Our family went back to school the day after Labor Day. The Addison County schools began the week before Labor Day, but since we homeschool I figured: Why be crazy? (My daughters take a great deal of joy in their delayed start; every year they fantasize about appearing on the Mary Hogan School sidewalk on the first day of school in their pajamas, munching doughnuts and waving to their friends as they get off the bus. What prevents them from putting this plan into action is that they’re not even closeto awake at that time.)
One of my favorite things about homeschooling is that I feel like I’m learning (or re-learning) right along with my daughters. As I remind them constantly, you’re never too old to learn, to grow, to change. Which may be why, this past weekend, I did something I thought I’d never do: I took my daughters shopping at big chain stores in Williston and Burlington.
I still remember our family’s first trip to the stores in Williston. We’d just moved to Vermont, and we needed to pick up a lot of cheap, basic home furnishings. We loaded our three daughters, aged three months through three years, into the minivan, and drove north for an hour. At those ages, an hour drive passes in dog years; we kept the minions pacified by tossing fruit chews into the backseat at regular intervals, and braced ourselves for long stretches of baby wailing. When we’d lived in California, an hour drive took us to wine country; driving the same distance for a bunch of chain stores hardly seemed worth the hassle. “I will do anything possible to avoid this drive,” I recall thinking to myself.
For eight years, I did avoid it. But now we have a tween, and our tween “needs” to go to Old Navy.
Were you to ask me what our family has done this summer, my response would be, “Very little.”
This summer, my daughters decided they wanted to do nothing. With the exception of a handful of brief or sporadic local activities, they shook their heads at any sort of camp or sport. Many of their friends head to sleepaway camp for weeks on end; not one Gong daughter has even a passing interest in such a thing – and, as a former miserably homesick camper myself, I’m not inclined to push it.
Sure, there was the weeklong vacation in Maine. A couple of trips to the lake and the pool. A few outings to local museums. And that’s about the sum total.
Now, this isn’t my first rodeo: When it became clear that our summer calendar was going to have its fair share of blank spaces, I printed out a nifty little sheet for each daughter with the heading, “My Summer Goals.”
“Just think of three things you want to accomplish this summer, and write them down,” I instructed them. “That way, you won’t feel like you didn’t get anything done this summer.” This is parent code for: Good Lord, we’ve got to have at least a little bit of structure or we’re all going to KILL EACH OTHER!
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.