There are so many exciting things happening here. By which I mean, well, arugula and Lewis’s woodpeckers. I told someone recently, a gardening friend, that we’ve now entered the time where the arugula, chard, spinach and kale are so prolific that we won’t be buying greens again until December. And then I felt like a boasting asshole, before realizing that not everyone’s greatest ambition is to simply have more than enough arugula.
And the Lewis’s woodpeckers! Do you know these birds? They’re a little pleasantly creepy with their flappy-swoopy black cape-like wings. Everyday from our windows we watch three of them chase each other with passion and purpose, perching just long enough to screech out a lengthy (lusty? territorial?) song of raspy-squeaks. Are they rivals? Lovers? Relatives? (All three?) Dan pulled a bird encyclopedia off the shelf to read aloud to the (yawning) family on Lewis’s Woodpecker behavior, as if he hadn’t actually heard of this thing called Google.
Otherwise, May has been the perfect mix of rain and sun, like the exact proportion of ingredients to build a lush, green spring. Oh, I just love it.
Bok choi, part of the leafy green take-over.
And, I’m teaching this. Tonight! Sorry for the short notice. I’d love to see you!
And Dan is offering a build your own, have it your way, mix and match hunting mentorship. And as someone said, if he could get me from zero to this, he can guide anyone.
Happy spring, in whatever way it finds you.
We are eating roast chicken, deliciously bathed in its own fatty juices (and well, maybe a little extra butter to help things along), which is the first clue that something’s different about tonight. (With a freezer full of elk and deer, we rarely buy meat, and yet for our novelty-seeking children nothing says special quite like shrink-wrapped, anonymous meat from the store).
“This is sooooooo good,” Col says through a mouthful of drumstick.
“This chicken probably didn’t have a very good life, right Mom?” Rose asks, crunching through a leg, conjuring the video we recently saw of an eagle tearing apart a snow goose.
“Well….it didn’t receive any antibiotics,” I offer with false cheer, imagining industrial chickens picketing to keep chemicals out of their feed.
Rose presses on, meaty juices glossing her lips. “So, do they get to live very long? Or do they kill them when they’re young?”
My goodness. She’s like the cop driving around looking for people having too much fun.
We mutter something about youth and tenderness and Rose is satisfied long enough to shove another tender slab in her piehole. I am alternately wondering where Rose got her sense of timing and secretly applauding her for being an unapologetic truth seeker.
“Do you think our chickens would eat this meat?” Rose wants to know. Rose, who in that very video—eagle chomping snow goose—declared bird on bird predation to be cannibalizing. This has long been a discussion in our house. Our chickens, as omnivorous as any self-respecting poultry, will eat grasshoppers and worms, elk scraps and pigeon bits, but we’ve avoided feeding them any scrap that was formerly a chicken, for our own psychological comfort no doubt.
Not too proud to cannibalize, but lets not actually find out.
“They probably would,” I concede truthfully.
“It’s because they’re not very smart,” Col assesses. “In fact, our rat is smarter than the chickens.” No one argues with that. (Especially because we’ve been sponsoring a HeroRat in Tanzania, trained to detect landmines, and our adopted African giant pouched rat—Roco—is sailing through his TNT-detection training and we couldn’t be prouder).
But why we’re even eating this much-analyzed chicken is because it’s Compliment Night (as opposed to a Portlandia episode in which restaurant customers peruse a scrapbook of happy animals before selecting their corresponding entree), the celebratory night when we read all the compliments we’ve been leaving in the Compliment Jar for each other over the past month.
No meal complete without 32 ounce bottle of hot sauce.
And oh, it’s such a fun and special night! It’s like a party of good vibes, mutual recognition, and contagious happiness. It’s a way to say: I see you, I appreciate you, I noticed that your face lights up with joy on the soccer field and I wanted to acknowledge that; or, it’s great that you’re tall enough to wash dishes now, I value your help!; or, I love watching how you make time to do the things you enjoy.
From the archives: one of my favorites from Col.
It gives everyone a chance to look for moments of appreciation, and then to record them, which is known to actually increase feelings of happiness.
Often, Rose can’t read her own wonky spelling and we puzzle over her words. “You appreciate mom for saying yes to platters? To platypus? Oh, to playdates!”
When Rose reads Col’s appreciation for the fact she “teaches him how to play piano after her own lessons,” the stadium of cheering fans rises in my chest. And, when Rose writes “I like how dad tickles me between homeschooling sessions,” it’s great information. Tickling now permanently added to the homeschool agenda. And maybe the sweetest are the compliments between the children, who take time out of their regularly scheduled programming of comparing, judging, and bickering to notice what they appreciate about each other. Incidentally, this past month both children wrote to each other: “Thank you for playing legos with me.”
Sometimes it does indeed feel like I’ve made a “melee” rather than a meal.
