of books.
As I frequently remind my children, my own childhood trips were annual summer drives from Northern Virginia to New England to visit family, with occasional side trips. My first journeys to California and abroad didn’t happen until I was in college. And I felt none the worse for any of that; if anything, I got far more out of my travels in my 20s than I would have as a younger child.
My children have already been to California, the Caribbean, andCanada, so they’re miles ahead of where I was at their ages. But until this spring, they hadn’t explored the city of my childhood: Washington, D.C. So, when my parents announced plans to attend a memorial service in Washington, we decided to tag along.
My husband leaves for his office on weekdays, but since I homeschool our daughters, our house is the center of our daily activities. We eat most meals at home, given the expense and hassle of dining out with four young children. Caring for 31 animals (give or take) and a garden during the warmer months limits our ability to travel. All told, I’d estimate that I spend an average of 147 hours a week at home – out of a possible 168.
While I haven’t been able to find a definitive figure, a quick bit of internet research turned up the estimate that the average American spends roughly 45% of their time at home (including sleep), which would translate to 76 hours a week.
I often fail to notice the obvious in my life until it’s pointed out by others. For example, a fellow homeschooling mother with whom I was sharing tea happened to drop the statement that, “Homeschooling is a full-time job.” It was like a jolt of electricity had passed through me. “OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why I’m so busy!”
That same mother, in the same conversation, enlightened me further with the observation that it’s difficult for homeschooling families to have clean, orderly houses because the kids are always there.
“OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why there’s a constant trail of books and art supplies stretching from our entryway up to the girls’ rooms, and a massive cardboard box/transmogrifier/time machine in the middle of the kitchen. And why any attempt to wipe, vacuum, or straighten away evidence of my four children seems futile, since they’ll just undo it the next minute.”
I’ve also started to wonder if the amount of time we spend at home has something to do with why my daughters keep asking for furniture.
I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.
“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”
Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.
I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.
Before I had children, back when I was a twenty-something elementary school teacher in New York City and had just started dating my future husband, I used to watch the quirky television sitcom Ally McBeal. Though most of that show has sunk into the mists of my past, one moment sticks with me: the episode when Ally’s therapist tells her to pick a theme song for her life (and Ally spends the rest of the episode bopping along to “Tell Him.”)
This episode confirmed what I’d always felt to be true: Life had a soundtrack.
My life, at least, always seemed to have a soundtrack. As an only child, records (the kind that spun on a record player) filled the silence instead of siblings: Some of my earliest memories are of playing alone while listening to records of classic musicals – My Fair Lady, Annie, The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, The King and I. Later, the musicals were replaced by my parents’ old Cat Stevens and Beatles albums.
There were cassette tapes, too, especially after I started school. My first cassette was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. By middle school, we were making and exchanging mix tapes (lots of Billy Joel, as I recall.)
My first CD was the soundtrack to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. CDs remained the primary music media into my Ally McBealdays: We’d buy the latest album by U2 or Sting at Tower Records or Barnes & Noble and listen to it on our stereo or portable CD player. As a newlywed graduate student, I traversed Manhattan to a soundtrack of Tori Amos and Counting Crows.
The Dixie Chicks will forever be the soundtrack of my first pregnancy; Mumford & Sons accompanied my second.
But I worry that I’ve deprived my own children of a soundtrack for their lives.
When we first looked at the house that is now our home, the realtor told us that all other prospective buyers had walked away after they saw it: The house’s layout was just too strange for anybody to figure out how to make it work.
Enter my husband, who, in a fit of visionary-ness, saw how we could make this half-finished house with the wonky floor plan work for us.
In order to make it work, we turned the first-floor living room and bathroom into our master bed- and bathroom. Our four daughters sleep in the second-floor bedrooms, and use the second-floor bathroom. (In our current stage of parenting, this setup provides me excellent exercise running up and down the stairs at all hours of the day and night.)
Our house’s floor plan figures into the story I’m about to tell. The crucial detail is this: The master bathroom is the only bathroom on the first floor, and it – and the master bedroom beyond it – are accessed by a door off of the kitchen.
This is a story about expectations. And I had great expectations that Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving.
“Could somebody please explain Daylight Savings Time to me?!?” my nine-year-old daughter wailed last week. “I mean, I just figured out how Leap Year works!”
We were in our minivan, driving a favorite babysitter home through the darkness that had settled upon us at five o’clock in the evening.
I explained to my daughter that Daylight Savings Time is a little bit like Leap Year: Both are systems invented by people to structure our seasons and our days. Leap Year insures that by rounding our years to 365 days, the seasons don’t get off-kilter with the weather; Daylight Savings insures that the shifting hours of sunlight remain within the working hours of each day (if you’re a farmer.)
As I explained these systems that I’ve come to take for granted, I felt awed by the impressive amount of coordination they represent. For centuries now, most of humankind has agreed to adhere to a calendar and a clock that are really nothing more than manmade constructions. We agree that it’s November of 2018. We agree that if it’s 6 PM in Vermont, then it’s 3 PM in California. Think about that for a minute: In what other realm of life, these days, can we see people cooperating to such a degree? Not many.