Real Family Values

Real Family Values

A few years back, my colleagues and I shared an offsite holiday potluck lunch and departmental meeting. The newest member of our team offered his home as our gathering spot. In addition to his work with us, he designed sustainable houses, his own among them, and he was as eager to show it off as we were to see it.

Clearly, our first order of business was to tour his lovely home. The last room we visited belonged to his pre-school-aged son. One of our group, the mother of a child just three years older, slowly looked around the room. She seemed puzzled, maybe even troubled.

We discovered the source of her distress when she said, “Where are his toys? Doesn’t he have any toys?” Indeed, the room was almost spartan. It held a few books, a clothes chest, and a junior bed complete with a large, lime-green, leaf shaped canopy that seemed to turn the bed into a sort of cocoon. Her entire house, on the other hand, was overflowing with toys from gift-happy aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Our host explained that their previous home had been cluttered with both toys and other belongings. When they moved, they made a conscious decision to rid themselves of as many “things” as possible. With an impressionable young child to raise, they wanted to model a new ethic—one of simplicity, one of sustainability, one where experiential activities trumped sedentary ones. No more television, no more oversized, nonbiodegradable toys to trip over and litter the place. Instead, they had chosen to live a life where doing replaced being.

Not long after that day, my colleague told me that as the weekend neared, his little boy had come to him and eagerly asked, “What adventure are we going on Saturday, Daddy?” That’s the way he saw his life. It’s the way his parents had presented it: a life of adventure. He knew he could look forward to one every weekend.

Their adventures consisted of simple things—watching the university’s new wind turbine go up, checking out a crane at work during the construction of a classroom building, ambling through a street festival, spending a morning at a you-pick blueberry farm.

Over the years I’ve watched this family with appreciation and admiration. In the early years, I was privy to tales of weekend activities as soon as they’d occurred. In fact, I’d encountered the boy and his mother even before the father came to work with us. The Gnome and I were on a walking trail and she was with another mother, their children in tow. The son was only two at the time, but he was on a balance bike, a two-wheeled pedal-less bicycle. He was getting started early.

Now from afar, I usually get my accounts via social media. There were pizza-making sleepovers. There were kid-friendly street festivals. As the boy grew, so did the adventures. Snowy days meant not only sledding and snowball fights, but igloo building. The family built mini-bike trails on the back of their property for the boy to ride. They put in a kid-size zip line. They went backpacking. They engaged in cosplay—Halloween’s an adventure extraordinaire.

When the boy was old enough, he joined the Cub Scouts—they’re all about adventure. It wasn’t long before Dad became the group’s leader.

The boy is ten now. These days father and son can be found mountain biking. Mom joins in on scouting activities and weekend camping trips. They visit state and national parks. They go to the beach where they build complex castles and bury each other in the sand. They fly kites. They canoe. Evenings at home may find the three of them playing strategy games with friends.

It’s kind of funny when you think about it. This family is doing something revolutionary in the world of giant, expensive (though often cheaply made and short-lived) toys and games: they’ve gone old school. They’re doing it the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it—making do with what they have, turning everyday things into exciting experiences. Finding fun in simple things. In the process, they’re teaching values, building a rich childhood, creating a close-knit family life.

And the thing is, it isn’t hard; it doesn’t have to take money. It may take a little imagination. It may take a few hard discussions with the grown-ups, mostly grandparents, who want to shower the kiddies with love via tangible gifts. It certainly takes time. But isn’t it worth it?

The List, Part II: Priorities

THE LIST, Part II: Priorities

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up. You can find Part I here.)

Right up near the top of my “One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire” list was to make baskets. I had first learned how as a child from my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother: high school graduation photo

My grandparents, W. G. and Georgia Stillwell Dillard, on their fiftieth anniversary

Grandmother always had craft activities ready and waiting whenever we went for a visit, and she and I made baskets on more than one occasion. Basket making with Grandmother is one of my fondest memories.

An early basket weaving exercise under Grandmother’s tutelage

But I’d long since forgotten that skill. When I saw an ad for a basket-making class as part of Appalachian State University’s Craft Enrichment Program about three years before I retired, I jumped at it.

In those days I regularly worked until seven or eight o’clock at night and too often as late as ten or eleven. I took work home on the weekends. I dreamed about work. I woke up in a 3:00 a.m. work-related panic almost nightly. My job involved overnight travel, too, sometimes a couple of trips a week. I hadn’t had time for just-for-me activities for years. But I wasn’t about to let anything interfere with my basket-making sessions. In three years of classes, I missed only one because of work.

Making baskets was good for my spirit; it relaxed me; it gave my overworked mind a break from all the work-related issues that were swirling around in it. I really loved making those baskets, and I was eager to delve into my newfound hobby in a big way once I retired. In anticipation of that day, I bought my own basket-making supplies and four big boxes of reed and other materials.

