Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Elusive "Away"

number of items in our home are "out." For whatever reason, even after living here for a dozen years, we still haven't found a place to put them "away." So they sit there: on the countertop, on the table, in the corner, in the way. Instead of being put away, they are perpetually left out.

It's frustrating.

And you know what? I don't want to come home every day and immediately feel frustrated. I don't want to come home and forever feel overwhelmed by visual clutter. I want to come home and feel relaxed, welcomed. I want my home to be my own Away. 

And so today I am working in our kitchen, as I have been for the past few days. I'm making room in the cabinets, getting rid of what we don't need, what we don't use, so that the things that are out and living on our countertops can finally be put away

Even though I'm getting rid of what seems like a lot of items--coffee cups come to mind here--I suspect we won't really miss them. After all, does a three-person household really need twenty-nine mugs? Or would it be better for us to have a half-dozen mugs and space to put our cast-iron skillets Away?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

It's More Meaningful to Them

Yesterday, as I was completing yet another task that should have been done weeks and weeks ago, I came across some old yearbooks that had been among my grandmother's belongings when she died. When I found them, I could remember my mother and my aunt discussing what to do with them: "We could donate them to the historical society," one of them--probably my mother--said. "Do you think they would want them?"

"We could just throw them away," came the reply. 

I don't remember how long they considered the fate of those volumes but, in the end, I ended up bringing them home. Sigh...I do have a soft spot for family history. 

1956 & 1957 yearbooks from Eden School, which served grades 1 through 8 and
employed two teachers. 

Finding and looking through the yearbooks was fun. I got such a kick out of it that I even shared my excitement on Facebook. Then, as often happens in my Facebook world, a distant cousin commented. It had been a l-o-n-g time since she had heard anybody mention the old, two-room, rural schoolhouse whose playground had welcomed us both as children. She wondered if there were any pictures of her father in those old books. Turns out, there were. 

Turns out, there were also pictures of her father's sister, a woman I had never met, who had passed away when her own children were young, and whose children were now...looking at photos of their school-aged mother that I had posted on my newsfeed. They were, in fact, looking at photos of their mother that they never even knew existed. 

A few likes, comments, and shares later, I offered to mail the yearbooks to these unknown, distant cousins. 

Sure, I could have kept the yearbooks for myself; I did, after all, enjoy them very much. But they will always mean so much more to my new-found cousins than they will ever mean to me.

I don't anticipate ever regretting parting with the yearbooks, even though there are a few photos of my mother, my aunt, and my great-grandmother within their pages. Instead, I know that every time I think about them, I will smile knowing I gave two sisters a small piece of their mother's too-short life.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ship It, Already...

For the past four years I've been the TerraCycle coordinator for at least one, sometimes two, and for a brief period three, schools and organizations. If you don't know about TerraCycle, the easiest way to describe it is as a fundraising-recycling company. You join a recycling "brigade" or two (or twelve), collect the brigade-specific difficult-to-recycle items, print a free shipping label, and ship them off to find new life as upcycled or recycled products. For each unit TerraCycles receives,  your school or organization earns money. It really is a great company, and I frequently recommend it as a good way for groups to set up ongoing, long-term fundraising.

But if you need help with your TerraCycle collections, don't come to me. I won't be in charge of it. Not any more. You see, even though I've been doing this for awhile, the truth is that I'm a bit of a procrastinator. In fact, to call myself "a bit of a procrastinator" may actually be a bit of an understatement. It might be more correct to say that I'm "a lot of a procrastinator." Because of this, I've struggled to stay on top of the "shipping" part of the TerraCycle process. Basically, I've collected the brigade items, boxed them up, but then they just sit there near my front door. And they don't just sit there for days. Oh, no. I could deal with that. My husband could deal with that. The truth is, they sit there for weeks. The even truer truth--the kind of truth that comes only if I don't mind embarrassing myself--is that it sits there for...months.

There, I've admitted it: my TerraCycle shipments linger in my entryway for months. Judge me if you must, but at least give me credit for honesty.

Something else I'll admit is that there's nothing quite like a big pile of boxed up recyclables to welcome us  weigh us down as we enter our home after a long day at our jobs or running errands. Nothing says "kick back and relax in your personal sanctuary from the world" "come on in and feel stressed and overwhelmed by your unfulfilled responsibilities" quite like a pile of un-shipped boxes.

So today, as my first intentional move toward a calm home--an actual sanctuary from the rest of the world--I finally did what those of you who have your stuff together would have done months ago: I shipped the damn boxes.

