Autumn is just about here, and I am grateful beyond words for so many things. Even as local and world upheavals distress my soul, so I breathe a prayer and turn my gaze to tasks at hand.
What is my part to play in this maelstrom we call life with all its guts and glory?
I wear a number of hats throughout my day: mom, teacher, homemaker, mistress of a critter kingdom that ebbs and flows with old age, sickness, and new life. Two kittens, Cheddar and Bradley, have taken over the house, completely flummoxing our perpetual pup, Misty, who honestly believed she owned the domain. Surprise! There’s always room for one or two more, and she didn’t get a vote. I keep the peace by making sure that all are well fed and housed, though gluttony and sloth serve no one.
I also keep track of the bodies buried at our cemetery and track down gravesites for interested family members when possible. Sometimes, it’s mission impossible. That’s an unpleasant reality. We don’t always get questions answered to our satisfaction. Especially if there are imperfect records and no tombstones. Families beware, if you want great-grandkids to visit your grave, leave a tombstone and a map so future generations can find it.
Tutoring adult GED has been an unexpected pleasure. It’s a fairly straightforward task—helping someone learn the basics that they missed, for whatever reason, along the way. Makes a big difference in self-esteem and job opportunities. An act of kindness that echoes back long after algebra 101 fades into the mist.
I am still writing, publishing, and recently added podcasting to my regular daily do. Since I have managed a challenging schedule for much of the year, I am going to slow production in October. I will continue with Kindle Vella Homestead episodes and podcasting content, but I plan to revamp and, perhaps, reinvent my media approach, praying to God to make it a bit more effective. Marketing has never been my forte, so I am working with someone this time. We’ll see how it works out. Optimism is a tough choice, but the alternative doesn’t appeal much.
I finished writing the fifth novel in my OldEarth series, OldEarth Melchior Encounter this week and have sent it off to my editor and proofreaders. My goal is to get it published with live links before Thanksgiving. The operative word here is goal.
Rain is pouring from a grey sky, shivering the yellow leaves on the cherry trees, while our hyperactive kittens pounce on each other and attack my knitting. Though there is a great deal wrong in the world, there is also a great deal that is right. Focusing my daily goals toward what is good and beautiful, becoming less self-absorbed, and releasing anger and pent-up frustrations in healthy rambles and friend-centered conversations makes for a quality life. After all, despair doesn’t want a helping hand but hope does.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
OldEarth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.
Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.
I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.
Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.
Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.
Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.
Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes. Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.
Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.
Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.
“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”
“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”
“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”
“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”
A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.
“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”
“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”
“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”
The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”
Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”
The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.
A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.
The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.
May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”
“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”
“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”
Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”
“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”
Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”
“You have any chocolate milk?”
“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”
A grin peeked through May’s eyes.
Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.
Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”
Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”
Until she wasn’t.
Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.
Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”
“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”
“Ma, you sure you want—”
The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.
Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.
Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”
“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”
“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”
His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.
After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.
One day I shared with my university professor father the name of a religious text I was using in my homeschool, and my dad snorted in disgust. “Use books with real material, for God’s sake!”
The I-couldn’t-shoot-through-it-with-a-laser-gun irony was not lost on me.
After all, every choice I made in my homeschooling environment reflected what I focused on vs. what I left out. Could I be faith-based and still be “real?”
I believe so.
The first question I had to conquer—What do I mean by faith-based?
I assumed that meant religious material. A Catholic textbook. A Christine online resource. But then I had to consider all the other elements in my life that take a great deal of faith. After all, I can’t check every resource, follow up on every university seminar and published medical report, read every commentary, click on every supporting link, or completely understand most of what makes the world go around.
Does the study of one or a cross-section of religions fall under faith-based? If so, researching and reporting on the historical significance of Judaism, the Old Testament timeline and stories, the parables of Jesus, the Catholic Church’s rise to power, the Reformation, the history of Islam, Buddhism, or any number of other religions would be not just valid but necessary components of any well-rounded curriculum.
But can anyone tell a story of faith accurately without faith?
Just the facts, ma’am.
If only it were that easy.