Sometimes Col is so overcome with the warmth of feeling appreciated that he becomes a mobile snuggler, traveling, emotion-stricken, from lap to lap. Even the rat gets compliments, because like I said: all family members.
The chicken is picked clean. Our table is littered with greasy plates and an explosion of paper scraps. Rose gets up and announces, “I need to write another compliment right now.” She scribbles something and shoves it deep in the now empty jar. I pull it out with ceremony and read it aloud, “Thanks Mama, for making delicious chicken tonight.”
The other night my friend Tara had Col and Rose over for tacos and a movie (which for them is like being bathed in the holy water of sour cream and big screen entertainment). Rose came home with a belly ache from eating too much, but also pleased that she hadn’t missed out on over-eating. Between shared school and soccer practice and then their date at Tara’s, Dan and I hadn’t seen much of them all day and were full of questions. They filled us in on everything, chattering and interrupting, jockeying to share first and most, until Col finally said, “You know, the only thing that really matters is that we’re all here safe and sound.” (Because apparently it’s never to soon to become your own wise grandpa).
Col, the wise old grandpa feeding his little buddy Irie. (Irie’s dad, Sage, lived downstairs for many years. Which is to say, if you too once lived downstairs from us and want to bring your baby over for general uplifting and merriment, please do!)
I am a dandelion salad. There is nothing to be afraid of.
I read this gorgeous and intense book in Indonesia, and when I got to the excruciating part where a very important decision had to be made, a decision that either way was going to be devastating for at least one entire family, I recounted the story to the kids, wanting to see if they saw any other option for the characters. They were so engrossed that during the half hour it took to catch them up on the plot, a thousand little insects drowned in my curried vegetables. The story takes place post-WWII on a tiny, isolated island off mainland Australia. The main characters are resilient, independent lighthouse keepers who desperately want to be parents and receive a very complicated opportunity. The writing is gorgeous, the plot engrossing, and you will find yourself empathizing with each flawed and relatable character. This powerful quote has stayed with me: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
A Thousand Naked Strangers (by the way, do not innocently Google images for this title at the library or anywhere that isn’t safe for photos of actual naked people packed interactively in a jeep) is a fascinating account of a man’s ten years working as a paramedic in emergency medicine in Atlanta. Kevin Hazzard has seen it all and is unsentimentally honest about it. He and his partners are always waiting—nervously, excitedly—for the BIG CALL. And it comes, many times in many forms. Hazzard catches great details, like the man who, before his adult son (experiencing cardiac arrest) was rushed into the ambulance, asked Hazzard to grab the pack of smokes in his son’s pocket. This is a book full of wrenching, fast-paced, shocking, fascinating, darkly humorous stories, but never depressing or dramatically morbid. Rather, it’s an insider’s look into a very real, very important line of work.
The day after my friend Melanie brought Quiddler to our house I ordered it and we’ve been playing it daily upon Col’s request. It’s technically a spelling game, or a word-making game, but it doesn’t feel educational in that cloaked way that parents often try to sneak past kids’ radars. It’s dynamic and fast paced and you can be like Dan and come up with long, fancy words, or be like Rose and make a lot of 2- and 3-letter words for the same amount of points. (You can also be like Rose and be shocked that it’s your turn again after only seven cartwheel intermissions. You can also be like Col, whistling earsplittingly between asking, “Is quert a word? How about squert?”).
Almost every night we’ve been eating dandelion salads. This has something to do with the equation: two million free dandelions live ten steps from our kitchen + highly nutritious = dandelion salad. Spring is the perfect time to eat dandelions, they are only mildly bitter, and easily offset by adding apples, raisins, nuts, and a tasty dressing. And really, you will start to enjoy that feisty little nip over time, so much so that lettuce begins to appear suspiciously like the baby rice cereal of life: a bland way to enter the world of actual salads.
Our silly kids can’t yet be persuaded to eat dandelion salads, but their friends Seneca and Fawn, who’ve been dining with us on Mondays, love them so much that last night as I was taking these photos, Seneca, who is allergic to nuts, said nervously, “Did you remember about me and walnuts, Rachel?”
Seneca’s dandelion salad, with sunflower seeds and raisins!
My award-winning (at the esteemed dandelion cook off held by Hummingbird Herbals back in 1998) dandelion pesto recipe here.
P.S. if you ever want book recommendations, go to the Category on my right side bar called “What I’m Reading.” Like so.
What are you reading and eating?
Oh, it’s greening up with such promise here. The trees are in that baby stage, hatchling leaves erupting and surrounding the limbs like a fuzzy green cloud. (Also possible that I need a new glasses prescription. Do the trees look sort of fuzzy-green to you right now?).
The lemon-yellow goldfinches swarm our feeder, becoming more colorful by the day. (I would normally think this was my well-known tendency toward exaggeration, but Dan confirmed that the goldfinches actually become progressively brighter during their breeding season, peaking in May. Exciting illustration here).
