Reading Revolution

Consider Kindle Unlimited. For $10 a month, a reader in possession of an electronic reading device can access a library (Amazon advertises it contains over 1 million titles) of self, indie, and large house published stories and books. The sheer volume boggles the mind: all those stories, all those words, all those pages.

Over on Twitter, some published authors have recently broken taboo and shared their advances under the hashtag “publishing paid me”. Numbers range from the few thousands to, of course, the six figure and even millions (usually for a multiple book contract) of dollars. Many on twitter were astounded to find how small some authors advances were. An advance can be described as a publisher’s gamble on how well a book will sell. It’s not a gamble in the purist sense because publishers can control to some degree, through marketing, what sells. And clearly, sitting on a large advance and the freedom and time this gives a writer to create will impact the product. Some writers, most writers, have to keep their day jobs.

This commodification of books, or stories, has been a bit of a hang up of mine. I went to graduate school for creative writing. We spent hours in workshops sharing and discussing each other’s writing. We paid (a lot) for the privilege of doing so. To a lesser degree, we learned about and discussed how to make a living doing this, putting words on a page. And years on, some graduates are making a living writing or teaching writing or editing or other jobs that people who have studied words do.

I am not. Not that I wouldn’t love to get paid for writing or editing or teaching writing. But I don’t.

A classmate once compared the experience of being in a workshop with one specific professor to being tossed about in a rock tumbler and coming out of it as a shiny gem. I have to admit that, in those hallowed halls of higher learning, I applied that image to the whole experience of publishing. I really fell for the myth that the only good stories, the only ones worth reading are those that have been tossed around in the rock tumbler of workshops and editing and revisions and knocked into a smooth shine. I didn’t bother to examine that sometimes all that comes out of the rock tumbler is a pile of dust or that the dull, craggy rocks are usually a hell of a lot more fascinating than the sleek uniformity produced by the tumbler.

I still read words and consume and learn about the world in this way but lately, much of my reading and listening and general consumption of written ideas has been shadowed by a thought that seems to intervene between me and my enjoyment of the written word. Imagine, if you will, holding a smooth, thick piece of paper in a dark room. You’ve been told that this piece of paper contains another person’s story, their truth but you can’t see what it is. You move closer to a window in the room and the dim light reveals that the paper is glossy as well as thick and smooth. And then you look up a realize there’s a shade over the window and behind that a cloud has been intercepting the sun light all along.

The cloud and the shade are a bit like the publishing industry and workshops. And when those are removed and under the full light of the sun, you see that this is a photograph and you can make out all the finest details and little nuggets of truth and humanity. And this photograph is a story.

Sorry. I’m mixing metaphors now. What are stories? Are they rocks? Or are they photographs? They are both. And a lot more. Stories and poems and essays are even the shiny, tumbled stones. But in spite of what the NYT Bestseller list and publishers and even agents might try to tell us, that’s not the only thing they are. I’ve been staring at those shiny stones for so long, wanting to make my own just like them, that I haven’t been able to see all the rocks and photographs and birds and swords and trains and fountain pens and on and on and on that are also stories.

Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at an indie press book much less something self-published. If it hadn’t been through the tumbler, it would undoubtedly be riddled with typos and cliches and vague language and other crimes against language. This, of course, is a wrong-headed way of thinking. But, like I said above, I had sipped some of that kool-aid.

But not long ago, I read a few books that were NYT Bestsellers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that as much as I wanted to connect to the authors, their agents and editors and beta readers and conversations about “what would sell” seemed to keep stepping in between us like that cloud and that window shade as I tried to discern what was in the photograph in a dark room. So I pulled out my kindle and I started looking through Kindle Unlimited self published books.

I found one, Brotherhood of Secrets and Lies by Lashonda Beauregard. And I was captivated. It was a short, quick read in an efficient 80 pages not wasted on delving into character development or much exposition. It was a college campus murder mystery. It reminded me of an episode of Law and Order. I even thought, “This is like the old TV show 21 Jumpstreet,” and, lo, one of the characters was actually watching that show in an 80s flashback. And in that moment it felt like the author, Lashonda Beauregard, and I had some of the same cultural touchstones and that this is one of the things I had been looking for in a book, in a story. I wanted to be entertained, which I was, and I wanted to connect with the author even if it was something as seemingly superficial as a TV show, which I did. And I wanted to just read a story without feeling the presence of the agent and the editor and the beta readers, just me and the author. And I wanted to read something where there was no moral complexity or ambiguity in the characters. In other words, I wanted to escape the messiness of the real world for a place where the answers are all obvious and laid-bare. And that’s what happened. Thankfully, Beauregard has more books on Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle with pie and coffee go together like, well, kindle, pie, and coffee.