Just a few of the many baskets I made in my basket-making workshops

A few things happened to change all that. No studio space for making baskets magically appeared. Nor did our small house with its open design lend itself to leaving materials all over the place between sessions. Just pulling out all those boxes and supplies, then putting them all away and sweeping up the debris after a basket-making session was time-consuming, so much so that it was only worth doing if I was going to make a day of it. But a full day of hand weaving, of pushing and pulling, of holding ornery pieces in place with one hand while forcing a reed through a too-small space with the other is hard on fingers, especially arthritic ones.

And I was running out of ways to use those baskets. Our house was overrun with them, and I’d given away more than people really wanted to receive. My skill hadn’t developed enough to sell my baskets and I wasn’t really interested in marketing them, anyway—too much like work.

Most of all, I began to realize that baskets had been my very important respite from the daily grind of my work life but now things were different. My needs had changed. Basket-making, it turned out, had served its purpose.

Besides, other interests had begun to take on more importance, like gardening and food preservation. Both of these activities had been on my list, too. At the time, my goal was simply to re-learn those skills from my childhood. I wanted to be competent at them, enough so that if, say, climate change challenged our food distribution system (as it has now begun to do), I’d be able to take care of my own food needs. In other words, I wanted to move towards more self-reliance.

But even I had no idea how these two activities would begin to take over my life. I didn’t expect to get so passionate about them. Why, last year the Gnome and I grew more than twelve hundred pounds of vegetables in our garden, far more than enough for the annual food needs of two people.

One day’s harvest from our garden

I looked back at my list recently and discovered I’d made a pretty good dent in it. What I hadn’t expected though, was to discover a few more items that had lost their importance as new interests—gardening and food preservation, for instance—emerged to take their place. Interests that sometimes have taken me by complete surprise. Like writing. Writing didn’t earn a single mention on my list. Yet, here I am with two books to my name (and hopefully more on the way), a couple of blogs, daily dedicated writing time, and participation in various writers’ groups. Who saw that coming? Not I! That’s the way it is with plans. Priorities change.

It’s one of my favorite things about retirement. I can be flexible. And I don’t need to make any more lists. Which was, as it happens, item 100 on my list.

(Won’t you come back next week for Part III of The List?)

The List (in Three Parts)

THE LIST (in three parts)   

When I announced my decision to retire from a thirty-five+ year career in public service a few years ago, I got lots of questions about my future plans. Curiosity about how I would spend my retirement was so boundless that I decided to make a list for my inquirers: One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire. For the most part my plans were simple: ditch the makeup and hairspray, make baskets, wear pj’s all day, donate about ninety percent of my clothing to Goodwill, take the back roads. So many things. I dashed off my list in a flash.

Part I: “What Will You Do?”

The question I was asked most often almost always came with its own answer attached: “What will you do in retirement—travel?” Most everyone, it seemed, assumed I’d become a full-time tourist. Apparently, that’s what people expect of retirees. Indeed, it’s what lots of Silvers do. I know folks who, in between their many domestic treks, make two, three, or more overseas trips each year.

But travel, outside of more frequent visits to our children and their families, was not on my agenda. My interests were much closer to home. Rather, they were at home.

Simplicity. In a world that was claiming too much of me, simple was all I wanted. I looked forward to not having an alarm clock blare me awake before daylight, to going barefoot all day, to reading in the hammock. I wanted to take things a bit more slowly and to live more simply. All these things were on my list, too.

When a long-distance friend asked the inevitable question and I answered that I wanted to get back to the simple life we’d begun here so many years ago, I could hear her almost choking on her coffee as she spluttered, “I’ve heard about that life of yours, and it’s anything but simple!” She was right, of course. Hand building our house while we lived without running water, toilet facilities, kitchen appliances, or heat had been anything but simple, at least in the sense of being easy or even uncomplicated. But it was straightforward; it was a return to the basics. That’s what I meant.

Building our house all by ourselves

I wanted to learn some of the old ways, to learn or relearn some fundamental life skills, to feel real. I wanted to live more intentionally, to lead a more conscious life, to be under the influence of nature, to tread lightly. I wanted to live more sustainably and move more towards self-reliance. I wanted to know, for instance, that if I lost power for  six months, I’d be able to cope. I wanted to eat real food, food I grow and prepare myself rather than something that comes in a box.

A day’s garden haul

I wanted to live in the present. I wanted to unclench my jaws.

Simple? Maybe not. Basic? Real? Most definitely. Have I succeeded? Well, like most things, finding my way to a new lifestyle is a process. I think I’m well on my way and I feel more content every day.

Maybe it really is about traveling. Getting back to basics is a journey, after all.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The List next week.)

Best Moment

“What’s the best moment of your day?”

I had to think about this question for awhile. Not all days are the same, of course, and my answer on one day might be different from another. So, on the day this question was posed to me, I tried thinking on the events of that day, then the day before, and finally of a generic, “average” day. As I mulled over the question, I still couldn’t land on a single best moment. It’s a dilemma I’m happy to live with. Yet, I still wanted to attempt to answer the question. I decided to go the route of a more or less chronology-based stream of consciousness and this hodgepodge is what I came up with.

