Category Archives: living

The Five Year Plan

Image by woodleywonderworks

My sister-in-law visited this past weekend and, in the midst of chatting about important things like the kids, plot developments on Grey’s Anatomy, and her new puppy (I’m not a dog person, but this little guy?  Cute.  Very cute), we got to talking as we often do about our short-term, long-term plans – where we see ourselves in five years.

Five years ago I was living in Connecticut, teaching history to highly motivated, high achieving high school students at a highly competitive prep school.  One of my classes that fall was Russian History, a seminar in which I taught my seniors about, among other things, Joseph Stalin’s Five Year Plans.  That semester Five Year Plans were all about collectivization and industrialization, catching up and getting ahead.

I never imagined what my own Five Year Plan had in store.

How could I have?  I was childless.  I was a teacher.  My husband was a PhD candidate just starting to hear about interviews at schools that might one day hire him.  I went to yoga four times a week.  I coached basketball.  I ate leisurely dinners with my husband and my friends.  I sipped coffee slowly.

How could I have foreseen that today, just five years later, I would be living in the Midwest, with my college professor husband and our three (!) kids, working as a part-time work-at-home writer?  (A writer!?  Where did that come from?)  That I would drive a minivan full of car seats?  That I would be a devotee of weekly date nights?

Looking back at that younger woman, I wonder what her dreams were.  I suspect that I am living many of them.  I know I am living others she never conjured.

It’s remarkable – isn’t it? – the way our lives unfold in scripted and unscripted ways.  We dream and we plan and then we find ourselves in places beyond our imagination.

Who knows where I will be five years from now?  I look ahead and see some likelihoods, some possibilities, and some not-even-considereds just starting to shimmer around the edges.

Instead of leaving a comment on today’s post, please take a moment and visit Big Little Wolf to learn about the important work she is doing to help raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant for Ashley Quiñones, aka the Kidney Cutie, aka the sister of Kelly Miller of The Miller Mix.

Is there anything you can do to help Ashley dream of a Five Year Plan of her own?

The Honor System

Image by The D34n

Last week I was talking on the phone with a friend who recently moved away from our small Midwestern town.  We were catching up on the start of the school year and her family’s adjustment to life in a new place, sharing stories about the different customs that seem to be attached to different communities.

Regaling me with details of her kids’ Halloween costumes – a ladybug and a Clone Trooper – she also shared with me an incident from their night that disappointed her and her kids.  Returning from their twenty minutes of trick or treating, they found the giant bowl full of “fun size” Snickers and Milky Ways they had left on their front steps labeled with a “Please take one” sign completely empty.

There weren’t many kids out and about at that early hour, my friend told me, so some of the trick or treaters had clearly seen this unattended candy bowl as a motherlode and filled their plastic pumpkins to the brim with ill-gotten loot.  Like her, her children – seven and four – were dismayed that the other trick or treaters hadn’t followed their request.  Where were these other kids’ parents, we wondered, perhaps a bit quick to judge.  Didn’t they notice when their ghost or butterfly returned to the curb weighed down with chocolate?

Our conversation got me thinking about the idea of an honor system, about what we can expect from our neighbors, and shook loose two memories from my past.

When I was little, an eldery woman in our neighborhood sold tomatoes from her garden on a card table set up in her front yard.  The quarts of tomatoes sat on the table and customers were expected to take their tomatoes and leave their money at her door.  I remember my mom pulling over in front of her modest house; she would take a container and bring the money up to the door of the house, maybe leaving it on the stoop if the gardener wasn’t home.  I remember wondering if anyone ever drove up, took tomatoes, and fled the scene, leaving the woman in the lurch.  It is a sign of the G-rated nature of my childhood that I imagined this as an unfathomable deed.

I then thought back to my years of teaching.  In my last job before my kids were born, I taught at a high school where the students had to sign “I Pledge My Honor” and their names at the bottom of every piece of work they turned in.  I was never convinced that the gesture had much meaning, attached, as it was, so mindlessly to every history term paper, math problem set, and 9th grade homework assignment.  My suspicions were sadly confirmed when a girl in my AP European History class turned in an essay – copied verbatim from the AP website – with the pledge and her name elegantly signed on the bottom.

I have always been a rule follower.  I would have only taken one piece of candy.  I would have always paid for tomatoes.  I would have never plagiarized, let alone signed my name to a pledge promising that I hadn’t.  And examples of people not playing by the rules – especially in a community setting, when your misdeed clearly affects someone else – bother me maybe more than they should.

But I’m left wondering about reasonable expectations.  I’m convinced that the gardener of my childhood could reasonably expect her tomatoes to be safe from produce thieves.  I’m convinced that my AP history student should reasonably be expected not to cheat on her essay.