Ah, but I'm trying to be honest here, right? Does that mean I should admit that the reason I hadn't shipped these packages months ago is because I couldn't find the packing tape? It's embarrassing but true. I knew I had four rolls of clear packing tape, which is why I refused to go out and buy more. I had already decided to step down as the TerraCycle coordinator, but closing up these shipments is the only thing I ever do with packing tape. I would not go buy a new roll only to come home and find four more rolls three days later. Besides, the fact that I couldn't find the packing tape is part of the point. Every day, I walked into a house with a pile of boxed-and-ready-to-be-taped-and-shipped recyclables by the front door and four rolls of packing tape...somewhere.

And I've been doing this for four years.

Today when I found the tape, I immediately went and closed up the boxes, attached the labels, and loaded them all into the trunk of the car. (Unfiltered honesty: I put them in my husband's trunk, and he dropped them off at UPS for me. He was just as sick of that pile of boxes as I was.) Now I can look toward the entry and see the truth: they are gone. They are actually gone!

Maybe you can see why this is such a big deal. Maybe you can't. Either way, it's so freeing to know that no longer will I spend a Saturday morning sorting recyclables by brigade. No longer will I walk into my home only to be met with the heaviness of unfulfilled fundraising responsibilities. No longer will I stumble into that pile of boxes when I turn off the downstairs lights and head up to bed. Now, even though I still won't walk through my front door and immediately enter an inviting, relaxing oasis (I don't think I've mentioned yet that we are mid-renovation), at least I will not be tripping over a mountain of recyclables.

The empty space by the front door is proof: I am one step closer to the calm home I desire.

Unstructured Chaos

What? Because there's such a thing as "structured chaos"?

Yes. Yes, there is such a thing. I know it. I've seen it. In fact, there's an entire industry built around the idea of "structured chaos." Closet systems. Storage systems. Organizing systems. Container stores. Let's face it: selling us ways to structure our chaos is Big Business.

As I look around my house and see Unstructured Chaos all around me, I know that I could go and easily find help to deal with it all. I could hire a professional organizer who would help me determine the right system for me. I could buy shelves, and racks, and bins, and decorative boxes, and, and, and, and...

And the very idea of it exhausts me. You see, I want out. I want out from under the weight of the clutter. I want out of the cycle of sorting and purging and organizing and reorganizing. And lately a voice in my head has been whispering, "You could get rid of it."

That voice is growing louder, stronger. That voice has become MY voice. I could get rid of it: the Stuff, the Excess, the Chaos. 

I could have a calm, ordered home. And I will have a calm, ordered home. Or Die Trying.

*I am considering this a Preface to my Home Recovery. I'm going to be honest. I'm going to share photos. Some days I'm going to be boring and simply list what I'm getting rid of that day. Some days I'm going to make it fun or, as my mother always advised, "make a game out of it." This blog will, for a time, be my daily diary. And really, it's just for me, to keep me honest, and to give me a place to pause when my task seems overwhelming.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Webelos Engineer

As part of the requirement for his Webelos engineer pin, Nate needed to draw a floor plan--including the doors, windows, and stairs--of our house. I originally envisioned handing him a piece of paper and a pencil, and then asking that he independently sketch a mostly-accurate representation of the space.

My husband had other ideas.

And as hard as it is for me to admit this, my husband had better ideas.

My husband might have a background in engineering.
Can you tell?

Would my approach have been good enough to fulfill the requirement? Oh, undoubtedly.

But with his father's guiding hand, Nate got three very important results that are far more lasting and valuable than simply fulfilling a requirement:

1) Althouh Nate has excellent mathematical thinking skills, he still struggles with a some very basic practices, including math-fact automaticity, rounding and estimating, and measurement. With my husband's influence over this project, the boy got practice in all of these areas. More importantly, this task was not purely conceptual or theoretical. The goal (to draw a floor plan of our home) and the motivation behind it (to earn a Webelos pin) were both very real and concrete. This wasn't something Nate was doing in order "to learn." This was just something he was doing with his dad for Scouts. 

2) Speaking of "something he was doing with his dad," it's worth noting that this project took nearly and hour--much longer, unless you count the time he'd have spent complaining, than it would've taken for Nate to simply make an approximate sketch. Also worth noting is that this hour was spent, not alone and seated at the kitchen table, but in active cooperation with his father. That's right...this was, without a doubt, quality time. And seriously, any approach that results in an hour's worth of positive parent-child interaction is automatically better than any other method (even if another method would allow you to prepare dinner at the same time).

3) When it was all said and done, Nate ended up with a drawing that was immediately ready to be created in Minecraft. And would you care to guess what he did as soon as he got home from his Webelos den meeting? Yeah...Minecraft.