The best moment of my day is when . . .

a ray of sun shining onto my face wakes me and birdsongs welcome the day

I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road

the cacophonous chatter of crows during their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning

I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea while I let my mind organize my day

on a summer morning, I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that evening or preserve for a chilly winter day

a couple of hours of dedicated writing time come my way

the all-day deck antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds

in warm months, I take a twilight walk listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies as they light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle, lemon balm, ferns, and freshly mowed grass

on a clear, crisp wintry evening, I gaze at the star-studded sky and maybe catch a meteor streaking across the sky

I spy mountain valleys shrouded by a sea of clouds

the nighttime calls of owls seep into my consciousness

the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and spring peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long

that “clown of the forest,” the nuthatch, utters its almost cackling sound, strongest on an autumn day

I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren

the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow  

the warmth and comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtake me upon waking and again as I fall asleep

And for all that, the truly sweetest moments of any day come from those spontaneous embraces anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—almost the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

What a lucky duck I am! With all these best moments, I’m reminded of the lyrics from one of my favorite hymns, “How can I keep from singing?” Indeed!

What about you? Are there favorite moments in your days?

The Queen of Her Destiny

Queen of Her DestinyDenmark_crown

This meme popped up on my computer the other day: “One day she finally grasped that unexpected things were always going to happen in life. And with that, she realized the only control she had was how she chose to handle them. So, she made the decision to survive using courage, humor, and grace. She was the Queen of her own life and the choice was hers.”

It brought to mind a news feature I’d heard not long before: a discussion with a principal in a school full of students who have faced the kinds of challenges that might do most of us in. Unsurprisingly, some of those students are troubled. This wise principal takes those students in hand and tells them how sorry she is that they’ve had to deal with such horrible life circumstances.

Then she says, “I can’t do anything about that,” and goes on to challenge them to shift their focus from what has happened to them in the past—what they, too, can do nothing about. She tells them she’s there to help them figure out what they’re going to do about things now. And to stand alongside them to help them get where they want to go.

I think that’s so wise. I’ve seen far too many “Woe is me” people. Their obsession with the bad things that have come their way has paralyzed them to the point that they’re unable to make a single decision, to take one positive step forward.

I know it’s hard. I’m not here to suggest anything to the contrary. But what that principal says is true. What the meme says is true. Paying these words heed is the only way to crawl out of despair and into the future.

Seek the light and grab hold. Be the queen—or king—of your destiny.

Photo attribution: By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

As I wrote “My Year in the Yellow House,” I wondered whether the story would have broad appeal since it didn’t have any overarching theme or message. Just random memories. Nothing much to see there.

The yellow house many decades later—no longer yellow, but with the addition of front and side porches

I was suddenly taken aback at that notion. My essay was full of big deals. Unstated, but implied, was the fact that my youngest brother was conceived the year we lived in the yellow house, rounding out our family. How would my own life story be changed if that hadn’t happened? Most assuredly, he and his children think it was a pretty big deal.

Questions bubbled up.

For the family who lost their home and all their household belongings right down to their shoes and underwear, the blaze that destroyed their house was monumental. I wonder how it changed their lives. Did they have family nearby to put them up temporarily? Did they have a savings account in the bank to help get them back on their feet? Was their life savings, however large or small, stashed in a mattress that went up in flames? What happened to them, I wonder.

Was Glory’s tumor malignant? That’s what I always thought. If it was, did it go into spontaneous remission? Did her family’s faith cure her? How did she turn out? Or did the tumor kill her? When? How was her family—and their belief system—affected?

What about Carol’s family? Is there a more devastating blow than losing your young child? Did her family survive intact? Many don’t. And what did the world lose with no Carol to grow up in it? What about the family that never was? Would she have changed the world? Questions the answers to which no one will never know.

It was an eventful year on our small block. My own travails were pretty petty compared to what was happening all around me.

And yet, they weren’t. I heard something on the radio recently about how important it is to listen, really listen, to all the insignificant things your young child wants to tell you, no matter how busy you are with more important grown-up issues. The point was that if you don’t listen now, they’re unlikely to tell you the really important stuff later. But it was the next phrase that really struck me: “to them [the children] it’s all important.” Of course it is. It’s all they know.

To five-year-old me, it was all important. It would have been to any five-year-old.

My most potent memory from that year is the one where I was pushed into a tiny but formidable dark space, locked in, and forced to allow my most valuable possession to be desecrated in order to gain my freedom, having no confidence that the bargain would be honored, even then. My doll was my baby; it was an intolerable choice. And all because of someone’s inexplicable need to be cruel.

I don’t know all the ways the doll experience colored my life. Was that the moment the meek, compliant girl I grew into was forged? Was it what made me forever seek to avoid confrontation at almost any cost? Was Glory’s taunting what birthed my empathy for others? Or was it just a terrible moment with no particular future consequences other than a bad memory?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.

What about you? What questions still linger from your early years? Were there childhood moments—little or not so little— that changed your life?