Monthly Archives: June 2015

Passing on my phobias

I’m extremely emotional today and over-caffeinated, both of which may be important details in this story. Also, Seattle is about to fry. No one has air conditioning and we’re preparing for a string in the 90s. Most of us start to complain when it tops 70. Since we can’t leave our windows open at night and still feel safe, we open everything up in the early morning to cool the house down. This morning, I headed to close our back door right as A RAT was trying to ENTER my HOUSE!

A RAT! My house! It may be a little my fault, time to vacuum and mop, but oh my god! A rat!

IMG_9215

The part of the rat that grosses me out most. If it had been facing us, the story might end differently.

I screamed. It ran and hid behind a box filled with broken outdoor toys we haven’t discarded. I slammed the door like a grizzly bear was about to eat me. Charlie and Miles learned about “eebie-jeebies” and watched me shriek and shake my jitters out all around the house. They didn’t seem to care much. They didn’t even ask to see the rat.

Gathering my composure, I continued to close up the house. After I shut the boys’ bedroom windows, which requires me climbing on top of Miles’ bed, I stepped down only to encounter this scene in Charlie’s loft bed:

IMG_9217

I screamed again. Then I laughed.

I knew the day would come when Samuel Bearded would scare the shit out of me. Today was the day. (Yes, we discovered his real name! It’s written on the tranverse plane between his neck and his former body!)

Interrupting the boys, this time to tell them of my adventure with Samuel, Miles giggled with pride, “I did that!” It worked, kiddo. It worked.

“So boys, want to see the rat?” I regretted asking immediately, but knew I had to face this fear. I needed to water my garden. There were raspberries to harvest. I might as well have moral support.

I opened the door. It was still there.

IMG_9216

As they watched, I pushed the box with a broom, anticipating the rat would run under the garden shed. Nope. Too easy. Instead it jumped onto our grill and hid under the cover.

“Aw, it’s cute!” Charlie gushed.

Shit. They make nests in grills. I didn’t think that was going to happen, but I didn’t want it getting cozy there, either.

I tapped at the cover with the broom. Nothing. I wiggled the grill with the broom. Aware that the boys are watching me, I was saying things like, “Just a little earthquake, rat! Come on out.” Nothing. It wasn’t budging.

The friggin’ rat was going to make me take the cover off.

I made a lot of nervous noises and grossed out faces while the boys observed from inside. I walked towards the cover and backed away. A few times. I asked Charlie if he wanted to do it. Nope.

Mustering up my courage and wanting to show the boys a good example (ha!), I approached, trying to pull it off like a magician pulling a tablecloth out from under dishes. The surprised rat tumbled off the handle, onto the cement and hid between a few of my potted plants.

“Oh, it’s SO cute!” Charlie exclaimed. Again.

I heard a quick whooshing noise and slammed the door again. “What was that?” “Did it come in?” Charlie looked around. “No, I don’t think so.” Clearly, I’m nuts. As if the rat would come back towards us. What, while wearing a cape to make a noise like that? Sheesh.

I went to open the door again but Charlie pleaded, “No, don’t open it!”

Rats. (Bwa-ha-ha. It had to be used.) I passed my fear to him. Just like that.

“Oh, honey. It’s fine. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m afraid of rats but they’re really more scared of us and won’t hurt us if we give them space.”

I opened the door, peeked at the pots and saw the rat tail. In my panic, I had thrown the cover back on top of the grill as the rat dropped. The cover must’ve fallen to the ground and made that noise. I shooed the rat away from the plants and checked in with the boys, who were still watching me with growing curiosity. “Yay! It’s gone!” I faked a little cheer.

“Are you alright?” Charlie asked me with genuine concern, but also a little smirk. I don’t think he’s ever asked me this question with that look on his face. He saw a little of the crazy in his mama. At least he found it funny.

I watered my plants and picked my berries with a hyper vigilant eye, all while thinking, “I bet that rat comes back. It probably likes berries.” Then I went inside and told the boys yet again, this time calmly and collected, that rats aren’t to be feared. (Hahahahaha.) We shouldn’t pet city rats, but they can certainly touch pet rats.

“Yes, people have rats as pets…”

“Oh, I’m glad you think they’re cute, Charlie, but no.”

Never. Ever.

Some days, when emotions are high, you just may pass on your phobias to your kids. Or, if you’re really lucky, they’ll want one as a pet.