Mornings, we all gather at the windows, gasping in delight at the brightening trees and birds, our collective blood pressures dropping, our heartbeats synching up. And then our neighbor’s cat slinks predatorily into the picture and the birds evacuate in an explosion of panicky feathers.
How like my mind this is! So quick to pounce on a lovely scene, claws extended with fear and fretting. I had recently convinced myself that the problem with my children was that at 11 and almost 9 they hadn’t made anything of themselves yet; somehow they weren’t, like, completely passionate about, I don’t know, writing comic books, or kayaking, or chicken husbandry. And somehow, if I had done something different when they were little, everyone would be spending their free time preparing for the quilting bee state championships or at least cheerfully decluttering their rooms. (Rose recently told me, “You know that pile of clothes in front of my dresser? I took care of it! I slid it under my dresser).
And Col actually said to me last night, on the occasion of me washing dishes for the fifth time that day, “You do so much for us, and in return we do so little for you.”
Me: “Would you like to do more?”
Col: (thinking for a nanosecond) “No.”
Of course, the neighbor’s cat eventually gets spooked (could have something to do with us pounding on the window fiercely) and prowls away. And my mind—the fearful, analyzing and judging section— too, scampers off to do something more useful, like entertain the possibility that everything is, in fact, ok.
It’s hard to remove the worry-colored glasses that get affixed to your face about 3 minutes after your children’s conception. Dan told me recently, with concern in his voice, that when he jumps on the trampoline with the kids, Col can only go about five minutes before wanting to fall into a snuggle session with him. “It’s kind of strange,” Dan said, his face pained. “Honey,” I replied gently. I think that’s actually lovely.”
Any parent knows, soon as your newborn squints up at you all cross-eyed and utterly helpless, your heart pounds with fierce devotion followed by maybe the smallest bit of concern about those weird crossed eyes. Which is to say, motherhood is like submerging yourself in an ocean: vast waters of boundless love inextricably and forever salted by your own fears. While baby Jesus was visited shortly after birth by three wise men acknowledging his greatness, the rest of us were visited by nurses whispering of car seat regulations and newborn screening tests.
But I can hear my mom saying, “Love doesn’t have to be so neurotic.” I know. I want to free up my mind to trust that my children are always evolving, adjusting, growing, developing, learning. They are working out hard shit everyday. If I want them to lean into the light, I must at least be one source of that light, beaming trust and belief upon them. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye towards what needs attention, but practicing discernment so I don’t get swept under the bus of needless worry.
Worry sucks all the joy from your mind, inventing and distorting facts. Worry points to the tiny storm cloud in the distance when right now the sun is shining on your beautiful children sailing ever higher on the trampoline, their laughter sweetening the air.
Signs that we’re truly home: (I think there’s a dreamy part of us still in Indonesia. I have weird grieving spells over the possibility of maybe never eating a ripe, raw jackfruit again. And the kids ask regularly where we’re going next).
:: World class shit shovelers: (And available for hire! Rose says she’ll deliver complimentary chocolate with each bucket of manure).
:: Dan apparently biked out of the woods with this bull elk skull on his back (and another pair of deer antlers). He says his bike needs a small tune up now. Here he is scraping out the molderingly fragrant brains with a chisel and calling out to rotten brain-phobic Rosie, “Hey Rosie, did you check out these brains?”
:: The root cellar apples are rising up slightly bruised and selectively moldy like the ghost of fall preservation, meaning Dan spent last weekend saucing approximately 256 apples. “Does this mean we picked too many apples last fall?” I asked Dan. “Oh no, we just didn’t eat enough.”
Dan and I shared a camera for the three weeks we were Indonesia. You can tell through the 300 assorted photos that while he was fascinated by the ancient stone carvings (we have, oh, about 8 photos of the statue of Hindu god Arjuna shooting his bow) and bamboo scaffolding (bamboo!) leaning against the sides of buildings under construction, for me it was all about the food and people.
Ancient ruins are fascinating and all, but what about these sticky rice treats sweetened with palm sugar and rolled in coconut? I asked the Javanese woman serving these what gave them the bright color. “Oh, all natural, colored with leaves,” she reported.
I decided to believe her, and more importantly not to care. I was so determined to eat like a local that earlier in the very hot day (Indonesia is hot and humid. It feels like every air molecule is exhaling its own continuous drop of hot water) I bought two “popsicles” for Col and Rose. I had seen a bunch of kids sucking colored ice out of a plastic bag and followed the children to the source. After paying 10,000 rupiah (80 cents) for two popsicles, I watched a barefoot man run a block of ice across a blade and catch the shaved ice into his hand before sliding it into a plastic bag and squirting a large bloop of sugary food dye in the bag.
(Before having to fully confront my position on Red Dye # 4 vs. eating as the locals do, I remembered that we couldn’t actually drink the water, and passed the popsicles onto some local kids).