As I contemplate my computer, and that I haven’t a clue how it really works, the electrical signals and engineering genius that power my stove and refrigerator, radio waves undulating across the planet, to say nothing of all those powerhouse cell phones, I realize that I take almost every modern convenience on faith.
Educators and scientists insist that facts are repeatable and verifiable. But that’s not what tries my faith. I don’t question that my light switch works or that radio waves travel, or that computers compute. I simply don’t know how it all works and the repercussions each tool has on the human race.
Getting down to the basics, on a micro level, we are astonished every day at new discoveries. Rise to the macro level, and lo and behold; we are again amazed and dumbfounded by the wider universe.
Science and faith are different, but they are not polar opposites. There has to be some reason in faith and some faith in reason.
And it all comes down to free will.
Yes, siree, bob, that ol’ trusted and true bit of reality that everyone likes to question. Hence our active judicial system.
Ultimately, we decide what we believe.
Or we don’t. Then we do really confusing things like calling ourselves Catholic but insist that teachings, traditions, and sacramental graces need to change to match a modern set of credentials. Or we demand that our kids obey us without giving them any other reason than “because I say so.” Or we conclude that nothing much matters, and we’ll just be good because we feel that way. Unfortunately one person’s good might include drinking heavily and driving on the wrong side of the orange line.
I have spent a lot of time trying to discern what I believe in my human journey. I haven’t come to a whole lot of conclusions, but I have come to some. And these I hold dear. I live my faith with every breath of my body. When I deviate from my accepted creed, I’m not only uncomfortable, I am beside myself—untethered and aimless.
I pass my beliefs along to my children with all the generosity of a mother’s love, knowing full well that they have to decide what they will accept or let fall to the side.
Personally, I do not believe a secular system truly exists, though I agree that as a pluralistic nation, we have to make the attempt to remain impartial in public office and positions. Though if anyone wants to argue that our legal system isn’t based on personal, human value statements, I would beg to differ. It just depends on who is writing to the laws, who is passing them, and who is ignoring them.
The gift for me in homeschooling is that—like when making dinner—I use healthy ingredients in the day’s plan. Not that kids don’t snack on the side or aren’t influenced by a myriad of goodies…or baddies. That happens no matter what curriculum is offered. But while they are young and defenseless, I want to give them what my years of experience have taught me are valuable skills, facts, intuitive insights, and understanding. I throw in a lot of love and compassion as well.
I am a Catholic for very good reasons, and my faith has sustained me beyond reason. Most probably because I love and accept it. In a world swirling with disunity, I’ll take my faith in light of reason, chat with my dad, teach my kids, and learn from every experience that God gives me.
I have talked with a few anxious parents who are considering the merits of homeschooling their kids vs. trying to adjust to the “new educational normal,” which might change at any given moment.
Knowing full well that each family situation is unique, and no one is better qualified to make the educational call than the parents, I’d like to share a few thoughts and questions that have helped me in my homeschooling successes with eight kids over the last twenty years.
There are advantages and disadvantages to every system. The very aspects that make homeschooling great can also create nightmare scenarios, depending on how situations are handled. Consider these questions to get in front of problems so that no matter what system you choose, you can make the most of your kids’ educational opportunities.
1) What grade level for each class is most appropriate for your child? Sometimes a child is having trouble and needs an extra year to handle abstract concepts, or he or she may roar ahead and be ready to move on to the next grade after a few months. Perhaps a child is a grade level behind in math but is two grade levels ahead in reading. As a homeschooling parent, you can fine-tune the grade levels for each class to match the child’s exact needs for each subject.
2) What textbooks and materials will you use? Will you pick from an online established site or browse books available through Amazon or other resources? Do the books meet the state guidelines and teach a comprehensive course or are they supplemental material? Will there be extra materials for art, music, sports, and game experiences?
3) What will the curriculum look like? Will the kids follow a subject for the whole scholastic year or take classes for semesters? Or a bit of both—Algebra I for the whole year but Constitutional History for a single semester? Play around with your options and build a curriculum with motivational factors in mind. Kids may hate spelling tests, but they will likely endure those better if they get to include a semester doing something they love—like learning sign language, photography, or how to play the saxophone.