I’m willing (and thankfully able) to pay the $10 a month to pay for this access. And, in fact, I’m happy to pay for it to have access to self published authors. From my point of view, it’s a panacea to the monopoly that the big publishing houses (and even, although to a lesser degree, the indie houses) have had on story telling. And, trust me, I know that Amazon is the enemy. But I can’t help but think about how, in its original iteration, Amazon was a book distributor. And the other thing that I can’t help but think about is that this platform gives writers so much freedom and control over their own work. They can choose to spend money on editors and graphic artists and copy editors or they can choose not to. They can even hire marketers or do their own marketing or do nothing at all. Lastly, for those signed up with Kindle Unlimited, they are paid based on the number of standardized pages that are read. In other words, if people are really into what you are creating: YOU GET PAID. If not, then you don’t get paid. Now, of course, as someone who doesn’t have any work on Kindle Unlimited, I have no idea whether the amount writers end up getting paid is fair or not, but as a reader it makes me feel like by the very act of reading pages, I am supporting authors I like. If anyone knows of any platforms (electronic or otherwise) that allows writers as much independence and to have as much ownership while also connecting them to an audience AND paying them based on audience response and experience, please drop a link in the comments. Thanks.

Smoking

I looked out my front window today to see a small cloud of smoke wafting through and over our fence and into our front yard, which was strange. But cars often pull over near our house so at first I thought maybe it was a car overheating. When I went outside, there was no car there. I walked out through the gate and found that the smoke was rising right out of the ground, apparently from a patch of smoldering mulch about 18 inches across, which was also strange. I was wearing pretty heavy shoes, so I started to stamp it out but this didn’t work, so I grabbed a bucket from our yard (what? You don’t keep buckets in your yard?) and went to our hose and filled up a bucket of water. In the end, it took about three or four one-woman fire brigade trips to put the whole thing (which seemed to have jumped to a few smaller patches in the intervening time as I walked back and forth).

In the meantime, drivers in their cars waiting for the light to change at the closest intersection watched me. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed. “Oh, I’m just putting out a small fire here on the side of the road in front of my house while you watch me. Hi!”

I don’t know.

I took a picture too while drivers watched.

Although I didn’t see a cigarette butt, what I can only assume is that a lit one tossed from a car or by a pedestrian going to the bus stop was the initial spark. But I didn’t see a filter and I’m no fire marshall so who am I to say? Later on, my husband and I considered whether it could have been a roach, which led to a lot of questions from my 10yo. She’s writing two novels right now, so I will not be surprised if some of her characters end up tossing a roach out a moving car window.

Eighteen months ago or so — anyway, back in November of 2018 — I put in a request for a sidewalk in front of my house. Part of me thought, naively I guess, that by sending the sidewalk people (as I call them, not their official title) a picture of the smoldering mulch, maybe they would put in a sidewalk. I received an email response from them: no. Well, not this year anyway. Our sidewalk is now under consideration for 2021.

Perhaps this is the moment that I need to remind you that I live in the United States of America (which, my all measures is still considered a first world country) in a suburb of the capital, Washington, DC, in what is supposedly one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

I ended up calling 311. I wanted to talk to the County Executive, Marc Elrich, and 311 is his listed phone number. The operator said she couldn’t connect me to the county executive but that she could put in a request. I’ve put in a number of email requests over the years, I explained to her, and never has Marc Elrich responded. One time, when my husband called to try to get some help with a rat problem on our property in connection, in part, to the open garbage at the nearby bus stop as well as some pet birds at our neighbor’s house, someone from the County Executive office (Mike Subin?) responded to tell us that his people were taking care of it. But the whole rat problem is perhaps a story for another time. I feel the same flush of embarrassment thinking about the rats as I did pouring water over smoldering mulch by my house while drivers looked on. I don’t know. It’s something about being watched but not seen that feels terribly embarrassing.

The 311 operator couldn’t connect me but she put in a request on my behalf. I told her a bit about my problem with the sidewalk and the fire. She was lovely and even granted me a sharp intake of breath when I told her about the burning mulch.

“You should not have to be dealing with all that in the middle of a pandemic,” which, honestly, (and a bit like my previous post wherein my two year old touched dog poop), COVID-19 hadn’t really even been on my mind. Even in a pandemic, some people are still just putting out fires.

“I wanted to go on a walk with my kids after that happened, but I knew that without rain in the forecast, I would be nervous about another cigarette butt igniting. So instead of going on a walk with them, I hosed down all the mulch,” I told her.

She was sympathetic, a mother too, she told me. “I understand how important your kids’ safety in their environment is,” she told me. Which was nice of her. I apologized a few times and told her that I knew that dealing with all of this wasn’t actually her job or her fault. And I thanked her for her sympathy. And it was nice and I felt a little less alone and isolated and a little less like no one cared or understood or wanted to understand.

It’s late and I want to click publish on this, but I’m hesitant. It’s all so unpolished and I haven’t properly processed and revised and edited. But it is all true.

Do not engage. I repeat: do not engage.