At a traditional outdoor dance performance in Probolinggo, Java, while everyone else was watching the impressive costumes, Rose and I were using rudimentary, invented sign language to communicate with the group of girls who had circled around her, giggling, wanting to practice their English. (Besides the island of Bali, the rest of our stops were to Indonesian islands where pale faces like ours were unusual).
“Your age?” we asked, counting on our fingers in demonstration.
Quiet contemplation followed by fierce discussion in their local dialect, including playful punches and hair-pulling.
“Ten. Number one. Ten number one!” they replied.
“Yes! Elay-vahn! Elay-vahn!” They shrieked.
I pointed to Rose and held up eight fingers.
“Ahh…yes,” they said, turning to each other and giggling.
The three girls conferred in rapid-fire Bahasa and then parsed, slowly and carefully, “How. Do. You. Do?”
“Good!” We answered. “How do you do?”
“Yes!” They replied, punching each other playfully and falling apart in laughter.
Rice fields. Home to frogs, herons, water rats, egrets, snakes, free-ranging dogs, chickens, ducks and cats. One night, walking along the rice field paths, we passed a barefoot man with a machete. No problem.
After a few weeks in Indonesia, you begin seeing Americans as this slightly different species: large, pale and quick to sweat. You realize you’ve spent your life cultivating innumerable preferences and sensitivities (“I like eggs but only fried in coconut oil with runny yolks, heavily salted…”) while every Indonesian you’ve met explains cheerily, “We eat rice three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner!” (Besides fruit, the only desserts we had in Indonesia were also rice-based, including an amazing black rice pudding).
You begin to wonder how much effort goes towards maintaining your own likes and dislikes, and whether the cheerful, friendly disposition of Indonesians is partially a result of being freed from myriad choices to have opinions about. Novelty is in low-supply in Indonesia. There is considerably less of what we like to think of as freedom, as ones birth comes with prescribed roles and expectations (including the understanding that you will make space for your elderly parents to move in with you someday). One man, a rice farmer, told us his 18-year old son wouldn’t be going to college. It was expensive, and for his son’s future, “high school was enough.”
The outdoor food markets were steamy warrens of commerce. As the sultry day wore on, women slept alongside their colorful displays. Cats, too, were sacked out in the heat, teats ripe with lactation. Bloated rats scurried under tables propping up baskets of fragrant jasmine flowers. Slaughtered chickens, laid bare in the heat, attracted battalions of insects.
Col and Rose were alternately filled with wide-eyed fascination and horror. The displays of fruit could send you into fits of desire. But, the live chickens—feet tied together—awaiting death, haunted Rose for days. (Had I forgotten to tell her about 99% of American chicken farming?) The fish, whole and silvery in the sun, were splayed on tarps, never having known refrigeration. For the vendors, shoes were optional, smoking (for men) typical.
Everything you’d need (and nothing you don’t) you could find at a local market: an abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, rice, tofu, chicken, spices, palm sugar, and nuts.
I bought a sack of veggies I could hardly heft for $6 (and I’m certain I was charged tourist prices) and spent the next five days happily obligated to sweet potato, eggplant, long beans, bok choi, cabbage, cucumber, bean sprouts and rice, seasoned with chiles, pineapple, lemongrass and fresh coconut milk.
Notice the long pants and long sleeves. We foreigners dripped sweat while sitting perfectly still long after the equatorial sun went down
If there is a residence (or business), there is laundry drying. I began to see laundry as its own sort of colorful prayer flags.
Children seemed generally trusted to do things that you don’t see here in America: 3 year olds sitting, wobble-torsoed on a bicycle pedaled by an older sibling; packs of kids walking home alone from school (at noon! Typical school closing hour) alongside the highway. We saw a group of small boys swimming unattended in the ocean (on Komodo Island, where a young boy from the fishing village had been killed by a dragon), and when a little boy began crying, it was an older brother who scooped him up and comforted him. In the fishing village school is compulsory only until 4th grade, because what a fisherman needs to know, he learns from the sea.
In the big cities, driving was less of an organized, regulated process and more like water droplets flowing in and out and around each other. (When I returned to Colorado, I was immediately amazed at how much room cars allowed for each other on the highway). In Makassar, Sulewesi, a city containing over 2 million people and possibly no crosswalks, we watched four school children cross six, chaotic lanes of traffic simply by putting their hands out and muscling their way across the stream. Rather than streetlights, tree trunks lining the road are painted fluorescent colors.
Food was always beautifully presented. Pineapples were cut into architectural wonders, and vegetables were turned into colorful confetti to accent rice. Restaurant meals for six of us were between $12 – $20.
Col’s plate has tofu in peanut sauce. Meat (in the form of fish or chicken) was a flavoring, an accompaniment to vegetables. I saw no dairy in Indonesia at all. Mostly rice and fresh vegetables in amazingly flavorful sauces. I didn’t see any white flour and not much dessert. People seemed generally lean, especially the men.
