In Praise of Boredom

IMG_2443“Mom, I’m bored!” my brothers and I would occasionally whine. But only occasionally. Boredom meant mom would “give us something to do” and that seldom meant something we liked. It was far more fun to find things to do without asking mom to intervene. I remember long, lazy summer days with nothing concrete to do. I remember weekends with wide open days where bikes were crashed on the lawn, my hands smelled of the warm rubber basketball, and grass stains colored my knees— pants or naked skin, depending on the season.

My mom would be sitting at the kitchen table, illuminated by her sewing machine light and the eerily comforting pale-green sunlight filtered through the ruffled translucent eves shading our back patio. She would have the phone cradled between her cheek and shoulder, talking with my various aunts about the latest family drama, while shoving calico and rickrack though her humming needle. The windows were always open, and the breeze carried the tangy and sweet scent of fruit— plums, apricots, tangerines and oranges— floating in from the backyard. Some days the breeze carried the pungent scent of the tomatoes being packed down by the bay at the Libby cannery.

“Go outside and play,” she would stage-whisper over the phone, and shoo me away, shoving more rickrack through and snipping threads with her scissors. So many memories of my mother involve thread, fabric, and her always-busy hands making things.

There were no coordinated practices, no organized play dates, no schedule divided into 15-minute increments to keep everyone on-task or focused on being somewhere or doing something. There’s been a lot of ink devoted lately to free-range parenting; the natural backlash against the modern tendency toward over-structured and over-scheduled and sleep-deprived kids. For me, and maybe for a lot of you, this wasn’t a trend- it was just growing up. It was life.

I’ve noticed, with my own kids, that while I don’t schedule their free time out of existence and I carefully keep the margins of their young lives open and unstructured, they are still far more accustomed to being entertained than I ever was. While my mom had her sewing machine and the telephone- twisted, curling, stretched out tether keeping her in the kitchen- I didn’t have anything. That was grown up stuff. I went outside to play.

Today, I have my computer and a phone— which is better than anything Gene Roddenberry imagined 50 years ago— and my kids have devices that I couldn’t even have dreamed up when I was eight, or eleven, or thirteen. There are kindles with wifi, laptop computers, and personal, pocket-held video games. My teenage son has a phone my mom gave him for Christmas. It doesn’t have service, but it’s got wifi and he can text me from school, and it does everything a computer can do. When my kids burst through the door after walking home from school, they grab a snack and immediately open their screens.

This is a reality of modern life. I’m no luddite, and frankly, I make my living by keeping my finger on the electronic pulse of what’s happening through electronic tethers. I don’t have any desire to take these modern marvels and methods of connection from my kids. They can FaceTime with their grandparents and their cousins, they can do homework and submit it, they can play games with friends in other states, they can research science fair projects and watch the live feed from NASA. These are good things.

But sometimes… I want to hear “Mom, I’m bored.”

Creativity happens when there is room to be bored. When we are not entertained, not distracted by screens showing giving us infinite images of beautiful things, interesting things, fascinating things- our minds have room to actually turn on. When we are not rushing from one lesson to another practice, to another meeting or appointment, there is room to breathe. Being bored is where thinking actually starts. Sit in the stillness. Sit in the quiet. Let your mind wind down, and see where it takes you. Ideas germinate in boredom.

How do I encourage my kids to take advantage of the beautiful margins of their lives? To not fill all the space with stuff? I make them be bored.

Turning off the screens— ALL the screens— sending them out to play without direction or micromanaging… leads to that wonderful refrain. But shortly, a magical thing happens.  And it always happens. When they have nothing to entertain them, suddenly they start imagining. Suddenly, I hear games being invented, laughter from the backyard, bikes being hauled to the porch, giggling voices teasing each other as they try and manage the tire-pump themselves. I hear “Mom, we’re going to play basketball!” and I will holler back to please put a coat on… and that’s it. Basketball will turn into a game of tag, and tag will lead to finding a cool hole in a tree and discovering a stick bug, and that will lead to making a small fort and habitat for the captured bug. And that will lead to lifting stones and rocks in search of more bugs, which sometimes leads to finding a lizard or frog. And so it goes. It’s a beautiful thing, and suddenly, they aren’t bored anymore.

