Month: November 2012

Parent Teacher Conferences and Praise

In Elementary school, parent teacher conferences are simple: one teacher, one appointment. Junior high is more complicated and the school seeks to solve this issue by a sort of open house conference night. Sometimes they have all the teachers seated at tables in the commons area and the families form lines in front of those tables. The long lines impede on the space for other lines and to get down to the teacher at the end one has to wend through a crowd. Other times the teachers are all in their rooms and the lines form outside the classroom doors. I’m not fond of this free-for-all style of conferences. Often I side step the issue by simply contacting the teacher on a non-conference day. If I do attend the conferences, I want to whittle down the line standing as much as possible. The child and I chose which teachers we most need to see and leave as soon as possible. It seemed like a good strategy, but tonight Link showed me where the strategy fails.

“I want to see all my teachers.” Link said. “I want to hear what they think of me.” So instead of picking the one or two classes where his grades demonstrated that he might need extra attention, we stood in line for every single teacher. They praised him. “I wish all my students were like him.” “He’s attentive, helpful, and raises his hand to make comments.” “Sometimes he’s quiet, but he’s doing great on all the tests.” “He works hard and never tries to slack off.” Link smiled and I swear he walked taller as we left the school. Why did I not realize before the value to be found in letting a kid listen while a teacher and a parent agree about how wonderful he is?

The State of My House

I have eight boxes of calendars in my front room waiting for Howard to draw and me to ship. Next to those boxes is a stack of packages that I assembled this morning and are waiting for me to put on clothes so I can take them out to the mailbox. There is also a bag of garbage waiting to go out to the can. The area in front of the coat closet is in its usual jumble of discarded coats, shoes, papers, and toys. The cubbies next to it–which exist to hold all this stuff–are empty. Obviously there needs to either be a system overhaul or extensive re-training. The Christmas tree stands in the corner, lights off during the day, but still a lovely promise of holiday to come. There are no gifts under the tree and likely won’t be for weeks, though Howard and I have begun discussing what we want to do.

The kitchen table is littered with books, papers, and dirty dishes. All of these are freshly accumulated from last night’s homework time and this morning’s breakfast. The table can go from pristine to cluttered in less than five minutes–and it does on a daily basis. Kitchen counters, ditto, with the addition of crumbs, cutting boards, and other food preparation supplies and spills. The walls are dirty because some of them are fourteen feet up and we’ve never climbed up there to wash them. I shall not speak of the floor.

The family room is currently clean, but there is an unassuming file box sitting on the game table which heralds an imminent take over. Soon the couches will be shoved out of the way and shipping tables will be set up. The fireplace is covered in games and toys which don’t currently fit into the cabinets because the cabinets are jumbled rather than organized. The upstairs hallway needs to be vacuumed, but someone needs to put all the books back onto the shelf first. Picture books are prone to leaping off of the shelf and piling themselves onto the floor. The kids have once again taken to storing things on the floors of their bedrooms. They leave walking paths at least. I shall not speak of the bathrooms.

My office is fairly clear because it was used to house guests last week and will be put to similar use this weekend. I do need to do some careful putting away since this batch of guests includes one toddler, one preschooler, and two grade school children. Things will get touched. The laundry is actually contained in baskets rather than spilling forth to fill the entire laundry closet. That is likely to change in the next few days because I’m not going to spend much energy on laundry other than to make sure we don’t run out of clean underwear.

This is my house. It is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes I look around and think I’m doing okay. Other times I’m appalled at my housekeeping. Mostly though I call it good if the fluctuations pass through cleanliness often enough for us all to know what it looks like. I have a definite correlation between clean house and being less stressed, but the causality there can flow both directions. Sometimes I clean to become less stressed. Other times I’m less stressed therefore I have time to clean. It is the cluttery times which show me where to focus my attention when I have organizational energy. Like that front coat closet. I’m seriously considering tearing the front wall off of it and turning it into a nook instead of a closet with a door. In theory this would encourage people to hang their coats, but the reality might be mess visible all the time instead of some of the time. I’m still pondering ways to set it up so that the system still works when we’re not focused on it.

One of the most important organizational lessons I’ve learned is to think of my house as spaces instead of as rooms. The rooms have names, but each room has multiple purposes. The family room has a video game area, a computer area, storage cupboards, and an open space which sometimes is full of the game table. When we want to host a large gathering the game table gets stowed in the corner and the furniture slides around to create an open space in the middle of the room. Or if the event focuses around gaming, then the big table becomes the center of the room. My office serves as a storage space, library, craft space, guest room, work space, and quiet retreat. Things get pulled out and put away as they serve the purpose at hand. By thinking in spaces, I’m able to make the same desk serve three purposes depending upon how I set it up.