A dog lounging on the front steps of your restaurant? No problem. Is it your dog? Who knows? Restaurants, shops and houses were permeable. It was not unusual to see dogs wandering through a business. Geckos scaling your inside walls (and all the insects they sought) were neither special nor a nuisance.
Cabbages, harvested on the caldera below Mt Batur.
Fruit at a market in Bali. Oddly, the apples were imported, which I didn’t see at any other market (maybe from Australia?). From left to right, clockwise: mangos, apples, mangosteens, dragonfruit, snake fruit.
Motorbikes were the transportation of the people. I saw people with three flats of eggs strapped the back and a hunk of bananas at their feet. People traveled with six bags of concrete tucked into every surface plus all the family members who could fit. Col and Rose hopped on one whenever possible. One day they were offered a ride home from a restaurant while Dan, my mom and I decided to walk the 2 miles. After they were on their way, helmetless, with a driver I didn’t know, none of us with cell phones, I realized I had relaxed my American mind into the Bali way.
I’m ever grateful for the experience of a different culture, to see a man stopping traffic by waving a palm frond as his buddy 35 feet up in a palm tree drops coconuts to the ground; to wonder what exactly “grass jelly drink” means; to contemplate what we Americans have traded for convenience and comfort; and to experience a people who are beautiful and dignified, warm and generous.
Thank you for listening to the stories.
We’re home! It’s so good to be home (even if I’ve been lying around sick with a tonsil infection, binge-watching
educational documentaries Orange is the New Black on netflix). I feel forever, gratefully changed for the experience of spending three weeks in Indonesia.
And somehow, we are back to our normal Southwest existence.
Rose is noticing that she did better left-hand cartwheels in the Eastern hemisphere. Dan is asking if I can do something with the soured, raw cream in the fridge that smells too much like cow ass to put in his coffee, but apparently not enough like it to toss in the compost. Col is lobbying clemency for our hen who apparently turned into a rooster while we were away. (Rose is on Col’s side: “Other families don’t just kill animals all the time.” Huffy sigh). And I just made a vet appointment for Rose’s rat (who has an alarming abscess. ETA: now healed!) which may be the clearest sign that we’re back in a first world country.
After 24 hours of being home, Dan and I marveled at how our time in Indonesia was a brief and shallow swim across the surface of a hugely different world, but for those 249 million Indonesians, it’s just everyday life. Nyoman, the 63-year old man (whose wife is also named Nyoman – because the Balinese name their children according to birth order) is likely climbing a coconut tree barefoot to retrieve a coconut for a tourist, smiling without his full complement of teeth and insisting, “no problem,” a phrase we heard so much it may well be the national anthem. Baby ducks are eating cooked rice, and full grown ducks are peering out of cramped bamboo cages on the back of someone’s motorbike, rumbling off to market.
There was so much our American minds simply didn’t understand. How do the dogs navigate the busy streets? Who’s supervising those children swimming in the ocean? How can a family of four all fit on one motorbike (including bobble-headed infants, snoozing toddlers, texting teens)? Why are those boys carrying snakes in water bottles? Will anyone clear away these roadside piles of garbage? How do people drive in a city of 2 million with no traffic lights? (Rose asked one of our tour guides, “Are there any rules here?”)
“Camera please?” we were asked by many Indonesians who wanted to take photos with us. Besides Bali, the islands we visited were not tourist destinations and clearly people weren’t used to seeing white faces. Photos of Col and Rose are likely floating all around Indonesian social media.
Indonesia is mostly a muslim country, except the island of Bali, which is predominantly Hindu. It is illegal to buy guns in Indonesia, and despite the low standard of living, we saw no homeless people and I always felt very safe. One local explained that they simply took care of each other, feeding hungry neighbors, taking in elderly parents. That was their social security system. People were disarmingly friendly, generous and cheerful.
Every morning on Bali people leave beautiful and ephemeral offerings for the Hindu gods. Placed inside woven baskets of banana leaves are assortments of fresh flowers, a small bit of food and incense. These are so ubiquitous, found in front of every home and business, also on people’s car dashboards, check-out counters of major grocery stores and the airport. I found them to be beautiful and uplifting. Rose asked, “What do we do for the gods everyday?”
These are the rangers on Komodo Island, charged with keeping the highly dangerous dragons away from visitors with forked sticks: (the dragons’ attunement to the smell of blood is so great that menstruating women or anyone with open cuts were advised to forego the tour).
This is a two-way street in Bali.
We didn’t exactly plan to feed this dog we met on the island of Lombok after swimming in the Indian Ocean (The Indian Ocean!), but she really liked coconut. The man selling coconuts for 20,000 rupiah (about $1.50) said to us with maybe the tiniest bit of amusement, “Maybe you buy another coconut for your dog?”