Advertisements

Transforming our neglected property

Contemplating Mrs. Brown made me want to share about our landscape’s ongoing makeover! Most of our efforts the past four years have required a hefty amount of observation, research, planning, muscle and dedication, but little money. It’s been a patience and grit game. Now that I can look in the rear view mirror I know that this was about trusting in the process, even when I was unsure how everything would unfold. By going slow, the land had a chance to let us know what needed to happen and we could jump on opportunities as they arose.

Doing our work by hand and without chemicals felt frustratingly slow at times, but that grew easier to accept each year, too. We have completely avoided pesticides, despite how tempting Round-Up may be for the weeds among our brick patio bricks that WILL NEVER DIE. We’ve even torched them without success. But, I’m not giving in. No bees or salmon will be killed in the name of obtaining a “perfect” lawn or garden. We prefer to accept the dandelions among us.

I often felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the job our first year. This lot is exceptionally large for Seattle standards (a fifth of an acre), and the weeds had raging parties for a decade. (For some “Before” pictures, please visit this post.) We hadn’t received our landlord’s blessing to change anything yet, so we cleaned up bits and pieces, pruned overgrown trees and bushes, and learned the perennial vegetation as it poked through the ground. In the meantime, probably due to our hard work, we convinced our landlord to let us build vegetable beds and take complete control of caring for the backyard. We evicted the hack-and-whack landscaping team, giving plants a chance to thrive.

The second year Harry built some raised beds for edibles. (Not those kinds of edibles, silly.) I started dividing the overwhelmed, introverted irises and lilies so they’d have space to bloom. (I know how they feel.) Splitting plants is one of my favorite ways to fill in beds and experiment with new planting locations. Free and easy! I also jumped on all opportunities for free or cheap plants to transplant. We received daisies, wild geraniums, and strawberries from friends. A few neighbors passed along divisions, and I frequented bare root and other affordable sales.

Our latest, and most ambitious short-term project, was hauling an enormous amount of mulch onto the property. Mulch makes gardens happy not only because they’re more attractive, but also because the soil retains moisture better, the wood breaks down to feed the soil, and weeds are suppressed. In late March we signed up with Chip Drop, an organization that alerts arborists that they may drop as many wood chips at your site as they’d like on any day they choose. It’s free! We signed up imagining we’d have a week or two to prepare for about five to ten cubic yards. Two days later they dumped EIGHTTEEN cubic yards (!!!!) on our driveway. I guess they liked my tip.

Clearly, it was time to act or else we’d never park our car in the garage again. (As it was, it took four weeks of serious work to clear that pile!) First I prepped our most wide open, heavily weeded and/or overgrown areas for the cardboard weed barrier. Both non-glossy cardboard and newspaper decompose and are safe in the garden. They beat the heck out of plastic weed barriers because they’re free and sustainable, plus you can actually plant in them later or move them around with ease. Plus, worm food!

Prepping for the cardboard involved weed-whacking big patches of weeds to the ground and hand-pulling those in smaller areas. We could’ve hand-pulled them all and spent five months doing this, but why? The cardboard we used is thick enough to smother most weeds. As long as it’s properly layered, it works. (There are places I short changed by not overlapping cardboard enough or using too little newspaper, so I’m already going over those again as weeds poke through. Learn from me. Even though it feels like it’s taking forever, I highly recommend you layer well or you’ll probably end up doing it again sooner than later anyways.)

I saved all of our Sunday New York Times papers for six months and used every single, non-glossy page. Surely Bill Cunningham’s fashion pages will yield showstopping flowers! Harry made frequent stops at a nearby bike shop to collect empty bike boxes. We removed all the staples using pliers, pulled any bits of tape off, and tore the boxes apart. I used an exacto knife to cut them to smaller pieces and feel totally badass. Cheap gardening thrills! Another perk!

IMG_5964_2

Some bike boxes were whiney.

IMG_5933

Parts of this process are really fricking ugly. Just keep working. It’ll look good eventually.

Once an area was ready, we piled mulch on top. We made sure to give trees plenty of space around their trunks and bushes adequate respect, too.

Voila!

IMG_9192

IMG_9210

IMG_9205

We are reaping our biggest rewards this year. We delighted in a steady stream of blooming irises from March through May. The lilies are starting to strut their stuff. Weeds are minimal and the mulch looks great. The beds are bursting with color or filled with green. Even the alley looks good.

The edibles are pretty happy, too, minus some unwanted berry leaf-munching bugs. Snap peas are taller than Miles, raspberries and blueberries are starting to ripen, and I ate my first boysenberries yesterday. YUM. One round of artichokes were consumed and more will be this week, making it our best artichoke year. Tulip’s gravesite is growing beans, squash, corn and a few flowers. It’s not doing as well as I’d hoped, so I’m guessing I rushed the process too much. The other hugelkultuur bed has tomatoes and a few other things. It’s doing ok. Next season should be better for both of them. I really hope we get to experience it.