We are always tinkering with the way our household is arranged. I don’t know any other way to manage a house that contains six people who are always growing, taking up new hobbies, abandoning old interests, and pressing forward.

And now I should probably go get dressed to take out the garbage and those packages.

Homework Hour

“Children!” my voice was pitched loud so that it could be heard over their chatter and pierce their internal imaginations. “I have two children with two projects and we have about two hours before bedtime. There is only one of me and I’m going to need you to follow instructions.” My declaration came at the end of fifteen minutes where I kept trying to get the kids to focus, but they kept pinging off in random directions the moment my back was turned. Patch’s project was an animal report where he made a lift the flap book about leopards and a shadow puppet play about monkeys. Gleek needed to construct a Mesopotamian house out of paper that compared and contrasted it to a modern house. These are the sorts of projects which lead to late hours and many tears, except this is at least the third such set of projects for the school year and thus far we’ve avoided major project meltdown. The kids nodded in response to my words and began adjusting their ratios of work to distraction in a more productive balance.

I was not good at projects when I was in school. I was a fairly classic procrastinator except in the cases when I loved the project and thus expanded it to be much more difficult than it needed to be. I was really good at working in a huge burst of creative energy, but not at all good at continuing to work when the energy ran out. Even in my early mothering years I would work in bursts, organizing the entire house, making a cleaning schedule, and then letting it all fall apart less than a week later. Somewhere in the last seven or eight years I learned how to work a little every day. Perhaps it was learning about the power of practice in creating excellence, but more likely it was just that I’d finally lived long enough to see the the accumulation from small efforts. The most physical manifestation of this was the day when I received an inch-thick book in the mail which was full of one year’s worth of blog entries. I’d written a novel’s worth of words a day or two at a time. I could see that later blog entries were smoother than early ones. I could see that my skills at layout and design progressed from year to year. Expertise requires practice over time.

My children appear to be learning this lesson at a much younger age than I did, probably because I’ve been so focused on it myself. I don’t let the big projects slide, they have to work on parts of them days and weeks ahead of time. In our business I’m always deciding what needs to be done today in order to prevent next week or next month from being crazy. Keeping track of kid projects is part of that. Last year I did all of the tracking and enforcing. It was exhausting. This year Gleek is doing it all for herself and Patch is beginning to. Patch sat down to draw a cover for his Leopard book while Gleek scrounged for scissors and tape. I went to dig out our shadow puppet theater and discover which pieces could be re-used for Patch’s play. I came back upstairs to discover Gleek playing with her stress ball and Patch eating pistachios. I redirected them back to work. I cut out a cardboard alligator (You can’t have a monkey play without an alligator) and then took the pistachios away from Patch until he glued down the informational flaps into his book. Later Patch declared that he would die from having to write down a bibliography, but he did it in his deliberately over dramatic voice, so I just waited and then he wrote it all down. Gleek was in the front room throwing her stress ball onto the floor to watch it flatten, but when asked, she informed me that her house was done.

In the morning Patch will need to practice his shadow play. Gleek will need to figure out how to transport her house safely. There will also be computer homework (10 minutes typing practice) and some spelling sentences to be written. The homework does not end until school does, but the work and projects just seem to fit right in with everything else around here.

This Week Just Filled Up with Things

The schedule for this morning was rearranged by a flat tire while Howard was on his way to the airport to drop off some friends. They made their flight, just barely. I was the back up plan and ended up following Howard home as he drove with the spare tire on the freeway. We have a new tire now, thank goodness for warranties. In the less fortunate category: An unexpected medical bill for nerve conduction testing we did on Howard’s hand last April. Insurance cut the bill in half, but it is still not cheap. The garage door needs to be fixed and so does the fridge. Fun.
In good news: The calendars will arrive tomorrow instead of Friday as I’d calculated.
This means our house has to shift over into shipping high gear, except Howard still has to do a week of comics, I have pack meeting, parent teacher conferences at two different schools, and Patch has a big book report due on Thursday. On Friday I’m fleeing the house to go to a concert with a friend and returning home to a house full of guests.
Ready. Set. Go.