For the first time, I think I understand why people love to travel. How everyday your senses are unlocked, your mind cleared for the next inexplicably fascinating, confusing, amusing, odd and delightful moment. How, somehow it’s both disorienting and reassuring to be somewhere where English is not the first language. Ultimately, I am an ever-grateful resident of the pinyon and juniper, the high desert mountain landscape, although now I feel a little more like a world citizen.
More coming. So much more to share.
- I am still unplugged in Indonesia. Here is a little post I put together back in my other life.
Some day when Col and Rose are grown they’ll recall rambling through spruce trees with Dan on a bow shoot, flinging arrows at rotting stumps. They’ll remember tromping all over forested tarnation searching for bolete mushrooms, small hands plunged into their father’s cupped palm. Dan will star in their memories as the man who taught them to chop firewood and to fish, who orchestrated wrestling matches and ad-hoc soccer games, who opened stuck jars and always had the right tool to fix whatever was broken.
And then, they’ll remember their mother: reclined on our singular, smudged, long-suffering couch, their kid-bodies piled into my soft edges, me reading to them.
There is always a book we’re reading, the three of us. We read to connect, to relax, to tame the wild chaos that bubbles up daily. We read to learn, to travel (without leaving the couch), to numb our hot mental wiring, and to better examine our own lives. Reading is my favorite thing to do after, well, breathing (sorry, honey, that’s #3).
The three of us are our own tiny, nepotistic book club, wondering, collectively, how the Baudelaire orphans will break their cycle of unfortunate events; or commiserating together that there will be no sequel to Huck Finn, ever. (Which was an interesting bedtime book, what with Huck’s perennially drunk dad, the school beatings from teachers, and of course the whole slave issue). We’re all fierce Roald Dahl groupies; we’ve written fan mail to local writer, Will Hobbs (and received a response!); the original Winnie the Pooh stories, written almost 100 years ago, make us quake with laughter.
Reading to Teo, 2016
When the kids—tucked into their beds—rise up and protest the closing of a book (“One more chapter!” they chant like fans demanding an encore), I am likely to concede. Just yesterday when Rose asked how blind people get their sight back, Col sighed and said, “They don’t. Remember Mary?” And we instantly knew he was referring to Mary Ingalls, sister to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had perfect sight in Little House in the Big Woods, and horrifyingly, had lost it by On the Shores of Silver Lake.
I don’t read the kids books that I don’t enjoy myself, because there is so much truly excellent children’s literature. EB White (author of Charlotte’s Web and more), said “all that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love this world.” Which is exactly how we all felt by the end of the Harry Potter series, that we loved this world and all its possibilities just a little more deeply.
I have come to realize that at least half of our homeschooling takes place on our couch, me reading aloud to the kids. Reading about the Joads (in The Grapes of Wrath) traveling with 12 family members piled in one truck across the west, gave the kids the most vivid picture of the Depression I could hope for. Plus, upon finishing the book, we got to enact a 3-person rally celebrating the spirit of the working class rising up against the machine of big corporations. Now we’re reading a 14-year old American girl’s diary from 1942. (Col wishes it had more about WWII; Rose would like more information on what groceries they bought).
I can chronicle my parenting life through reading, from the days of crossing my fingers, germ-wise, while the kids gummed board books at the library; through exhausting the Dr Seuss canon (again and again); through the grief of finishing the Harry Potter series; to today, Col beelining for the 5-pound, non-fiction aviation books in the adult stacks at the library. The library is our second home, its shelves containing the most compelling magic outside of Hogwarts. Actually, a building full of free, constantly rotating books is the most supreme wizardry I can imagine.
Here is a list of books we’ve especially loved. (I linked to Amazon out of laziness, but please consider getting books from your local library, independent book store or from Better World Books, which has a social and environmental conscience and free shipping!).
BOOKLIST (for ages approx 5 – 100)
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
These great, humourous adventure stories take place along the banks of the Mississippi River in the mid 1860’s when school isn’t compulsory and teenage boys learn real life practical skills. Beneath the rowdy rule-breaking, is great compassion and willingness to buck the law when it comes to odious legislation like slavery.
My Side of the Mountain and Other Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
A boy goes to the woods to see if he can survive. He develops a small community of wild animal companions, and goes through the highs and lows of solitude, while connecting with the land through the seasons.
Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is such a delightful series about a homesteading family in the mid-late 1800’s. The family is full of gratitude even when times are hard (which is practically always), and your children will learn about how fun it can be to play with a pig bladder water balloon when you don’t actually have toys.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
This book weaves Chinese legends and Buddhist principles into a delightful story of a girl’s hero’s journey.
Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis
Engaging classic stories, wonderful, funny writing. The warfare can get a little tedious.
Charlottes Web by EB White
A favorite. Beautiful, endearing writing, and going out on a limb for friendship.