Two nights ago, one our family walk, we let Mr2yo out of his stroller. He shot off down the sidewalk as he always does and straight towards a small, dark colored object in the middle which he then bent down to touch, ignoring our cries and protestations.

And, that small brown object was dog poop because of course it was dog poop. And of course we were already blocks from home and of course we had no wipes or hand sanitizer or even an errant napkin in the stroller. Because I am the mother, I took the hem of my tunic and wiped his hand as best I could and then placed him back in the stroller, where, because he is 2 and because he was upset because we had just been yelling “no” at him and because he was being put back into his stroller he, of course, put his fingers in his mouth to comfort himself because of course and because he is 2.

So at this point, I take off back towards home just me and the stroller full of crying, distressed, poop covered finger sucking 2 year old and send Eric and the girls and the dog (our dog, not the dog who had pooped on the sidewalk) to finish the walk. And I’m sort of half fast walking, half trying to not make Mr2yo more distressed and alarmed while simultaneously trying to plot the fastest physically distanced course home through streets of our neighborhood that have one and sometimes no sidewalks and little to no pedestrian-friendly infrastructure like stop signs and crosswalks.

And in front of me, there’s a woman with a dog on one of those retractable leashes. And the woman is talking and I guess she’s talking to me? And she saying something about how her dog, who is sort of coming towards us and sort of looking at us, loves children. But my child is crying and I’m fast walking and I have no idea why this woman is talking to me but she and her dog are in the middle of the only, narrow sidewalk, so I turn off from the sidewalk and into the street. And the woman says, “oh no.” And when I look at her in response to her seeming tone of distress, she says, “We can be nice to each other, you know” and her hand gestures back and forth between the two of us in what I can only guess is some sort of universal sign for “we’re all in this together” which is also supposed to indicate that we are six feet from each other.

“My son just touched dog poop in the middle of the sidewalk and I’m trying to get him home,” I tell her, only I think there were probably a lot more “ums” and “errs” and pauses and hesitations and flustrations.

“Well, I didn’t do anything to you,” she responds, which, of course, convinces me that she was almost certainly the dog owner who did not clean up after her dog a few blocks back.

I arrive home after what feels like 17 days of toddler finger-sucking, wash all four hands, strip and change two bodies and the two of us are back outside on the front step when the rest of the family arrives back from the walk.

I tell them what happened on the way home. The children are rapt. And Eric is appalled, “That’s so passive aggressive,” he says. Ms10yo and Ms7yo want me to tell the story again but it is time to get dinner started and there’s already been more than enough excitement. But I understand why they want to hear it again. I know it’s because it’s a classic tale of their mother-hero thwarting the villain small dog lady on her way to save their little brother from poop bacteria. It gets them every time.

Late on, after I’ve had a little time to calm down a bit, I do what I often do in these situations, “God,” I ask the creator, “why do you make people like that.”

And this time, unlike many others, came a clear answer, “You do not need to engage with them.” Which, of course, is absolutely true and right and good. I know that this woman’s implication that I wasn’t being “nice” triggered me in some way to respond. As if someone thinking I’m not “nice” might somehow matter in some way. Which it doesn’t. And the whole interaction ended up leaving me more upset and irritated because she clearly didn’t not view me as a nice person and she never was going to view me as a nice person and what did it matter anyway as long as I could wash my kids’ hands?

Creature of Comfort

I woke up at 6 this morning, which is uncharacteristically early for me, both in the time before and the time after. Our youngest is just two, so Eric and I both been stealing sleep from around the edges of the day for at least as many years. Most of the time, our night-before ambitions for the morning, are tempered with the thought, “well, it depends on how tonight goes.” Last night, the two year old ended up in our bed, sleeping tucked up against my chest on top of my arm. Still, I had set my alarm so that I could attempt to make bagels this morning. The dough is (fingers crossed and a pray for the intercession of Saint Honore) rising in a draftless corner of the kitchen right now. We can buy consistently good, fresh bagels not much further than a mile from our house but the cost-benefit equations have been flipped. Is it easier to run down to the store or to set an alarm and make the darn things myself? So here we are.

There was a time when kneading dough for fifteen minutes at 6:30 am would have seemed needlessly arduous. This morning, I didn’t even turn on the radio to distract myself from the work. I just got on with it, much to my surprise. It’s been like this these days, an endless series of unexpected and sweet revelations about myself, my husband, my kids, life even. The nearly 7yo came to me yesterday morning and asked why, in some places, 30 degrees is warm but here it’s cold. “Is it like backwards or something in other places?” she asked. This launched us into a discussion of imperial versus metric, which lead us back to different measurement scales. Later on, I sat with Ms10yo while she worked on algebraic fractions. I showed her what I knew, step by step with pen and paper, and then together we worked through how she could use the gem-like plastic pieces from her “Hands on Equations” to solve for y.