4) In consideration of the curriculum and yearend goals, what does the calendar look like? Each state has attendance requirements, but a homeschool can exceed that. We often had more days built into our year, so we could spend some of those days on less structured, fun activities. Also, illness comes into the picture at some point, and it helps to have make-up time built in.
5) On any given day, how many hours will the parent teach hands-on or lecturing, and how many hours will the student work on his or her own? In general, I found that my kids were more attentive to my instruction in the morning, and I left practice and follow up work until the afternoon. I also tended to leave the more fun/creative classes till later in the day. The kids were ready for outdoor sports activities and nature hikes after they had sat with books and hands-on materials in the morning.
6) What about field trips and out of the house adventures? Even if many places are closed down, there are still creative ways to extend learning outside the home. Pumpkin farms, dairy farms, a visit to a local business, (with the owner’s permission, of course) nature hikes, sketching tours, photo tours, library events, trips to public service sites, visits to elderly neighbors (with safety precautions in place), and other creative outside-the-house experiences help invigorate a child’s educational experience.
7) What will the grading system be based on? Pass/fail? A numeral system based on tests and quizzes? Corrected assignments and parental insight as to how well the material is understood through observation and conversations? Or a combination of all of these? It is a good idea to take notes or have a place to record this information. Also, it helps to pick out an end of the year or semester report card ahead of time so a parent knows what to look for. Do handwriting and attitude count?
8) How will disruptions—like unexpected guests, phone calls, unplanned emergencies—be dealt with? It can be hard to explain to relatives and friends, but homeschooling is a serious endeavor and needs to be treated with the respect of any other classroom setting. No, it’s not okay to extend recess to two hours so mom can deal with a side issue. At least, not more than once. The side issue needs to be put in its proper place as soon as possible.
9) Dreaded question—How will misbehavior be handled? It’s a good idea to set expectations right off the bat. Even though kids don’t usually plan to be “bad,” cause trouble, or give their teachers/parents a rough day, it happens. Bad moods, a poor score, a fight with a friend or sibling, even an unwanted vegetable on the dinner menu can create trouble. Get in front of it and discuss how disobedience and poor attitudes will be handled. Use lots of imaginary examples. Prudy Poortude cried through every spelling lesson and stomped her foot each time a new word appeared on her list… Get your kids to figure out how to deal with Prudy, and you’ll have a few ideas on how best to deal with them.
10) Last but certainly not least, how will excellent behavior be rewarded? Achievement is every bit as noteworthy as troublesome behavior. Reward the good stuff! If a child has excelled in an area, make sure that he or she knows it. That may simply involve a hug or a formal handshake. But tell your child in word and deed that they have done well. Sometimes—for going beyond and above excellence in classwork or extracurricular activities—chocolate chip ice cream is involved. Perhaps a new game? A special dinner? You know what your child loves best. Be sure to celebrate and remember to thank them.
That way, when they graduate, they may remember to thank you.
I’ve been homeschooling for twenty years and with each academic year, I discover new challenges. But that’s the adventure. To meet challenges head-on. Innovation is at the heart of homeschooling. But before I can look any scholastic year in the eye, I have to seriously consider three things.
First—What’s the big picture?
I had taught in private and public schools for years before I began homeschooling. And with any inside look, I knew there were serious issues in schools that needed to be addressed. I figured that, as a parent and an experienced teacher, I could do a pretty good job educating my children while swerving around some of the inevitable pitfalls of system failures.
One of my biggest goals was to give my family a sense of belonging and security. I wanted them to know where they belonged and understand their heritage and culture, as well as the bedrock of their religion. I hoped that academic success would rest on the shoulders of a well-formed secure personality. That also meant I had to reflect on who I was, what I believed, and where I belonged.
I thought this was a one-time research project. Ha!
Second—The Details…Oh, those pesky details!