All original Winnie the Pooh books by A.A. Milne
Oh the laughter! The vulnerabilities and earnestness of the small animals! Any book that invokes laughter in multiple generations is worth reading. Multiple times.
Everything by Roald Dahl, but especially BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl is the master of storytelling, painting pictures so vivid and suspenseful and engaging. Although he wrote over thirty books for kids in his lifetime, I only wish there were more.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (warning: there are 13 books. We were entrenched for months). Plucky orphans on a never ending journey for answers.
Kokopelli’s Flute, Bearstone and Beardance by Will Hobbs
Historical fiction (most taking place in the Southwest) with protagonists that are delightfully, honestly imperfect, and have amazing adventures.
Wonder by A.J Palacio
This book is about a child (and his family and friends) with a facial deformity. The author tells the story through several different narrators, allowing you to picture what it would be like to be the mother, sister, friend of this boy, allowing readers to experience empathy for all involved.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery
About the ridiculousness of grown ups and their concern with “matters of consequence,” none of which include speaking with flowers and other important kid-knowings.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
Oh man, this is a sad book. But also a beautiful, intriguing story about true friendship.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This book, based on a true story, is about an Indian girl who accidentally gets left behind on an island when her tribe leaves. She fends for herself, creates a special alliance with a wild dog, and survives on her sheer wits.
I often feel nostalgic for books the kids and I have read together, these books being a placeholder in my memory for their different ages. Like Charlotte’s Web. I did cry when the spider died, but was even more moved by the very last lines of the book, where the narrator muses, “it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Oh! Good writing is such excellent company.
please share your book faves!
- I am still unplugged in Indonesia. I have a little pre-scheduled post for you all, because I love you.
The interior of the wall tent we borrowed for hunting season. Sort of like summer camp with animal hides!
(Remember I was going to share Part Two of my hunting story? Here it is:)
There are realities about standing over an animal, newly dead, that I am not prepared for. First, to call that bull elk, slumped and emptied of breath, “inanimate” seems a misnomer. There’s the way the muscles, unhusked from hide and already more meat than agent of movement, occasionally and rapidly twitch. Second, one hour post mortem, a release of internal gasses roars so startlingly and without warning from the animal’s mouth that I flinch and duck….Read the rest of Modern Day Artemis II here.
Modern Day Artemis I is here
Also, Dan wrote an excellent story for Edible Southwest Colorado about his DIY meat smoker constructed on the fly at 11,300. Read about it here.
Smoke-cured bull elk tenderloin.
We’re in that tween stage of seasons, where during the middle of the day you might feel an inkling of spring thawing and unfurling. Then, the hammer of night falls and no one wants to go outside and lock the chickens up because it’s cold and dark and wintry, and we’re all kind of banking on Dan doing it anyway. Also, what is happening right now is Col is looking under our stove for “stuff to trade with Rose.”
And then Dan turns to me and winks, “Hey – who said you couldn’t have a gymnastics routine in 800 square feet?”
So, did you notice my subtle little reference to 13,500 islands and maybe are wondering what that was all about? The crazy wild news is that tomorrow we’re boarding a plane for Indonesia (which is made up of approximately 13,500 islands). We’re going with my parents (which should seem obvious, because you know, we hardly like to leave the zipcode unless it’s to Utah or New Mexico, in which case we’re like, “wow – it’s so excitingly foreign here!”).
We’ll be on a boat sailing around and visiting Indonesian islands for a large chunk of time, and then staying in a house in Bali and eating a lot of exotic fruit. (Dan has been reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s Indonesian journals to us, in which the fruit, durian, is described as: “a rich, highly-flavoured butter-like custard…with a smell akin to open sewers.”
We’re all terribly excited and committed to going with the flow (we hear life in Indonesia is a bit more, well, relaxed than here). I’ve been trying to connect with a school teacher in Bali so we can meet her students. She suggested I clear it with the school’s headmaster. Do you have his e-mail? I asked her. Nope, she did not. Also, all students are currently on a 2-week vacation for Hindu holidays.
At some point in the densely crowded city of Jakarta, we’ll need to find this address (which could be enough adventure for all three weeks in itself) to board our boat:
JL.Raya Pelabuhan No.8 Tanjung Priok Jakarta 14310, Jakarta.
We all have our own small anxieties. Me: How will I bring enough books to read? Rose: Will I get to sit next to Mama on every plane flight? Dan: How will I get my marital needs met while sharing a room with 2 offspring? Col: Will they make me homeschool in Indonesia?
I am not bringing my computer and look forward to being unplugged from technology and plugged into the family and Asia. Asia! I have some posts set up to automatically show up on Mondays, though Monday in America is not Monday in Indonesia, but my blog is still hosted in America…anyway, hopefully it all works.
With so much LOVE,
p.s. Thank you for all your shares and feedback on my last post. We’re all in this together. 100%.