Learning is comforting. There’s just something that soothes the soul with the repeated revelation of “oh, here’s one more thing I don’t know!” I don’t know everything nor do I need to. And each new little piece of knowledge or discovery is a reassurance that there’s even more to know around the next corner and the next and so on.

And making, creating is another comfort.

I’ve been making food and socks, and the process has been immensely comforting. Even more so has been the completion of each project. “Oh, yes, that’s right: I am capable of learning and making.” I signed up for a sock yarn of the month club from Farmers Daughters Fibers and my first skein arrived a few weeks ago: a gentle yellow called “Sea Nettle”. Eric and I keep bees (well when they’re not dying) and this yarn color reminded me of honeycomb. This free pattern from Emily Bolduan was in the “to knit” folder in one of my mental filing cabinets and this yarn seemed a good fit. It’s my first pair of toe-up socks which has so far involved a new (to me) cast on method and German short rows for the heels. Each of the individual cells of the honeycomb are comprised of little cables. After reading the pattern and then completing a few rounds, there’s an immensely satisfying moment when the gears seem to slip neatly into pre-assigned cogs. The pattern is revealed and I no longer have to rely on the written instructions but can read the round that I just completed which will tell me what I need to do next. It’s immensely satisfying.

Just as cooking a good meal, especially unplanned and with what I have on-hand purchased, no less, by Eric on one of his weekly or sometimes even fort-nightly (it is appropriate that I just unintentionally inserted a k before the n in that word) trips to the grocery store, is immensely satisfying. It’s a gift that my options for meals I will prepare have been so severely limited to what Eric happened to bring home. It is as if having too many choices and options left me feeling like whichever one I made was always the wrong one; or else I would be paralyzed by (ultimately meaningless) options. How many minutes, hours, days have I cumulatively wasted staring at shelves and shelves of products trying to make up my mind: salted or unsalted? Organic or not? Eric shops quickly and efficiently, taking what’s available with no second guessing. And somehow, of course, it always comes together for food and meals together at home.

And the bagels? Well, they finished while I was writing this. And they were delicious. And not to hard to make.

Tiny Kitchen

Our kitchen is tiny. With a toddler, it’s almost impossible to eat out at restaurants. And so take out is something of a habit. Or, I should say, in the “time before” it was becoming a habit. But our tiny kitchen and reliance on carry out has betrayed the actual truth: we love to cook and we love to eat our own cooking. But sometimes our passions don’t fit neatly into our reality.

This weekend, I cooked Ethiopian food. We live in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of DC. You cannot swing a dead cat around here without hitting an Ethiopian restaurant. As much as we love Ethiopian food, there’s never been any sort of reason for us to learn how to cook it. Until now. OK. Yes, technically we can still get take out. But we’ve found that even our favorite spot (which also happens to be one of Marcus Samuelson’s favorites) doesn’t carry out very well. Perhaps it’s because we miss out on the server bringing a beautiful tray of colorful foods laid out on a thick piece of injera for us all to collectively dig our (well washed) hands into.

Our youngest turned 2 this weekend and so we invited my parents over (bringing our total numbers to 7, still well short of the “no more than 10” gathered together orders) to celebrate. As always, I (over) ambitiously set out to prepare three dishes, a salad, and injera from scratch. Plus, a dessert for the birthday boy.

To be clear, when I say my kitchen is small, I mean that it has about two square feet of use-able counter space. I lived in two apartments in NYC when I was in graduate school: one studio and one two bedroom. Both of them each had kitchens larger than the one we have now.

And yet, still, I do utterly nonsensical things like plan a multi-dish meal for guests that is comprised of the foods of a cuisine which I have zero background in cooking. To celebrate a toddler’s birthday.

Injera batter must ferment for at least a few days ahead of time. So I was already behind the eight ball when waited until the day before to start looking at what I needed to prepare. So I dug around for a short cut that involved using yogurt to create the “tang” of fermentation while cutting down on the time it would need to sit. OK, I figured, good enough. It would have to do. Thankfully and like most of the cake making around here, the passion fruit cheesecake was mostly Eric’s purview and he had already read through the recipe (from Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen G’oh’s book Sweet) enough to know that it was going to have to be done mostly the day before. Cheesecake has to sit in the fridge.

But, of course, on Sunday morning, as I tried to cook the injera, the whole thing seemed to keep falling apart. And while it had satisfyingly bubbled and even formed little holes on the surface, the batter kept sticking to the pan like an immoveable, inedible feast.

When I am frustrated, I sigh. A lot.

Eric offered to help. And then he took a pan and scrubbed it while I watched more youtube videos and read more about injera making.

Eventually, slowly, and with a little patience, and with Eric scrubbing the pan and also keeping an eye on the kids, the flat breads started to come together. Not perfect. Far from it. But certainly edible. And at least recognizable to the children as injera.

Sunday was beautiful and so, once I had cooked all the batter, we spent parts of it outside; I, with one eye on a clock to make sure that I had enough time to make the rest of the meal. “What time do you need to get started?” Eric asked me. I told him 4:30.