I feel so fortunate to be gardening among Mrs. Brown’s flowers right now. I know how it felt to leave my first garden in Colorado, and I know how much I’ll grieve leaving this one, but now I’m savoring the transformation. One of my current favorite activities is to sit under the grapevines in the backyard and watch the boys play soccer with Harry or run through a sprinkler. Saturated with beauty, if not water.

IMG_6363IMG_9196IMG_9198IMG_9203IMG_9201

IMG_9209

 

Rehabilitation

“Kathleen! Do you have a moment?” my neighbor asked after spotting Miles and I pull up by bike one afternoon last week.

“I’ve been wanting to tell you this for weeks. Has anyone told you about Mrs. Brown, who lived here until she died?”

She went on to explain that Mrs. Brown, a widow and a mom, tended the garden day and night, rain or shine. Mrs. Brown baked my neighbor a homegrown rhubarb cake after she gave birth and doted on her sons as they grew up. Mrs. Brown grew food and flowers, nurturing this land and her neighbors. I bet I would’ve loved Mrs. Brown.

“And you know what? You brought back Mrs. Brown to me. You have brought her back to life by restoring the beauty here. I’m reminded of her every time I walk by now and I am so thankful.”

I was so touched. I got teary eyed, and probably would’ve gone into an all-out shriveled up cry if Miles weren’t refusing to get off the bike, angry at me for not taking him That Very Moment to buy spy glasses at Archie McPhees.

I knew this place was treasured once upon a time because there were signs everywhere. The old plum and pear trees. The rhododendrons and azaleas, the hydrangea greeting visitors at the front door. I made a new discoveries almost every time I gardened during our first year. Bulbs would peek out and if I spotted them before the weed-whacking “landscaping” team arrived, I would try to prevent their demise. Sometimes I was too late to save a plant because it was too diseased or crowded. Other times I spotted them just in time.

One fortunate day a few years ago, while clearing a patch of weeds, I found five dying peony roots in a dry, barren spot that no longer received sunlight. (Three others were completely shriveled up.) I transplanted them with my fingers crossed. One flowered this spring. The others line our front window, growing stronger each season, and will likely bloom next year.

The neighbor who told me about Mrs. Brown used to run a rehab facility. Who better to understand and value the beauty of life restored? There is great joy in watching lives receive long-awaited nourishment after years of starvation. We rehabilitated this garden! When I think about it like that, I feel incredibly honored to have played a role.

IMG_9193

IMG_6276IMG_6319

 

Advocating for Play Instead of Homework

I know, I know. Why am I bringing up school? Many of your kids are already in summer break and homework is the last thing on your mind. You are slathering on sunscreen, visiting pools, taking hikes and occasionally begging your children for some quiet. In Seattle, it is gray and raining. I still have two weeks before Thing 1 and Thing 2 turn our house into a Lego tornado. Summer feels eerily distant.

Since we are wrapping up a school year that has taken a bit of the sparkle out of my oldest son’s eyes, despite our great efforts to protect his passion for learning, I have been contemplating the effects of different educational models on children. Today, I’m tackling the homework conundrum. If that’s not on your mind, file this away for fall.

A friend of mine recently linked to this post, The Homework I Wish I My Child Brought Home From School. I read it in complete agreement with desired after school activities like going outside, reading, making things, etc.., but was saddened that the author seemed to think homework for a six year old was non-negotiable.

It’s should all be negotiable. If it’s not, a gigantic red flag is waving.

Since we entered public school as a trial, I did not feel captive by the system. This certainly helped me feel more empowered to question certain practices, like homework. We enrolled our oldest in public school for first grade after homeschooling him for Kindergarten to avoid full-day K (which was required by our neighborhood school). We sent him there knowing that if his needs weren’t being met or the environment wasn’t nurturing, that we would advocate for change and pull him out if that was unsuccessful. Knowing whether those things were true would require observation, an active presence in the school, and a careful tuning in to my son’s spirit.

We did not enroll our child in school to watch him become imprisoned by it. To watch passions fade. To watch him rush to complete meaningless homework as quickly as possible so that he could finally play. To watch self-esteem become dependent on external rewards, like a special treat for being fastest or having the fewest mistakes. To watch him pay attention to the number of pages read or the minutes spent in a book, instead of the story and content.

We were not going to passively observe as school requested that hours of my child’s life be spent completing rote, meaningless tasks. Fortunately, his first grade teachers maintained developmental perspectives, engaging activities and reasonable expectations, so little advocating was required. “We don’t send home reading logs because we trust you to read with your child on a regular basis.” What a breath of fresh air.