One day, back at the start of winter Col was heading outside jacketless, in sneakers. Six inches of fresh snow had just fallen. I stared at his snow boots in the hallway and immediately flashed ahead to his adulthood, where I saw him living in a cardboard shanty, still unable to match his clothing to the season.
No one likes unsolicited advice, so I practiced my childbirth breathing, still forming a response when Dan stepped in and said, “Col, I bet those sneaks are way more comfy than your boots.”
It was like someone pressed the decelerate button on my nervous system. Dan tossed out every other potential response (condemning, warning, advice-giving, ridiculing) to say, essentially, “I can understand that choice.” And then Col, having no position to defend, explained how last year’s hand-me-down boots rubbed his heels uncomfortably. And then we bought him new boots. And he’s worn them everyday since then.
I have approximately 647 blind spots when it comes to my children, all of which have to do with fear.
Our fears often come from stories we tell ourselves about how it should be, stories in which our agenda is in conflict with what is actually happening. This activates anxiety. Maybe we value resiliency and optimism, and when we hear our child express negativity we panic. Maybe we want a child who always tells the truth, but there was an incident where the truth didn’t feel safe to tell. If we can relax our agenda and look deeper, we can make room for understanding.
Understanding: The antidote to fear
Generating understanding can be a powerful antidote to our own fear, actually dismantling our anxiety in the moment. It is an act of love that shines light into the dark, cramped places where we stuff our scariest feelings. Receiving understanding, or empathy, is like putting down the pack full of rocks you’ve been toting around while being led to the sunny meadow of relief. (We’ve been studying empathy experientially in my nonviolent communication group for the past 6 weeks, and I swear, we all walk out of there purring).
I’ve noticed that there are many things we want for our children. We want them to be confident, responsible and to communicate clearly; we want them to resist peer pressure, to care for others, and to always start written sentences with a capital letter. We forget that their brains are still forming, that everyday is an opportunity for practice, that we can help plant seeds by modeling our values. When they receive understanding or empathy, their system floods with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection. It is from this place that their frontal cortex, “the reasoning brain” can make decisions and act.
Sometimes, as I’m searching for the right words, I just start with, “I can understand that,” because it sends a quick signal to my brain to prioritize connection over being right. Sometimes it’s easy, like when Rose plops on the couch after eating 5 waffles, and says, “I want to do cartwheels but my belly is sooo full.”
And sometimes it’s harder, like when Col says something hurtful to Rose, something aimed to wound. If I can tamp down my Mama bear sirens, I can say, “Hey, are you angry at Rose? I can understand how sometimes when we don’t express our anger or disappointment or jealousy, it can fester and come out ugly.”
Examples from our own life: (most from today!)
I can understand that this math feels pointless. You’re not using much math yet in your day to day life.
I can understand that you want everything to be exactly fair between you and your brother. You feel left out when he gets something you don’t.
I can understand that you felt jealous at your friend’s birthday, watching her open so many presents was really hard. You’d like all those new, fun things.
I can understand that you don’t want to walk to shared school, it sounds much easier to drive.
I can understand that you don’t want your sister around when your friend comes over, it feels like she takes over and that’s not fun for you.
I can understand that it feels more enjoyable to read than respond when we’re asking you to help out. It’s normal to gravitate towards what feels good.
I can understand that you want some time to snuggle all alone with me without your sister. That feels really special.
- Understanding, or delivering empathy doesn’t mean looking for a solution. We still walked to shared school this morning. Col completed his “morning math.” We didn’t “fix” Rose’s jealousy by buying her something. Being understood is usually enough to soothe the painful feelings and move on.
Steps Towards Understanding
1. Deliver Self Empathy. This is like a rescue breath, or putting your own oxygen mask on first. This slows the spinning out into fearful story (see above: cardboard shanty). Self-empathy is simply recognizing what you’re feeling, without necessarily needing to act. Ex: I’m feeling anxious and triggered. I want to be assured that my kid can always make beneficial choices. This is really hard. Watch how this self empathy relaxes your nervous system in the moment.
2. Recognize your biases and labels. If you’re thinking in absolutes, this may be a sign you’re seeing something in a biased way. Ex: my child always…, or my child never…, or my child is unmotivated, rather than, my child didn’t complete this week’s homework assignment on time. Erich Heller said, “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.”
3. Employ true observations and get curious. True observations are statements about what you have seen or heard, free of evaluation, judgement of blame. It’s like looking through the lens of a camera. Be specific and unemotional. Describe the sights and sounds you observe. “I noticed it’s 22F outside and you’re wearing a light jacket. What’s up?”
4. Prioritize connecting over being “right.” Your child will always benefit more from the lasting power of being understood than hearing your opinion or advice. In fact, all your excellent advice is indigestible until your child feels truly heard and understood. And then, in a “green light” moment, you can check in and see if your child is ready for information and suggestions.
To judge is human; to be understood is divine.