But is it reasonable to expect sugar-hyped kids not to give in to the urge to horde candy?  It’s certainly fair – certainly reasonable – to ask them not to, but is it really so surprising that my friend and her kids returned home to find an empty bowl?

How do you model honor and honesty for your kids?  What do you think of honor codes in schools?

Piles

Image by lotyloty

Lately I feel like my life consists of piles.

On the ledge next to the staircase: triaged mail.  Thank you notes to write, bills to pay, correspondence that needs attention.

On the kitchen counter: child art work.  The preschool apple unit, the bear unit, the pumpkin unit.  Worksheets with handwriting practice.  The number 1, the number 2, the number 3.

On the floor of the pantry: detritus. Dust bunnies, Goldfish crumbs, green sprinkles.

On the coffee table: New York Times crossword puzzles.  Abandoned.  Semi-abandoned.  Complete.

On the couch: borrowed Halloween costumes.  Too small.  Too big.  Just right.

Next to my bed: books.  Christmas gifts from 2009.  Loaned from friends.  Borrowed from the library.

On the chair next to my dresser: clothes.  Clean and draped.  Clean and folded.  Semi-worn and tossed in a heap on top.

Next to my desk: more books.  Read and annotated.  To be read and to be annotated.

In our playroom: my children’s piles.  Legos, dinosaurs, blocks.  Highlights magazines, library books, puzzles.  Couch cushions and Pillow Pets jury-rigged into a fort.

Outside my window: leaves.  Rusty red, sunburst orange, being raked by the kids next door.  They gather them up and then leap into them, scattering them into the air and then back down on the ground.

Dispatching their piles without a care.

I’m jealous of those kids, not only because I am inside working while my kids nap on this magnificent – perfect really – autumn afternoon.  I’m jealous because they seem to know how to get rid of their piles.  If only I could get rid of mine so easily: lifting them lightly onto my palm, making a wish, and blowing them away.

Piles or no piles, I am one of the lucky ones.  I know that.  A majority of working mothers say that they would prefer to work part time.  That is my preference too – for now, at least – and that’s what I get to do: I work part time, from home.  I get to spend lots of time with my kids and I get to do work that I love.

But what I haven’t figured is how to deal with all of those piles, how to keep track of the rest of the stuff that makes up a life.  All of that household management that I used to sneak in between naps and meal preparation and my turn in Candy Land.

I’ve heard it said that you can have it all, just not all at once.  But I have to disagree; you can have it all: you can have a family and a career.

And, apparently, piles.

What’s in your piles?  Are you an efficient household manager?

The Woman on the Bike

Image by godber

I see her every time I run.

While on the homestretch of my workout, I see the woman on the bike approaching from the other direction.  Sometimes I even hear her before I see her, the sound of her slender wheels cutting through the water on the trail announcing her approach.  Her chin-length hair curls out from under her olive green newsboy cap.  She hunches over the handle bars, her over-sized t-shirt billowing around her small frame as she pedals.  Two large saddlebags hang over her rear wheel.

She never looks up, keeps her eyes trained on the trail ahead of her.  She doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t gaze out at the cornfields on her left or the changing foliage on her right.  She looks straight ahead.

The first time I saw her, I turned and smiled and called out my standard “Good morning!”  She did look at me that time, but didn’t return the greeting, just turned back to the trail and pedaled on down the road.

Like me, most of the other folks on the trail – runners, joggers, walkers, parents with strollers – look up when they pass a fellow traveler and offer their own form of greeting: a smile, a nod, a cheery “Chilly out this morning!”

But she never does.  Even if she and I are the only people anywhere in sight, she keeps her eyes focused ahead and speeds past me as though I am nothing more than a deer in the woods or the bark on the tree.

And for some reason I take this personally.  I decide that she’s rude.  Or odd.  Or antisocial.  That she has an attitude problem.

I don’t stop to think about why she doesn’t smile.  Or even make eye contact.  What might be weighing down her shoulders, what load she is carrying in those saddlebags.  Maybe she just wants to be left alone.  Maybe she wants this chance to work out a problem in her head with only the trees and squirrels for company.  Maybe she is biking toward something she’d rather be headed away from.

Are you the kind of person who makes eye contact and smiles at passersby?  What do you think this tendency says about you?

Do you ever make up back stories for strangers?

Born to Run?

Image by godber

I’m running again.

After a multi-year layoff during which I had my kids, I started running about a month ago, with the support of my husband, my sister-in-law, and the geniuses behind the Couch-to-5K running plan.

I love the way I can be in the moment when I run.  I notice the dappled sunlight on the corn fields I run past; the mama deer eyeing me suspiciously, then dashing off into the woods as I plod past her and her fawn; the old train switch being overtaken by the undergrowth, going back to nature.  I feel the slickness of the dew on the trail, feel my laces tickling my ankles.  I smile and greet the family of four, the mom pushing the double-stroller, the dad jogging ahead and then back again, keeping pace with his family while getting his exercise, performing that balancing act we parents know so well.