It was nearing 4:30 and we still had to straighten up the house. And I had to get cooking. Eric needed a shower. And there was still the spiced pineapple topping for the cheesecake, which was not otherwise safely ensconced in the refrigerator. The girls helped to clean. “I’m going to take a shower,” Eric announced to me.

“Ok…,” I said. I was standing in the middle of our kitchen floor doing the calculations on how all of this would get cooked. Eric hesitated a moment. He looked at me.

“How are you feeling about getting all this done?” he asked.

“Well, I guess I’m just a bit worried about getting the pineapple finished. Once I start cooking, all the space in here will be taken up. It’s just… things are going to be a bit….” I trailed off. This is the part of meal prep, especially when we are having people over (even if they are “just” my parents) when I start to imagine what it would be like to have a proper, large kitchen, one where the pineapple could be chopped and roasted while the beef tibs were being tossed in the wok and we chatted with our friends and family, holding their glasses of beer and wine. It’s pure fantasy.

“I”ll just make the pineapple topping now,” Eric said decisively so that I snapped out of it.

“But what if the caramel hardens as it cools?” I asked him.

“It won’t. And if it does, we’ll just warm it up again.”

And so he finished the cheesecake topping while I had the cup of tea I had been craving. And then he went off to take a shower and I started cooking dinner.

And at some point, both of the girls (10 and 6) came in and asked if they could help. So often, I look at our two square feet of counter space and so, “No, thank you,” but this time I said, “yes, please.” And one of them cut potatoes and then cabbage. And then they both measured out spices, following the recipes and practicing their fractions, and playing “sous chef” so that when the time came, I could just thrown in pre-measured spices from charming little bowls just as if I was on a cooking show. I was a celebrity in my own tiny kitchen.

MsA (10yo) even took a picture of some of her work.

And my parents arrived early and the girls offered them drinks and then put out cheese and crackers for them and they doted over the birthday boy. And then they asked Eric to turn on some Sam Cook. And I even sang along while finished up the lentils and quickly cooked the beef on a high, high heat.

And the food was a success (although next time I will put less cardamom in the lentils and I will actually ferment the injera batter rather than using the half-the-time cheat) and the birthday boy was very happy. And we “zoomed” with our family near and far and they watched him devour two pieces of cheesecake as if he was in a competition. Or, as my niece pointed out, like he was Bruce eating the chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

And it was lovely. And when I think about my tiny kitchen, I am always reminded of what my brother says, “‘Tis a poor carpenter that blames his tools.” ‘Tis love that makes a home.

Six Spring Considerations

Forsythia remind me of my grandmother who died when I was a little child. I suspect that my mother at some point (or multiple points) must have said, “Forsythia were Nana’s favorite.” Or perhaps she said, “Forsythia are my favorite” and several memories merged into one impression as they are prone to do. “They’re the first sign of spring,” someone said. Or maybe that’s just what I said to myself.

This jewel in DC’s spring floral crown, the cherry blossom, is a family favorite in spite of its moodiness, or perhaps because of it. “It looks like a weeping willow!” Ms6yo exclaims, affirming her father’s declaration that this particular specimen is one of the prettiest on our neighborhood walks. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival has been cancelled in the name of physical distancing. I’ve only been once or twice anyway. “Locals don’t go to the Cherry Blossom Festival,” my mother used to say. As a local, I follow the directives of my local mother. But there’s nothing in local DC doctrine that precludes us appreciating the flowering trees in locales other than the Tidal Basin on a specified weekend and perhaps especially on these days when flowering tree appreciation can be practiced a safe distance from our neighbors. This time three years ago, we were appreciating the cherry blossoms/ “sakura” in Tokyo, Japan, where my dad went to medical school before following a near-direct latitudinal line to DC to complete his training. Locals don’t go to the Cherry Blossom Festival, but apparently admiring the pink blossoms with the charming, foreign doctor from the hospital where you both work is not against the rules. (Or, if it is, photographic evidence indicates that my mother was a rule-breaker.) No doubt, they had much to talk about as the original trees had been a gift from the Japanese government, which had also gifted my father a scholarship to attend medical school. I have much to thank Japan for.

Is this the specimen to which the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas referring? I am struck by how unseasonal it feels to be talking about Pear Trees right now. I have nothing else to say about this tree or its flowers.

The Tulip Magnolia possesses larger petals and potential growth than the Cherry Blossom, which overshadows it only in name recognition. I love this tree and the way it reminds me every spring that we really are south of the Mason-Dixon here. As the saying goes, “DC combines the congeniality of the north with the efficiency of the south.” I’d heard this characterization before, but it was only when a Midwestern transplant to the east coast said it after I had introduced myself as being from DC that I realized just how mean a thing that is to say, on par with “no one is from DC” after you’ve just said you’re from DC. Does this look like a swamp to you?