I started out utilizing a homeschool template from an online Catholic resource that I figured knew more about home education than I did. It took me years and the reactions of several disgruntled kids to understand that I could no more accept a template someone else created than I should hand over the daily meal plan to a fast-food chain. I had to do research and apply textbooks, projects, and goals to each student individually. I also learned that there were a whole lot of online options and none of them were perfect. Picking and choosing became a way of life.
Third—Upheaval is a way of life—Accept it and keep going.
Ten years after I began homeschooling, my husband came down with Leukemia. Through the years he battled cancer, I still had to see that the kids could read, write, and calculate on grade level. It remained important that they measure with proficiency in academic exams. Organizing my priorities meant that though I had to focus on my husband’s needs, that didn’t give me permission to toss out my kids’ educational demands. If I couldn’t do the job I had to pass their academic education to someone or a system that could. I had to find a solution.
Turns out that the very flexibility of homeschooling and the nature of being able to follow an interest in depth allowed us to not only work around hospital visits, our grieving process, and manage our world in a whole new normal, but it gave us the opportunity to grow into our lives together.
The recent challenges involving a worldwide pandemic has only sent ripples along our educational front. Once again, we have been able to adjust as a whole family supporting each other through job losses, graduations without ceremonies, online internships, and bold new adventures away from home.
When I started homeschooling I had two young sons. Those two sons have graduated from their universities at the top of their classes and found productive opportunities for work. My eldest daughter is an award-winning senior, currently studying Math-Chemistry, and would dearly love to discover the answer to medical challenges that plague our human experience. My second daughter is in the Air Force planning on a nursing career.
I have four more kids coming along, two in high school, and two in junior high. They have each done well—at least in my eyes. The world will judge them in time.
Going back to point Number One—The Big Picture. I have realized that the picture changes as we grow. The details come in and out of focus, but we chase them down to find the best way of managing the task before us. And upheavals are a way of life. Like the laundry, I don’t expect to “get it all done.” I’ll die with a to-do-list in my hand.
Homeschooling is a way of life—as much for me as the kids.
Once again, I have learned that being kind to others, offering my time and attention, opens doors and windows I would never have thought possible. Living in a small town, I don’t have the reach of writers who live in a metropolis. Though I also know, after growing up and working in big cities, that the illusion of being “connected” can be very discombobulating. Being alone in a crowd sort of reality.
So, when I do connect with someone, I make an effort to mean my words and not simply use others for my own ends. I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me…
I connected with a Catholic writer, model, and actress on LinkedIn, Anne DeSantis, and we ended up chatting on the phone, discovering in the process that we had a lot in common. We are both about the same age, homeschooled our kids, and have similar life visions. Her schedule is busy. My life is full. It was hard to connect except here and there. But we both made the effort, though sometimes that meant we had to reschedule our chats three or four times.
We understood our limitations and just kept trying. I’ve introduced her to friends of mine online. She has introduced me to friends of hers. Sometimes the connections work out. Sometimes things fizzle out. But that’s part of the process. Being open to what might happen. To the good that is possible.
She recently connected me to a journalist for The Hollywood Times. That led to an interview. Me? And The Hollywood Times? A very unlikely combination, indeed. But I have learned to deeply appreciate my writer-friend Anne, and our journalist friend Jules, and their heartfelt, enthusiastic love for great stories.
Life is an unfolding mystery that encourages beauty and goodness. I’ll never know what is around the bend or over the next rise. But open doors and windows call. Beckoning me forward.
So, yeah, it’s that time of the year again. School arrives with all its rigor and tight schedules. The hot summer zigzags toward a mild autumn. Or so I hope. Late summer heralds the joy of cooler temperatures and lightens the weary weight of high humidity and sticky sweat.
Around here, August kicks off the birthday season and tumbles right into the holiday season. Suddenly there are presents to give and secrets to keep. The joys of life are not completely swallowed up by essays and exams.
I glory in every hint of change, watching with eager eyes as leaves turn from dark green to shades of and pink and red, while orange pumpkins and yellow squash form wobbly lines on the porch steps.