One foot, then the other.  I just go.

I’ve also been trying to sneak sessions of yoga into my weeks.  Life has been, well, hectic these last few months and I figured that yoga would help me find my center, calm me down, remind me to take deep breaths.  Yoga has done that for me in the past, and I’ve always thought of it as a touchstone, a place I could come back to again and again, to be that girl once more, the one who practiced most days, who found refuge in the studio.

But I’m not that girl anymore.  And the yoga’s not doing it for me right now.  Part of that might have to do with the fact that my town doesn’t have a yoga studio, or even a decent yoga teacher, so it’s been me and Shiva Rea and my worn-out DVDs on my laptop in the basement.  And it’s hard to find your zen when you’re fighting both monkey brain and periodic crashing sounds from above (Lego towers continue to be built and demolished upstairs no matter what I’m doing beneath).

With yoga these days, I can’t seem to find my flow.

According to University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow means “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  

Whatever stock you put in the current happiness industry, it’s hard to deny the power of flow, wherever you find it – in your work, your hobbies, or your relationships.

When you achieve flow, you’re not thinking about it.  It just happens.  And so I fear I jinxed myself by going to yoga seeking something.  Instead, I found flow where I was looking for something else – outside, on the running trail.  I went in for some time alone, a chance to get back in shape.  And what I’m finding are some of the best moments of my day, where goals and worries fall away and I just am.  In the flow.

Where do you find your flow?  

Have I mentioned that I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan?  I suspect that the E Street Band definitely knew all about flow.  To wit:

The Correctionists Take on Preschool (Again)

Too bad no one on the “experience” staff of Little Einstein Learning Center took time to proofread their Yellow Pages advertisement.

Alas, it seems that bad grammar is plaguing our nation’s preschools.  (For more evidence, check out this post by Jana.)  But not to worry: the Correctionists are organized and ready to right these wrongs, one post at a time.

Want to learn more about the Correctionists?  Please read this introduction by Amy at Never-True Tales.

Have a great weekend and stay vigilant!  Bad grammar can strike at any time.

Ti-i-i-ime is on my Side

Image by bpende

Baby Sister is teething and the eruption of tiny peaks through her gums has caused her to take a hiatus from her usually stellar sleeping habits.  Last night, after I nursed her back to sleep, I found myself awake and restless so I started flipping through the Styles section of Sunday’s New York Times.

There I found an article by Pamela Paul about the continued allegiance of many to paper calendars despite the rising prominence of online ones.  Among the paper devotees are such luminaries as Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review; Elizabeth Beier, executive editor of St. Martin’s Press; and, perhaps most incongruously, Internet entrepreneur and founder of DailyCandy.com, Dany Levy.

This article struck me as particularly fortuitous since I had just abandoned my own online calendar system, finding it cumbersome to enter information via thumb and limiting not to be able to see a week at a proverbial glance.  In search of an oldie-but-goody solution, I spent way too many minutes at Staples last week choosing the perfect paper calendar.

My general love of office supply stores only mounts in late summer when the Back-to-School items nestle in alongside the usual Post-It notes and file folders.  I stroll down the aisles, longingly eyeing the fresh 24 packs of Crayolas, the sets of mechanical pencils, the notebooks cut so freshly that paper sprinkles scatter to the floor when you open them.

I have long felt the ebb and flow of my days tied to the school year – first as a student, then as a teacher, now as a professor’s wife and the mother of babies who are inching their way closer to their school years.  So it felt like home to surround myself with these instruments of study and to choose for myself among them an academic-year paper calendar, with its familiar font and reminders about Arbor Day and various Bank Holidays (UK).

Despite my newfound devotion to my iPhone and the hours I wile away on the Internet each day, I rank my love for paper books just below that for my family.  I like the physicality of their pages, the chance they give me to mark my favorite passages, the way they become part of my decor.

I think my preference for a paper calendar speaks to that same tactile instinct.  To a desire to put pen to paper instead of finger to button.  But it also speaks to my wish to have a life that is simple enough that it doesn’t need electronic syncing and e-mail reminders and frenetic beeping berating me to send a birthday card to my college roommate.  To be able to see, at a glance, that a week is filling up too quickly and to protect my time with a commitment to open spaces.  To keep time on my side.

It’s illusory, I suppose, to think that I can control my life by controlling my calendar.  But I’m going to stick with an old-fashioned solution to keep track of my newfangled life, hoping that the mix of old and new will help lead me toward that mythical thing called balance.

Do you keep a paper calendar or an electronic one?  Do you love office supply stores as much as I do?