The girls call these ones “blue bells” (which makes me think they’ve been reading too many victorian diaries or poetry) and collect the errant ones to place in fairy houses. An offering for fairies or bait? I’m never quite clear. Nor are the fairies. Gardeners and botanists call them the more luscious “garden grape-hyacinth“, which unfortunately sets one up for an inevitable disappointment of inedibility. I have no memory of substance with these little wine cups hanging as if from bar rack (a familiar sight from my childhood at the family restaurant) to say about these ones as I do not recall them from my youth.

I thought this might be the resurrection of a dead hive, but my husband insists these are robber bees. Ours absconded (ok, they died, not their fault) some time ago, and as such I think “scavenger bees” would be more generous and more accurate for these honeybees visiting our hive.

Feast of Saint Joseph

Today is the feast of Joseph. It is also the day that Italy surpassed China in the number of COVID-19-related deaths. Still, we celebrated Saint Joseph, as best we could, with pasta and bread crumbs approximating the sawdust at the feet of a carpenter.

My paternal grandparents were from China. Poor (and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall?), they left far before even my father was born and before the revolution. We have no known ancestry from Italy. Still, “celebrate everything,” as our pastor instructs. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of Italy and my husband’s confirmation saint. As a father and husband, he has a particular devotion to this quietest of biblical figures.

This morning, I dared to venture out to the grocery store for provisions for my parents including ingredients for a linguine dish on the recommendation of my mother’s Sicilian friend. By default, all Catholics are some sort of honorary Italian. After Mr 2yo fell into his afternoon nap, I beat eggs and sugar and flour into a warm, shiny submission on the stove top. The girls injected pastry cream into these puffs of baked dough to form zepolle de San Giuseppe (aka much less romantic sounding “cream puffs”). Were our Italian counterparts doing the same from their confines of their homes and to prepare their altars to Saint Joseph, loaded with treats and sweets that would not be shared in the way that they were meant to be?

Music by Ms6yo.

This time last year, we made cream puffs and rice fritters for a Saint Joseph altar to share with our small community of faithful at our daily mass. But this year? Verboten. (Pray, you’ll pardon me for mixing cultures in these trying times.)

We had let Saint Patrick’s day slide by with nary a “pray for us” in spite of the fact that we are Irish “on both sides”. Like many of these days, this Irish feast slipped by us before we could catch it with a shot of Jameson or a pint of Guinness. We now know that these days call for preparation and forethought but we hadn’t yet learned that lesson before March 17. Before March 17, we still thought that we could run out to grab a corned beef and a trip to the beer and wine store (this is still Montgomery County, after all) wouldn’t mean quite as much hand sanitizer.

Saint Joseph. Pray for us!

The Visitation

Yesterday morning, I prayed the tail and the first decade of the rosary on an app on my phone. It was a Monday, so the joyful mysteries were the prix fixe, and the first is “The Annunciation”. For lent, I’ve been praying all five decades once a day which, for me, has meant lying in bed at the end of the day, trying not to doze off between, or during, Hail Marys. Most nights, there’s the inevitable near slippage of the phone out of my hand, the jolt awake. “Did I already finish this Hail Mary? Well, better do it again, just to be safe.” Which is, of course, ridiculous and not the point at all. I’ve heard it said before that if you fall asleep while praying the rosary, angels will finish it for you. I hate to bother them. The rosary doesn’t have to be prayed all in one sitting — or in one “lying” in this case — so I figured a decade here or there through the day might mean fewer opportunities for the phone to slip from my lazy fingers and topple onto my face. My phone is not light, but no one ever said praying the rosary was without danger and risk.

Later in the day, an old friend called from his truck on his way to work where he lives in upstate New York. He practices Zen Buddhism and so, over the phone, he shared some of his experiences with meditating using Ko-ans. At one point during our conversation, I laughed. I had thought, I explained to him, that Zen Ko-ans were sort of parallel to the mysteries of the rosary. “I was wrong,” I told him.

Ms10yo said to me today, “It doesn’t even feel like lent.” I asked her if she meant because we were staying in and social distancing. We haven’t been to mass in a few weeks. “It’s like we gave up mass for lent,” I told her. She laughed. “Which is totally the opposite,” she said. But maybe this time is even more “lenten” in some ways: giving up so many “things”, even mass, to rely on each other and what we have present in our own homes. Do we need a ko-an to see God? Do we need mass to know him?

I consider the alternative to praying the rosary before falling asleep; to spread it out during the day so that I’m not fighting sleep. But I also consider, “what would I do if I weren’t praying the rosary in my bed at the end of the day.” Would my mind be racing, reviewing every interaction I had during the day? Trying to find the meaning behind two tweets I’d stumbled across. Would I be forcing meaningless words and phrases into awkward patterns of meaning? Would my mind be working, overtime, deep into the night to make sense out of fear or other senseless emotions and experiences. Better, I suspect, to consider the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” and the messenger angel who spoke them. Better to picture two cousins, John and Jesus,: one pouring baptismal water over the head of the other. Better, even, to contemplate the pillar and what was perpetrated there.