It isn’t autumn yet. But my imagination offers the next best thing. I can practically feel autumn’s coolness playing over my skin even while I inhale the hot smells of drying cornfields. The gritty dust of the road settles for the last time between my toes as I watch caterpillars wriggle their way to where ever they insist they are going. Even though grasshoppers fly in my face and annoy me, I remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about the late summer grasshoppers and luxuriate in the knowledge that they don’t arrive in massive clouds anymore and nibble away local farmers’ entire crops. At least that’s one problem we don’t have to deal with.
On Sunday, I took some of the kids to Coffeen Lake in the hopes of catching a cool breeze. Alas, the road was closed to the entrance we normally use, so we had to settle for a smaller section of the lake instead. Since there was a trail nearby, we decided, with true Sunday afternoon “What do we have to lose?” aplomb, we ventured ahead. After running smack into the fifth spider web, with sticky spider prizes attached, I sent my eldest son ahead to clear the path of all entrapments. Good son that he is, he did so without complaint, though I noticed after a bit, he did swing a branch ahead as he went.
Strolling behind, I noticed beautiful leaves along the path. I might have missed them if the spiders had been less diligent about knitting open-air markets on the path. I was surprised at the first crimson delight and astonished by the time I swept up the sixth autumn leaf and then found a perfectly formed acorn with cap still attached.
Through the week, I have let my eyes linger on their fading, crumpling forms sprawled across my desk, knowing full well that even autumn’s glory can’t last forever. The north wind will sweep fall’s gentle mellow mood aside as biting cold and white and black attitudes force their way to center stage.
This evening, a mosquito bite itches my leg while I watch patterns of leaves rise and fall over a speckled tree trunk. Green leaves hang still and quiet in the evening air. Birds chirp noisily, and my crimson foliage yet more crumpled and dried out warns me of things to come.
This year has been a collage of joy-filled triumphs and humiliating defeats. My kids have won prizes, graduated from classes, mastered new skills, and suffered the consequences of a world at war with its better self. I have discovered—to my heart-wrenching grief—that hoping for the best doesn’t always reflect reality. Some hopes and prayers are not answered as I wish yet I must plod along life’s rugged path even while keeping on the lookout for hope and light. This evening, my spirit is rekindled as I sit under the darkening sky and stars twinkle in concert with darting fireflies.
There is no perfect season, though autumn will always hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps because it seems so dreadfully honest. Its bittersweet end-of-summer breeze, whispers in my ear, reminding me to live not what is now only…but what might be. What should be. What will be… Searing hot summer winds scorch our souls and winter ice freezes our spirits, but spring and autumn balance the extremes. Each season journeys along by the hand of God.
So last evening, I sat on the back porch and watched fireflies twinkle, appearing at different spots in our beautiful garden, like Tolkien-esk-fairies. When I tipped my head back, I could see faint stars turning ever brighter as the blue sky darkened to dusky-purple.
The kids still living at home slumbered in their beds. The dogs and cats stretched out on the porch. The garden rested without chiding me for neglect. Peace and contentment pervaded my little universe, and my heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of a lovely universe.
Then a mosquito bit me. A moth fluttered close and attempted to smack me in the face.
I decided I had tempted fate long enough, and I rose to my feet. I was just about to go inside when the phone rang. It was my daughter who had moved into her own place last week. With a lurch, my heart gripped the phone harder than my hand. It was so good to hear her voice. To chat. To know she was okay. Yeah, I had figured she was fine…but now I knew. Happiness. Even better than contentment.
Later, as I crawled into bed, a soft cool breeze rippled the curtains, sending a chill down my spine. I realized, for the umpteenth time, that I’m in a new period of adjustment. I can name four families without blinking that are going through the same adjustment—transitioning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis from caring for aged parents to children flying from the nest.
Was there ever a time when life was simple? When the fireflies ruled and the stars stayed still? If there was, it didn’t last long.
One of the things I always loved about Tolkien’s stories was the way he managed to include some kind of retreat. A time-out. Or maybe, a time-in. It was a period where the characters would get off the road, luxuriate in a hot bath, shift into clean clothes, eat honey and homemade bread, and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.