I let them walk to and from school. It’s good for them. They have that window each day, where they are responsible and independent- the window between School and Home, which belongs only to them. When the door crashes open, they are always happy to be home, and they also usually have something to report- they observe. They see and feel the seasons changing. They know who got a new bike, and which neighbor kids also walk. They know who got a new kitchen sink, because on trash day, that house had cool debris out at the curb. They report on cool yards they pass, and which house has the best climbing tree. They also have been astoundingly responsible and never yet blown through the window in which I expect them home. They have not only lived up to the rules I set down, they have surpassed them. They never could have done that had I not allowed them the space to do so.

And that’s been my biggest takeaway from giving them room to be bored: They really are amazing human beings. Kids can do so much, and the beautiful thing about giving them room to expand is that they then own their own accomplishments. They didn’t do or achieve anything because I was driving them, hovering, or managing all of their time. They did it because of themselves. That kind of accomplishment is priceless. That kind of trust in each other is beyond priceless.

Boredom is where the future is born.

Catching Up: January Edition

Well, the IEP is behind us now. That Eligibility Meeting was rough, but the IEP went smoothly and I’m very happy with Bean’s team and confident with the new services and support he will be getting. He’s doing pretty well, and there is a stout safety-net being constructed as we transition him towards middle-school next year. Middle-school is scary enough with a typical kid, contemplating it with a Special Needs child is whole new level… Thankful, once again, for the devoted professionals who spend their careers not just educating these children, but educating others so these kids can have successful lives.

Abby is utterly submersed in Harry Potter right now. Her Evil Uncle Willy gave her a magical, light-up replica of Hermione’s wand for Christmas, and she takes it to bed with her each night, illuminating the pages of her books while she softly chants the spells in Latin. She’s asking to take Latin now in high school. Doesn’t your 3rd graders worry about high school classes?

So last week, she decided she wanted her hair cut like Hermione’s. It was probably a good idea, since her hair is thick, naturally wavy, and was easily grazing the small of her back. This is lovely, except when it’s time to comb it, when she howls like a wildebeest in a mud hole. The girl at the beauty shop did a lovely job, and managed to mimic the hair of Hermione exceptionally well. Here’s a stunning example:

IMG_2898

Er… maybe not.

I went mural-painting for a friend’s daughter, who, coincidentally enough, is also nutballs about Harry Potter. It started out as a request for Quidditch hoops to be painted on the wall in her room, and ended up being something along the lines of this:

IMG_2884

Guess what Abby suddenly wants on the wall in her room? Not the Quidditch hoops, which I thought, frankly, turned out quite nicely:

IMG_2885

I guess the holidays were such a whirlwind I utterly forgot to write about any of it- I think I slapped a few picture up on Instagram or Facebook, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It was a lovely December- we were fortunate enough to have a full house for Christmas, and utterly delighted in having all five kids with us. Jon’s family has some wonderful traditions that we seamlessly incorporated into our own. There were matching pajamas, many knitted socks, piles of cookies and icing, and a bunch of happy kids. It was pretty much the best.

IMG_2716

IMG_2739

IMG_2736

New Year’s Eve came with far less fanfare. We were down to three kids, and never one for wild shenanigans, we did our Virginia tradition, which is having hot chocolate at the LOVE train, and then snuggling down at home for the remainder of the evening. I like NYE to be quiet, when I can reflect on the year leaving, and imagine hopes and dreams and plans for the coming year. It’s a reflective and quiet time for me, and coupled with sugared up kids who can barely make it to midnight, being home is by far my preference.

IMG_2783

Recipe: Kale & Brussels Sprouts with Vinaigrette

Kale-and-Brussel-Sprouts

Vinaigrette:

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 small minced shallot
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 slices bacon
1 large bunch kale, thinly sliced
12 ounces brussels sprouts, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sliced almonds
2 Tbsp fresh parmesan

Make the vinaigrette in a jar with a tightly-fitted lid. Combine all ingredients in the jar, and shake vigorously- the mustard creates an emulsion, and despite it being an acid/oil dressing, it generally will not separate when stored in the refrigerator. This vinaigrette is more than needed for this recipe, and is lovely on salads as well. Set aside to chill.