After I hung up the phone with my friend in New York, my daughter’s Godmother texted me. She would be working from home for a while. She asked for prayers that her and her room-mate wouldn’t kill each other. “I’ll be praying the second joyful mystery later today,” I texted her. “I think The Visitation might be an appropriate decade to offer for you and your roommate.” In The Visitation, Mary learns that her cousin, Elizabeth who is “advanced in age”, is pregnant and she quickly makes her way to take care of her. Elizabeth and her son, John, know who Mary carries in her own womb as soon as they see her. “I’ll pray that you guys get a little Mary-Elizabeth vibe going between you.” Not that I hoped both of them would become pregnant, but that they would take care of each other in the way that the two biblical cousins did. Hail Mary, indeed.

Ten Tips for Thriving Through School Closures: Lessons from Homeschooling Parents

The man delivering these saw me take a picture and said, “Not the same.” And we laughed and laughed.

1. All human beings, including kids, are hard wired to learn. Every single person is made to take in their environment in whichever way or ways they can and to process their experiences. That’s all that learning is. I used to be a classroom teacher so I’ll let you into a little (actually, big) secret: everybody learns. The biggest, hardest part of being a teacher is allowing this process to take place naturally. Sometimes this means getting the right resources into their hands at the right time and sometimes this means protecting them from standardized testing and other barriers that traditional schools and society places in between them and authentic learning. Whatever it is, the hardest part of being a classroom teacher is negotiating the education system for our students. The easiest? The learning. Kids do it without any help from anyone. Curiosity is innate. Actual learning requires no work (zero! zilch!) on the part of the teacher. So no matter what happens during this period of time when the schools are closed, I can guarantee your kids will be learning.

2. Listen to your children. They will figure out a way to communicate their needs to you but this becomes much easier if they have a willing and eager listener. They will tell you what they want to learn and even how they want to learn it.

Learning can be messy. But it doesn’t have to be.

3. You can always throw out the curriculum. At the beginning of our second time around starting homeschooling (we sent the two older kids to Catholic school briefly) we bought two curricula, one for each of our kids. When it was shiny and new, it was all very exciting. It eased some of our stresses and concerns around “are we doing the right thing?” However, it stopped working for us a few months in. The material was too out-dated. Some of the ideas being taught were illogical and inaccurate. And our experience with the “support staff” showed that they were not interested in working with families to improve or make changes. It was starting to take us more time to “undo” the problems than it was to actual teach the material. We continued to use those bits and pieces that seemed to be working but for the most part, we tossed it (which was painful given how much money and time we had already spent on it). You will possibly have access to a curriculum while your children’s school is closed. It might work for you. But it might not. It might work really well for your children’s teachers and for your children in the context of that classroom. But it might not work for you and our child at home. That’s fine. Just put it aside. There are infinite other things and ways and ideas and topics to learn out there. Jump in.

4. You are an expert on… something. We both have advanced degrees. We’ve spent a lot of years (and a lot of money!) in several different institutes of higher learning, some of them are “prestigious.” But these degrees haven’t helped one iota in getting to know the one subject we have had to learn inside and out in order to successfully homeschool: our children. This is an opportunity to become an expert on your children, to learn everything you can about them. And vice-a-versa. You are an expert in your own life. You might also be an expert in all sorts of other areas, but believe it or not, you have made it this far, surely you’ve had some experiences and learned some things about life along the way. Your kids want to hear about those things. Just the other day, Ms10yo overheard Eric and I talking about the newspaper where I worked briefly. “You worked at a newspaper?” she exclaimed. “Why haven’t you ever told me this?” She then had a series of questions about what I did and what it was like. I think I worked there for maybe nine months, definitely less than a year, so it wasn’t exactly life defining, but, to a 10yo, it was eye opening for her to hear about it. And especially coming from her mom. Which brings us to….

5. Tell stories and read aloud. My parents live about eight minutes away so we see them almost every day. They are a crucial and integral part of our lives and therefore homeschooling. The other day, I overheard them in the kitchen while I was watching Mr2yo. My mom grew up in the city (DC) until she went to boarding high school in rural Pennsylvania where she was taught by nuns, one of whom she knew from her elementary school in DC. It was my mom’s job to go outside to ring a bell at meal time. One day, she took her bell outside to ring it. As she looked out over one of the surrounding fields, my mother saw some sort of creature near the edge of the woods. She was horrified. She ran inside, put her bell down and rushed down the stairs to the safety of the school community. As she rounded steps into the dining hall, the nun who knew her from her childhood in the city saw her, “Chris,” the nun said, “Calm down. It’s a groundhog.” Unbeknowst to my mom, this nun had watched the whole thing and knew that my mom, as a city kid, would likely be freaking out over this large (but not of an unusual size) rodent. Ms10yo sat with wrapt attention listening to this story. It’s not unusual for her to ask (nay, demand) stories from my mom. Kids love stories. Tell them. And if you feel like you don’t have stories at your fingertips, read them to your children. Even until as old as the 8th grade, children can comprehend aurally far above their grade level or what they can comprehend when the read. Even when they can read to themselves, they still love to be read to and they still learn so much from listening to these stories and being read to.