I’ve been pregnant eleven times, lost a husband to cancer, and raised eight kids over twenty-three years. I could try and list the number of things in the house that I have fixed, but it would be a fake number since I usually have to fix the same blessed thing multiple times. I’ve supervised innumerable gardens, raised chickens, stacked woodpiles, managed accounts, planned and executed educational programs, and done whatever job/task/mission seemed necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of my family…and my sanity.
Days run together like a stream joining the ocean. Yet, over time, the stream of life changes course. Challenges are met and new missions accepted. Chickenpox, the death of a beloved pet, toppled trees, a shoulder injury, a new electric appliance, a scholarship, college, a new job…
Being a child and loving our parents—difficult as that some times can be—seems easy when you become a parent yourself and look back—I had it easy then. Raising a baby seems heroic until you get to the teen years and wonder how the human race ever survived. Each new challenge seems to play a game of one-up-man-ship with the stage before.
So, that’s why God created fireflies. And starry skies. The real reason behind hot showers and cool breezes. I’ll never actually get to Tom Bombadil’s house, but I can sit on the back porch, nibble a chocolate-zucchini-nut muffin, watch the fireflies twinkle and the stars turn.
So I was sitting in the doctor’s office and a mother comes in with the world’s cutest toddler. This child could have ousted Shirley Temple off the stage for sheer adorableness. It wasn’t just the white bow wrapped around her head, her moccasin slippers, or her bright blue eyes…it was her bubbling enthusiasm for everything and everyone in the room. She was absolutely certain that the world was a wonderful place, and everyone was her best friend.
As I watched the mini bundle of energy scamper to the nearest toy, her mother followed close behind, her hands at the ready for any slips or trips. Soon mom had her little one ensconced in her lap and helped her baby push the colored beads along the complex wire arrangement that probably made some toy maker rich.
In my lap, I gripped my latest to-do list. Among all the usual tasks of the week, I had outlined jobs and assignments for each of my kids. Since my children have an age range from 23 to 10, I have to consider their abilities in relation to their experience and natural inclinations. A kid who loves animals to distraction is better at remembering to feed the dogs and cats than a kid who would rather spend the morning reviewing Italian Cuisine recipes.
Over the years, I have altered and re-altered my mothering techniques to the point where I am very reluctant to tell another mom how to do it right. I vividly recall a couple that presented to my husband and me their most successful childrearing philosophy—“Use common sense.” Right. Sounds great. But what does that mean when facing a screaming baby whose diaper is dry and tummy is full, a toddler with a purple ring around his mouth who can’t seem to remember what he ate to get the vibrant hue on his face, a little girl who has packed her bag to go to boarding school without telling mom a thing about it, a son who asks what to do with his life, or grieved kids when they discover that not only is life not fair, but human beings can be vicious without cause.
Being a parent is a little like being God. But without the power and the glory. For a time, a parent has a say about everything. To the point of utter exhaustion. But little by little that power erodes, as well it must, and the child grows into his own decision-making being. Then the parent must step out of the way. The child must lead.
But what about when they don’t see the need? What if mom or dad have been so good at what they do and the world so darn comfortable, that it is simply easier to continue in the comfort zone? Truth be told, it’s no fun getting out of the perfect-parent zone either. It’s peaceful and enjoyable to hold a baby in your lap and move their hand, as you know it should go for the best effect.
As I consider our world today, I think of all our comfort zones. A world where so much is given to us. Where our feet are directed to schools. Our minds are directed in classes. Our passions are directed through media. Our faith is directed through traditions and habits. I have to wonder, when does direction become strangulation?
The cute baby I saw today charmed everyone in the waiting room. In the best scenario, she’ll grow up and better the world through her chosen passions and abilities. But to get to that point, she’ll have to sit by herself, and mom will have to let go of her hand.
I don’t have a quick formula for parenting. Like my kids, I learn as I go. But the key is—to learn to let go. We have to allow our kids to grow up and make their own choices and face real-life consequences.
Though we’re never far behind.
For even if our hands don’t touch, surely our hearts do.