Seeking for Meaning

I picked up a copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I know I read it long ago when I was a freshman in college, but I wanted to reacquaint myself with the words of this woman who was writing creative nonfiction before I ever knew there was such a thing. I’ve just barely begun to read it. I’m impressed with the way she compresses ideas into sentences and seems to abandon a theme only to bring it back later. Mostly though, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to have a life where I could go visit an island in the middle of a creek every day. Not just visit it, but spend hours there thinking long thoughts about life and meaning. It almost makes me want to read a biography of Dillard. How did she pay her bills while pilgrimageing to and from Tinker Creek? Did her other life obligations just not make it into her words, or was she like Thoreau who deliberately created a space separate from regular life so that he could experience it, think about it, and write it? I’ve always meant to read Thoreau’s Walden Pond, but just now I think I need to find voices which discuss finding serenity in the middle of things rather than leaving all things to find serenity. There are lessons to be learned in the abandonment of things, the foremost being that many essentials aren’t as necessary as we think. But at least four of my “things” are children and I could not live with myself if I failed them because I sought some separate peace.

My life is full of trivia, small errands, debris on the carpet, and spills hardened on the counter tops. It is hard to pull a sense of connection from a spill on the counter in the way that Dillard connects a fast flowing creek with ideas of struggle and grand truths. Somehow nature lends itself to slow thoughts, big ideas. Mostly the spill on the counter means it is time to clean again. A month ago we got away by visiting Fremont Indian State Park where I looked at tools and clothes crafted by the hands of Native Americans long before my grandmother was born. I marveled at what they created and pictured how they used those creations. I saw carvings on the rocks of the canyon and pondered the devotion of the artist who worked there. Then I come home to plastic and molded metal. These things are no less marvelous. They represent feats of skill and engineering. That plastic toy from a fast food meal represents the combined knowledge, experimentation, and labor of hundreds or even thousands of people. It exists because those people shared their knowledge with each other and worked together to create a society where plastic toys are so common that they end up in the trash. There are definitely points to make about wastefulness and entitlement, yet I don’t know that every Native American moccasin maker was focused on art either.

Dillard and Thoreau sought truths in nature. I tend to seek them in faith, community, and nature in domestic doses. Though sometimes I even find truth while doing dishes and laundry. I think truth and meaning aren’t in things at all. Truth and meaning are in the people who take time to ponder the world around them. I don’t have to run away to find miracles and lessons. Though sometimes getting away and coming back gives me new perspectives, which I suppose is what Dillard and Thoreau were doing on a grand scale. I can think beautiful thoughts and write beautiful words from where I am. The value in a pilgrimage is what the traveler gives to it and gains from it, not in the miles traversed.

Shining a Light

Among the lessons given in church today was told the story of the lower light. It is a smaller light on the shoreline which (in a world before GPS) was used in conjunction with the lighthouse to help ships navigate to safe harbor. A story was told of how failure to keep the lower light burning nearly led to disaster. Then a rendition of Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy (#335 in the LDS Hymnal) was played. Something in the stories and song spoke to me. It did so despite the my automatic emotional shield which goes up any time I sense that I’m about to be told a tragic story from which we should all learn a lesson. I like to pick my own lessons, thanks. I like to discover them for myself rather than being told what they ought to be. Yet the idea of being a light to others spoke to me. We are all commanded to be lights to others. I can think of dozens of people who have been so for me. They are people who taught me how to be a friend, how to parent, how to think about injustice, how to make the world a better place. They are people who live in my neighborhood, who write books I read, who I read about on the internet, who I pass in the grocery store. Most of them will never know how they have helped me or even who I am. Listening to the hymn, I felt that I need to be doing the same for others. The thing is that if I try to set up camp and show off my light, I’ll likely put it on some hill where it will do no one any good. I sent out a silent prayer, what is my light and where should I shine it? What will be most useful right now? Clear and calm, the answer was: write.

I imagine Heavenly Father as getting kind of tired with me lately, in much the same way that I get tired when I have to tell my kids to clean up after themselves. I keep saying it over and over, in a dozen different ways. I give them instructions, I order, I plead, I cajole. The actions involved are simple, yet somehow they find other things to do. Then one day a child comes to me and says “guess what? If I just pick up after myself things don’t get so messy.” Then I have to bite my tongue and be grateful the lesson was learned. Similarly, I find many good things to do which are not writing. At times those things are the way I shine my light. Last winter I was to finish my office remodel. This year every time I reach out to ask for direction I’m told to just go write. I’m beginning to imagine that instruction with an exasperated tone. So I should do that. I should write. I don’t know what the outcome will be. It is entirely possible that I’m just shining this light to illuminate my own path. From an eternal perspective lighting the path of a single person is sufficient reason to shine.