In a large saute pan, crisp up the two slices of bacon. Remove cooked bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. With the pan still hot and containing the bacon grease, add entire pile of kale and brussels sprouts. It will be a lot for the pan, but they will cook and soften quickly. Toss and turn gently with tongs for 1-2 minutes— you just want it lightly wilted— then remove to a salad bowl. Add the crumbled bacon, almonds, and parmesan cheese, and toss with 2 Tbsp of the prepared vinaigrette.

Prepare to be amazed. I could eat this every day, it’s so ridiculously good.

Learning: Raising a Cook

I’ve been sicIMG_2792k. Like, really sick. Like, sicker than I’ve been in years. My allergies and asthma have been under control for so long, I sometimes forget what it’s like to not be able to breathe- then BAM, I get knocked on my butt by a winter cold that settles in and sets up camp in my lungs. Nebulizer treatments for the first time in years and years, prednisone, antibiotics… oh my. So I’ve been holed up at home, and trying to keep from cracking a rib from coughing. That’s not hyperbole.

Then we got snow. And in a bizarre move that made no sense— perhaps an overcorrection for the endless snow days last year— the district didn’t call off classes. I took one look out the window and told the kids to stay in their jammies. No way was I sending out in that. Then we watched twitter explode as local politicians and school board members pointed their fingers at each other while busses slid off the roads all over the county. We made hot chocolate and watched Firefly.

I did give Jeffrey a job for the day- in the spirit of my trying to learn more, I figured if he was missing a day of school, he could learn something too. I told him he had to find a recipe, read it, figure out if we had the ingredients, and then prepare it. I would be available to consult and answer questions, but I wanted him to be the chef and make the calls.

He camped out with my laptop for a bit, and arrived at The Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Potato Soup. Her recipes are always always always a good bet, and we had almost all of the ingredients. I encouraged him to give it shot. He got to work. I curled up on the couch and tried to hold very still.

Bean and Abby played games and colored and built things with Lego. Jeffrey donned Jon’s new apron and got to work. Yes, my husband has an apron. And his sister made it for him. So much awesome.

This is so much better than being in Social Studies, Mom!

This is so much better than being in Social Studies, Mom!

It took Jeff a while and the kitchen was a disaster when he was done, but the soup came out, just as Ree says, perfectly. He made it with gluten flour so I didn’t taste it, but it got devoured. Bean ate English muffins with peanut butter. Some things are as dependable as the sun rising in the east…

Later that afternoon (it never got above freezing and nothing melted) Abby managed to build a snowman. She named him Tom.

IMG_2812

I’m going back to bed now.

Learning: Korean Cooking

My friend Kristen has a marvelous experiment going on at her blog, Humdrum Stick in the Mud. Every week, she challenges herself to do something outside of her comfort zone, and she documents her experiences, good or bad, feast or fabulous fail. Her writing is quirky and honest and funny, and she inspires me. While I know I’d be setting myself up for failure if I tried to manage this every week, I adore her idea of pushing ourselves outside of what is safe, familiar, and easy for ourselves. We are capable of so much more than we often imagine, and it’s truly only through pushing our boundaries that real growth and opening can occur.

With that in mind, I opted to start small, but still push my comfort level. I wanted to learn to cook a Korean meal. It doesn’t get much further from Korea than this Scottish/German, but I love Korean food, and I was determined to learn some new spices and ingredients that are were utterly foreign to me. Going into a grocery store where you don’t know the ingredients, and can’t read the labels, and where even the produce section is full of things you’ve never seen before can be intimidating. A little research ahead helped a lot, I had my list prepared. I knew I wanted to make a traditional Korean beef bulgogi and bebimbap, with all the traditional little delicious side dishes, known as banchan.

You know what? It went awesome. The internet here is truly the great equalizer, because lacking a Korean grandma to teach me, I found some great websites explaining the spices, the sauces, and how to make the banchan pickles and sauces. At the market, I filled my basket with daikon, fresh kimchee (which I opted to buy there, rather than attempt to make), dried shiitakes, daengjang (a fermented miso-like soybean paste), gojujang (a hot pepper condiment and base for many sauces), and a recipe for ssamjang (a pungent, delicious sauce).