(By the way, this might be the closest I've ever come to admitting that I was wrong and my husband was right. I'm begging you...please keep this admission a secret. It'll just stay between us, right? You, me...and the internets.) 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

He Chose Science

"Art or science?" I asked.

Without even a breath of hesitation, he answered, "Science."

I've been preparing for this afternoon for a few weeks now. Super frustrated with the abundance of websites dedicated to pre-K and early elementary art and science activities--and the corresponding lack of similar materials for upper-elementary families--I've spent a bit of time searching out projects that might suit our needs. 

I've gathered quite the arsenal, and I hope to share them with you as we explore them. 

Some of the activities I've found are from books (you remember books, right?).  That's what we're beginning with today. Searching through my homeschool leftovers, I came across several Janice Van Cleve volumes. I love these books for several reasons. First of all, each title focuses on only one area of science, which makes them ideal for public-school families who want to supplement their child's education. Also, nearly all of the experiments are quick, another great feature for all those after-schooling families out there. Finally, most of the experiments require only common household materials, which is good for any family without a resident physicist (or chemist, or biologist, or geologist, or get the picture).

I also love them because they don't try to do too much. They are designed to introduce a topic, and they provide an excellent jumping-off point if your child wants to investigate further.

And so I give you "Glow" ::

(This experiment is the first in Physics for Every Kid, but is also widely available online, the best version I've found being Steve Spangler's human conductor experiment.)

Am I not brave, including a photo of my kitchen in the midst of what seems an endless renovation?

Aaaaannnnddd...that's the only photo I can share with you, as the remainder of the experiment was done in a dark, dark room and I only have a basic, basic camera. Essentially, he used the balloon to create static electricity which, in turn, caused the fluorescent light bulbs to produce light. It was interesting to discover which style of bulb created the most dramatic result. (I would tell you, but then I would have to kill you I fear it would spoil your fun.)

It was also interesting to see where he took the experiment once all of the written steps were completed. He not only tried creating static with other materials--cotton roving, a wool sweater, a walk down the hallway dragging his feet--but he also tried the same experiment with different types of light bulbs. Of course, traditional incandescent bulbs did not work, and he had zero interest in finding out why, but the connections he made today are made, and they might come into play at another time. Today, he built a foundation, and I cannot even begin to guess what this foundation might support someday.

Of course, before locking ourselves away in a dark, dark room and attempting to create balloon-powered light, we needed to know just the tiniest bit about mercury (the element, not the planet...or the messenger god of Roman mythology).

Thank goodness we still have a set of encyclopedias lying around. This was an opportunity to go cross-curricular (shhhh...don't tell the boy that I snuck in some extra learning). In an age of search engines, it is a good idea to stretch your alphabetical muscles every once in awhile. Also, you might find out some pretty neat things about meerkats while you've got the 'M' volume open. An encyclopedia article provides other instant curricular leaps as well. For instance, after reading the 'mercury' article and finishing the electricity experiment, you could naturally shift to Roman mythology. Or the periodic table. Or geography. (Did you know that the major mercury producing nations include China, Finland, Mexico, and Tajikistan?)

You could also segue into a discussion or exploration of the solar system, or tie what you've read into your Latin curriculum (unless you're an aggressive after-schooling family, I guess that last one would be primarily for the classical homeschoolers among us).

The point is, this ten minute activity could lead so many places. It's really up to you and your child. Or it could just be a fun ten minutes of together-time on a Sunday afternoon or before bed.

My one word of caution: if you embark on this activity for fun, then please let it be fun. Go as far with it as your children want to go, and please, please, PLEASE don't kill their sense of curiosity and exploration by insisting on more.

Remember the Buddhist proverb: "enough is a feast."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Brief Reflection on Being Busy

I hear people talking.

Thankfully, the people I hear talking are actually present, not hallucinations, but perhaps the relief of that distinction is best left for another post.

But I really do hear people talking. I think I hear mothers talking most of all, and the crux of everything that I hear from them is that they are busy.

They are busy getting the kids to school. They are busy at their jobs. They are busy with soccer practice, football games, violin lessons, Scouts. They are busy taking two children to three activities in one evening.

Their busyness is all-consuming.

They are even busy talking about how busy they are. And if they're not talking about it, they're posting and blogging about it.  It's like everybody is engaged in a Busy Olympics where if they win they get...what?

This preoccupation with needing to do everything--with making sure everybody in the house does everything--has really impacted me lately. In fact, it has made me want to do...nothing.

Instead of packing each day, each evening, each weekend with more activities than we can sanely endure, I want to set aside one day each week, even just one evening, to stay home with my family.

I want to build a wall around this time so that we can do nothing, and so that we can do it together.

And I want to know what your family does when they do nothing together.