Funny how when I am struggling with large and difficult things, I pray for calmness and simplicity. When I’m given calm and simple instructions I wonder “that’s it?” and look for additional things to do. I have to remember that good works do not always require epic efforts. Time to pull out my book and increase the word count.


Yesterday I was focused and effective. Today, not so much. I meant to re-focus the kids, to require them to haul out their homework papers so we could assess the work to be done before Monday. But then I found myself in the middle of InDesign putting the finishing touches on our 2011 book. After that I began the sorting of invoices in preparation for when the calendars arrive next week. Next week will also feature the arrival of company, twice. There is also a concert that I’ll be attending. Yet the week to come does not feel full of stress to me. I’m not certain why. Perhaps I’m beginning to learn how to get things done without pressuring myself with an artificial deadline. Then again, I worked past the point of fatigue yesterday because I told myself I only had one day to get the Christmas decorations up. I’m glad they’re done, but truthfully, I could have spread out the decorating a little more. On the other hand, when I scatter myself across too many projects, I lose focus and momentum. Then every day feels like a failure because nothing is complete. I like completing things. Today I am sitting next to a shining Christmas tree and I don’t have to do a thing more to it until January. That feels good.

When I cleared out the front room to make space for the tree, I sat for a moment and contemplated the empty corner where the tree would go. Mostly I contemplated the dirty wall and thought about how much it needs a coat of paint. Perhaps I’ll make that my January project. I need a happy project during the month of January when the world feels dark and cold. Making my front room nice instead of embarrassing would be a good use for that energy. Not that January will really lack for projects. I’m contemplating running a Kickstarter then. I’ll also be working on a new iteration of the CobbleStones book. Yet neither of those have the physicality of painting. I think I need to be doing something with my hands.

Howard bought Pringles today. This is not because we need to eat chips, but because I want to make another cascading pillar candle and for that I need the can. So there is another project. It is a hobby project. Something I can do in the moments when I am bored without feeling pressured to complete it. Once I’ve made the candle I will then watch it burn and melt. That will bring a very different sort of fun. As another hobby project I’m thinking about writing holiday letters. These would not be duty Christmas cards sent to everyone and meant to summarize our year. Instead they would be short notes I write when I’m thinking of someone during the holiday season. They are not an assignment with a deadline, just a way for me to mindfully address the good people in my life as part of my holiday celebration.

Right now I’m in the middle of cooking dinner. This is a project with a very definite goal and deadline. The meal in question is named “beef stroganoff” in our family, but bears little resemblance to most recipes of that name. In this meal the part of beef is played by cooked hamburger and canned cream of mushroom soup serves as the sauce. We add a dollop of sour cream for flavor then serve it over rice. The kids love it. However last week we had foodie friends in our house. It was so lovely to have interesting and yummy things to eat almost every day. I am now wistfully thinking of meals where the preparation instructions are more involved than “open this and dump.” It is yet another project, and one on which I’m unlikely to follow through. I have usually spent all my creativity by the time that it is time to prepare dinner.

I have so many projects, most of them will remain incomplete for a long time to come. Sometimes I feel quite discouraged about that. I re-watched Julie and Julia a few days ago and I felt a strong sympathy with the moment when Julia Child says “All that work, eight years, and it all was just so I would have something to do.” I’ve felt that, the futility of my efforts when it seems like none of my work will make a difference to anyone other than me. There is great value in projects which exist to bring happiness to the creator of them. I play with wax, make a candle, watch it melt, and there is no material difference in the world other than my happiness in the process. But other projects I do want to have an existence beyond me. This is when I find hope in Julia Child’s story, because her years of work were not wasted. Her work sent ripples out into the world and changed it. That is a future worth hoping for.

Decorating for Christmas

Last year I performed an experiment. Partly I did it because I was too stressed and busy to do anything else, but I also wanted to see what would happen. Instead of orchestrating the holiday decorating, I pulled out the boxes and waited to see whether the kids would put things up. I left the boxes out for a week and then whatever was still in a box didn’t get put out that year. It was informative to see which Christmas decorations really mattered and which were clutter. I culled out the clutter before putting all the decorations away. This year my approach is different. With company expected and a shipping coming up as soon as the calendars arrive, I do not want to live with a clutter of decoration boxes taking up space. It feels like today is my one day to spend on decorating for the holiday. After today I’ll be launched into all the tasks which people outside my house depend upon me to complete.