6. Technology can be social too. And with this period of social distancing, we are going to be relying heavily on technology to keep us in touch with friends and family. We also got a Nintendo Switch this Christmas and, to my complete and utter surprise, it is much more social than I thought it was. It’s basically a story that the kids are a part of. They share ideas with each other and with their dad, they negotiate. There’s a lot of learning that goes on. The last time we went on an airplane trip, we gave the children a lot of free reign over their screen usage whilst on the plane. Afterwards, their eyes were blood shot and they felt head-achey. “Wow, that’s the last time I’m watching a screen for that long without a break.” Even kids have alarm bells that tell them when they’ve had “enough.” Part of parenting them is teaching them to pay attention to those internal signals. But they have to have these experiences in order to learn when they’ve “overdone” it.

7. Any sort of change to the routine of school but particularly one that is caused by something as potentially scary as a virus or disease can lead to a lot of stress and fear. Children hear much more than we give them credit for. So they have a small amount of information combined with their big, active imaginations and this can all lead to a lot of fear, stress, and overwhelm. So how do we mitigate this? Honesty. They can handle a lot more than you think they can. But being honest about what the situation is can help them tame their imaginations. Let them express what they are feeling and their fears in a productive way. Some kids will want to write. Some talk. Some will want to play. Or sing. Or run around outside. Or create something. Ours made their coronavirus video. These forms of expression also allow them to feel in control in a situation where they might particularly feel like they have control over nothing. Let them ask their questions and answer honestly. Which brings us to…

8. Three of the most powerful words in homeschool and in life: I don’t know. The other day, I was sitting outside next to the girls where they had set up some quilts and blankets on the ground and were reading and listening to podcasts in the sun. Ms 10yo turned to me and said, “Mom, when was the Berlin Wall torn down.” It turned out she was reading a book that took place in Eastern Europe. “Uhhhh,” I thought for a moment. “1992?” But I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, I had a small computer in my hand at the time so I looked it up. 1991. “I was a year off,” I told her. “So you were alive when it came down?” I told her yes, I was alive, suddenly not feeling very old, but feeling like I had, through her eyes, an impressive amount of life experience. We are lucky in that we can double check these sorts of questions and curiosities. But, when we can’t, or when we aren’t sure, it’s fine, in fact it’s a really good idea to say to your children, “I don’t know.” Write it down to find out later. Whatever you end up doing with their questions, don’t worry about if you don’t know answers to everything. It is far more of a comfort for them to hear an honest, “I don’t know” than to sidestep the question or to make up an answer.

9. I’m sure that suddenly having a few weeks where your children are home from school feels pretty overwhelming. Like, “what am I going to do with them?” But here’s a thing that I have found to be true about homeschooling: Social distancing is an opportunity for family closeness. Our children won’t be this age forever. They will all grow up and grow more independent and perhaps distant from us. Homeschooling has ended up being a gift for us and our family. And I hope that this period of “social distancing” proves to be the same for you and your family.

10. One of the biggest surprises in homeschooling: our kids actually enjoy their time with us. In spite of what sellers of toys and games and stuff might want us to believe: we are enough. Turns out, we’re not the boring losers we thought we were. And neither are you.

Stop Motion Video: “Coronavirus”

Ms 6yo and Ms 10yo made this stop motion video today. Because Eric is a scientist and has studied viruses, many of our conversations these days are about the SARS-CoV-2 (corona) virus. Obviously, as homeschoolers, not much about our day-to-day changes with something like this. A few things have been canceled, which disappoints the girls, so we are trying to help keep things in perspective. They know that children (who otherwise are not immune-compromised or in certain risk groups) aren’t as impacted as the elderly. And we try to explain that by not participating in certain activities, by “socially distancing” ourselves, we are trying to limit the possibility that we carry the virus to others. This article here explains a bit about how this particular SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be most contagious before symptoms ever appear and this, in part, explains how it is spreading so rapidly.

As they were making this video, I overheard the two of them chat a bit about the virus and the fears and concerns they had. (Yes, they talked about dying. Briefly.) Learning about something — and talking about it with a trusted companion — seems to take away some of the anxiety around it. And certainly, I am noticing how the act of creating something — even in the absence of a companion to talk about and give voice to anxieties and worries — is therapeutic in a way. Unlike creating a stop motion video that is sort of a public service announcement, knitting certainly has very little to do with this current virus, but I still find myself doing it — as if participating in something (anything!) creative gives me much-needed perspective in these unusual times.