Second grade was different. The teachers wanted weekly reading logs, lengthy homework assignments that were nothing but worksheets, with little problem solving or creativity required. After a day filled with over-the-top rules, structure and rote learning, I refused to force him to do more of the same. It was play time! So, I wrote emails. (I would’ve preferred to talk with his teachers in person, but sadly, that is a rare opportunity that often takes too long to schedule.)

My email to the English teacher went something like this:

“BookWorm is a fantastic reader and currently spends hours reading a wide range of books from different genres. I fear that focusing on filling in a reading log could change his passion into an obligation. He currently gets lost in books and does not think about time nor pages read. I don’t want to take the risk that this would change by making reading “homework.”

Thank you for your understanding as to why we won’t be completing reading logs this year. Please feel free to contact me with questions or concerns. Also, of course, if there’s an alternate motivation or purpose beyond encouraging time with books, please let me know.”

She replied that she would love to know his books of interest, so if we could fill one out on occasion for that purpose, she’d be thrilled. Understood and done. Easy as that.

For spelling homework, I wrote a similar email. My boy was happy to just take the spelling tests, miss a few words here and there, and learn those as needed. For the rare word or two he’d actually learn every few months through homework, it wasn’t worth his time.

Another email was written after a few weeks of noticing how ridiculous his Spanish/math/science homework packet was.

“You have probably noticed that Minecraft Man is not completing his homework often anymore. We are completely on board with this and frequently encouraging it. I understand that many children may be learning from their homework, or need the repetition, but since Minecraft Man doesn’t benefit much from it, we’re spending time at home in other ways.”

I continued to explain that we would be happy to do projects or more creative work if that was assigned. (In my opinion, Minecraft is better than the homework that was sent this year. At least he needs to use higher-level thinking skills, like planning and organizing prior to building something.)

IMG_6041

After school umbrella shenanigans. They were singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and trying to fly when I took this shot.

Now, my boy is very strong academically. He isn’t struggling in any subjects. The teachers might have pushed back more otherwise. But, even then, I would’ve countered that I don’t think homework is the answer unless it is the RIGHT work. The homework that came home with my son this year would not have been the most effective way to help him.

If he experienced difficulties in math, I would’ve worked with him conceptually through games or other interactive instruction, not forced more worksheets his way. If he struggled with reading, we would’ve broken down reading into it’s basic parts, worked on the areas of struggle and then pieced it back together. If he struggled with handwriting, I would’ve fostered his love of story-telling by letting him dictate stories while I typed or wrote. We would tackle handwriting separately, as a motor act, not a language one.

IMG_6994

Board games are a great way to build various cognitive skills. Building early addition skills? Roll and count dice a lot while playing a game! (Those words were not planted! Hilariously perfect, though.)

Anyone can be an advocate for their child. It all starts with one question: What is best for my child? Advocacy work takes courage, but that courage is easy to muster when we think about our children’s long term health. It takes active communication, dedication and a willingness to stick our necks out. I rarely enjoy being an oddball parent, but I’m accepting of that role. Changing the system to eventually honor all kids is going to take masses of parents opt-outing out of what’s not beneficial, so that instead we can step into healthy, holistic child development.

My background and training takes me to places of questioning practices, while also lending me more confidence with sharing my opinions. But, I think most parents know deep in their gut if something’s wrong. Pay attention to those feelings. If you need a support staff to know what questions to ask or how to speak up, ask friends with similar educational philosophies. Seek out educational resources that honor child development, healthy families and passionate learning. Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools is my latest love.

I have never heard of a single study that concludes homework is beneficial for children in elementary school. (If you find one, please send it to me.) Many private schools honor this research. I think they feel secure implementing no homework policies because they are not operating out of the fear that they will lose their funding. Kids in those schools, especially the younger elementary crew, rarely get homework. When they do, it’s usually creative, interactive and something students can take pride in making. We’re not talking about worksheets that only require regurgitation of memorized facts.

If you need an academic-related reason to give homework the boot, there are plenty. Executive functioning skills, including planning, organizing and problem solving, depend on solid development of early play skills. Their foundation is built through the back and forth decisions that get made in imaginary play and loosely structured games. Planning new scenarios, dealing with the problems that arise and flexible shifting gears to accommodate requests are critical for development. Just as important as math and reading, maybe even moreso. Imaginary play isn’t just magical for the kids. It is magic, people. It is what little brains need.

IMG_5780

This happens plenty at our house. Probably an hour a day. We’re ok with that.