In the past several years there has been a source of holiday guilt. We have not put up outdoor lights. I simply have not had the energy and no one else devoted the time. I knew I was making that choice and felt fairly at peace with the lack of outdoor lights, but other members of my family felt the lack. This year I wanted lights outdoors. I wanted them both as a gift to my family, but also because I just wanted them. It meant I had to climb a ladder, which is something I liked doing at a younger age before my imagination was quite so full of scenarios where people fall off ladders. I braved the ladder. I altered the plan so that I did not have to climb through a tree which apparently hosts some hibernating wasps. I knew I had to do the outdoor lights first or I would be too tired to do them later. I will put up a Christmas tree in defiance of fatigue, I will not put up outdoor lights in the same condition. I know me.

The outdoor lighting began at 11 am. The tree assembly began at 1 pm. Lighting the tree began around 3 pm. It is now 5:30 and the decorating is essentially done. I know I’ve accomplished the most important piece, which is this:

Some of these books are so sappy they are annoying, some of them are wistful, some of them I love, some of them we still have because the kids love them even if I do not. I try to collect them carefully, because we don’t have any more room on the piano, but I can’t turn down a book which speaks to me. Somehow pulling out the holiday books makes the season real. Oddly, the other thing that does this is my Christmas tree skirt. It is red, white, and green crushed velvet. I only ever get a good look at it when I am putting it on or putting it away. The rest of the time it gets covered with gifts.

This year we have a small addition to our decorations. Max is a sock doll zombie who has been part of our Halloween for several years now. But this year he didn’t want to be put back in the box with the pumpkin stuff. Surely a little friendly zombie can be a Christmas decoration if he has the appropriate hat, right?

The house is decorated. In the process of decorating, both Howard and I accomplished a dozen small house maintenance tasks which have been waiting. Things feel renewed and ready. Tomorrow I have to get back to my regular work.


The elapsed time from when we gathered to pray over the food and when the first child asked to be excused from the table was about fifteen minutes. I momentarily considered denying the petition and requiring more family togetherness, trying to stretch out the Thanksgiving meal. Except I could see that two other children were also nearly done eating and I didn’t really see the point. Four hours of preparation, fifteen minutes of eating time. If the time spent eating is the focal point of the holiday, then I could easily feel frustrated or like the holiday was not all it should be. Except Thanksgiving is not just the part where everyone sits down and eats. Thanksgiving is the kids squabbling in the back yard because I sent three of them outside to bag leaves, but two of them are more interested in playing parachute with the garbage bags. It is the dance Howard and I do around each other as I’m preparing rolls and he’s making mashed potatoes. We trade off counter space, spatulas, and measuring utensils, taking turns at the sink. Then we flow easily into making stuffing and chicken preparation. Thanksgiving is me organizing the linen closet because it has been out of control for months and somehow neat stacks of linen make me feel ready to decorate for Christmas. Thanksgiving is requiring the kids to clean up their stuff so that the front room is ready to host our Christmas tree. Thanksgiving is bright sunlight and cool air which we draw through the kitchen with a fan because the oven has been on all morning. Thanksgiving is me sitting in the kitchen with the dirty plates and left overs while the voices of the kids playing games float from downstairs. The whole day is the holiday, not just the part where we eat food.

Part of me wants to photograph everything from the scattering of half full glasses on the table to the dirty dishes in the sink. Today my eyes find beauty in all all of it. These things tell me stories about family and togetherness. Unfortunately the photographs would just show dirty dishes in a chipped porcelain sink. I can not preserve Thanksgiving. I have to let it go so that we can move onward to what comes next. In this case the very next thing is kitchen clean up. Tomorrow we’ll haul Christmas out of storage and arrange it all over the house.

A Thought on Thankfulness

Over at Feel More Better, Mir Kamin has written a beautiful post about thankfulness and happiness. One paragraph in particular jumped out at me.

Life is hard. I fear for those I love, and I hurt for those I can’t protect or heal. But somehow I’ve learned that wrapping that hardship around me like a familiar old blanket does nothing but make everything worse. Some days are hard. Our heartbreak isn’t even close to being over, and there will undoubtedly be days when I do pull the covers over my head and wish the world away… for a little bit. In the meantime, just as I can’t stop the bad stuff, I can’t keep the sun from shining, I can’t stop my son from dancing into my office to make me laugh, there’s absolutely no stopping my dog from being a joyous goofball over the dumbest things (“ZOMG A DUST MOTE!!”), and there is love enough in my life to hold me up when I falter. I wish life was easier. I am grateful anew for the uncomplicated bits, when it’s not.

I love the thought that accepting we are powerless against bad things also means that we should accept the good things too.