Here is the result:

10897775_10152623565985963_5017903138285183728_n

When I decided I wanted to learn to cook subcotinental Indian food, the hardest part was learning a new canon of spices and flavor combinations- it was the same with Korean food. The flavors are so distinct, and so amazing- but how to get there is a completely different journey than, say, moving from Italian food to Greek food. The ingredients are sometimes utterly different, and are combined in completely new ways- to a westerner. It was a ton of fun, and it came out utterly delicious. I am emboldened to try this further, and find new recipes and meals on which to subject my family, and which my children will turn up their general collective noses. (Jon and I gorged, Abby loved it, and the boys opted-out. Big surprise.)

Recommended support for learning the basics of Korean cooking at Maangchi, and at Kitchn. What new thing do you want to learn?

The Changing Face of Perfection

IMG_2689

What does it mean to be perfect? As the Christmas cards poured into and eventually overflowed my mailbox this year (the mail lady begrudgingly asked me if I knew everyone in the western hemisphere, as she once again put the mail wagon in park at the curb and made her way to my door with the things she couldn’t stuff in our regulation US mail box. I paid her off in a giant box of hazelnut fudge, so don’t feel too bad for her. We’re pals now.) I would stand and the kitchen counter, hoarding the Good Mail and loving tearing open the thick red, blue, green, and cream paper envelopes, hand addressed, calligraphied, stamped, labeled, whatevered… bringing the faces and tidings of loved ones the world over. Everyone picks their best faces for their cards— and every last one of them was perfect. Utterly perfect in all their beautiful, glorious imperfections.

For our own card, Bean was utterly uncooperative and refused to be in any photo without holding a giant stick, which for that day was his best friend. Don’t ask me. I don’t know. But my gloriously talented friend who makes magic with her camera had a stroke of brilliance when Bean refused to climb down from a giant tree in our front yard. Instead of fighting for some imagined ideal, she recognized the moment, and she had the rest of the family gather around the tree. She got a great shot. (that’s the picture at the bottom of the post that went out with our official Christmas card). But to me, even better than this ‘official’ shot twas this one… laden with story. I love the candid look on Jon’s face, and it’s the only photo where Bean is looking right at the camera- of course when almost no one else was, and we were all laughing. It’s us. Truly us.

AMR14319

So as I looked over the photos and greetings of my friends, I loved them for their humanity, for their humility, for the beauty of trying to get one, or two, or five, or nine kids to cooperate. For the emotions you can see in some faces, and the mussed cowlick that just wouldn’t lie down, the glares at a brother who just wouldn’t behave, and the resignation from the parents that, well, this is as good as it gets.

It’s true. “Perfect” such as it is, is a myth. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I navigate our still new family and the life it holds. Each day, it seems is a flux and flow of beauty, laughter, frustration, patience, silliness, stretching, tears, glee, anger, sorrow, elation- all in microcosms as we move through and around each other, defaulting to “love” and it’s various, changing expressions of what that might mean in any given moment.

It can be learning to stand up for oneself, and doing so with support of parents and siblings. It can be learning to trust one’s own intuition. It can be learning to calm oneself down, and to finally find the deep inner resources you didn’t know you had. It can be flinging cookie dough at your sister and laughing hysterically as you spill cookie sugar all over the table. It can be buying presents for your family for the first time with your own earnings and understanding the deep joy that comes from doing for others. It can be holding a trembling hand and wiping tears that just couldn’t stay inside any longer. It can be stating with exuberance that one has four brothers and sisters, without needing to explain or caveat. It can be using a whole roll of wrapping paper with your brothers and presenting your handiwork with pride. It can be holding a stick in family photos and everyone rolling with it. It can be giggling with a sister far past bedtime, illuminated by the purple tinsel Christmas tree you set up in your own bedroom. It can be reaching out in the darkness to find a near, familiar and ever ready hand to hold yours. It can be finding your own hands, your own self, ready and able to hold you up in ways you never imagined possible.

I don’t know what it is where you are, but I know with certainty that it’s there.

It’s all around you, all around me, all around each of us every day. We just have to notice. There is no perfect moment you have to strive for- you’re living in it today, right this moment, now. This day, this family, these people, near or far, this life, this… this is as good as it gets. Even if life is hard, there is still love, there are still sublime moments to be noticed, found, and paused for…this is perfection. Messy, scowling, earthy, sunlit, beautiful, stained with tears of both pain and joy- encompassing it all. Beautiful perfect imperfection.

Happy New Year.

AMR14366-2