Friday, November 26, 2021

There is Always Something to Be Thankful For

If I were to describe Thanksgiving 2016 in a couple of words, I would choose therapeutic and life-giving. At the time, our little family lived on the edge of Accra, Ghana’s esteemed capital. Ten fruit trees and a rectangle of grass grew on our property, but otherwise, the rest of our premises was man-made: a cement house, large gray brick courtyard, and a high wall that outlined the perimeter of our property and obstructed our view of the neighborhood. When I left our courtyard, it often meant going deeper into the city where there were, of course, more cement buildings. Tall ones. Unfinished ones with rebar poking crookedly from second stories. Buildings with crumbling concrete or brilliant paint. The streets were clogged with the chaos and commotion of too many cars and too little parking.

On Thanksgiving weekend, we traveled four hours to celebrate the holiday with other Americans. Our hosts’ home had a spacious backyard that ran in grassy exuberance up to the Atlantic’s rocky shore. The expansive ocean was wonderfully therapeutic to my city-sore eyes. The salty breeze that blew inland brought a welcome change from the stale air stirred by our lazy ceiling fans.

On that Sunday morning, a group of us gathered beneath a red-and-blue-striped canopy. I listened to the message, truly. But at first my attention was glued to that majestic ocean. I could see miles of surging water between me and the horizon. Hand-crafted fishing boats that carried men to prime fishing spots bobbed on undulating waves. A mast from a sunken ship poked tenaciously above the water, then disappeared beneath higher crests, adding mystery and intrigue to the scene. Nearer to me, waves crashed against the rocky shore and exploded into liquid fireworks.

All I saw thrilled me. I tried internalizing the view, knowing I would want to drink from its beauty many times after we returned to our cement-clad home.

But the scenery wasn’t the only thing I would carry away.

The speaker that morning was a stranger to me, a visitor named Leonard Meador. He and his wife were traveling with an aid organization and happened to be in the area for Thanksgiving. In his message, Leonard told us that he received a cancer diagnosis and a grim prognosis several years earlier. At the moment, Leonard’s life was no longer threatened by rogue cells, thanks to successful treatments, but he spoke candidly with no noticeable self-pity of those difficult days.

“When I awoke each morning, I chose thankfulness because I knew that regardless of my circumstances, there is always, always something to be thankful for.”

Thankful? When his world and maybe his very life was crumbling? I forgot the waves and the ocean. These were not empty platitudes spoken from pharisaic lips. They were words coming from a man who had chosen daily gratitude in the face of death.

Leonard continued. “I knew I always had something to thank God for because of these absolutes:

  1. God is still on the throne. 
  2. Jesus is preparing a place for those who love Him. 
  3. Our God, unlike the gods of other religions, loves us and wants a relationship with His children.
  4. Jesus saves us from our sins." 

I pocketed the crux of Leonard’s message and carried it with me to Accra, through the end of our term in Ghana, and eventually back to America. Especially during Thanksgiving season, I remember this message and consider the absolutes within it again. Regardless of my disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, regardless of failure, regardless of kidnappings and political unrest and pandemic complications that can unsettle me, there is always, always something to thank God for.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

90 Minutes on the Appalachian Trail

I wish you could meet my mother. On first sight, she looks like any Mennonite housewife who bakes killer cinnamon rolls, keeps her house spit-shined and spider-free, and quilts by the mile. But it doesn't take long until you find a fun, unorthodox woman lurking behind the stereotype. 

She's the one who asked a cashier if his green hair was natural, and didn't bother explaining that she already knew it wasn't. The poor cashier probably still thinks Mennonites believe green hair happens to the babies of kale-eating mothers.

Mom also was the leader in our family's legendary Follow the Leader game. I'll preserve the remaining shreds of the participants' dignity by not disclosing names and details--except to say that somewhere beneath the neighbors' trees, my sister had enough and ran for home. But the grandchildren loved it and still laugh over the fun of the memory. Not, I say, a boring grandmother. 

I haven't heard that hiking the Appalachian Trail reached the bucket list of Mom's peers, but it was on hers. She wasn't interested in doing the whole thing, but dearly wanted to hike at least a section of the trail. "It has to have rocks," she told us emphatically. "I want to clamber over rocks." 

Fortunately for her dream, three of her daughters live in Pennsylvania near a rocky section of the AT. It wouldn't be difficult to give her the experience she desired. So, late in September when she came to visit us, we went on a mother-daughter hike.

The trail was all she hoped it would be with rocks to pick your way across and good views to stop and enjoy. 
Standing on the trail itself. Rocks? Got 'em.

We spent part of the hike finding the perfect rock she could add to the collection she has gathered from significant destinations. She has a rock from an Alaskan glacier, for example, which my son has had his eye on. And now she has a rock from the Appalachian Trail which looks exactly like the shape of Pennsylvania if you squint one eye, close the other, and hide part of the rock in your skirt. But it is small enough to fit in one hand, unlike the boulders that were suggested to her along the way, and it comes from the right trail. 

We didn't meet any through-hikers but we did meet a seedy character who added interest to our experience and speculation to the rehashing of the hike on our way home. Why was he concealed by the rock when we came around the corner and met him for the second time? And why did he act so surprised when he realized there were four of us? "Oh," he had said, straightening, and abandoning the fumble in his backpack. "There are more of you than I thought."

Back home in Indiana, Mom told her family doctor that she hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Most doctors like knowing their patients are staying fit and healthy while fulfilling dreams, and this doctor was appropriately impressed.

"How many days did you hike?" 

I wish I could have watched this conversation. I know the look Mom gets when she is trying to keep her face straight, the way her eyebrows raise. "Days? We hiked for 90..." She paused, she said, hoping he would be thinking miles. "...minutes." 

The good doctor threw back his head and laughed with pure enjoyment, then turned to his nurse. "She didn't hike the AT. She just looked at it." 

His long-standing relationship with my family allowed him to get away with laughing at Mom with no offense taken. But regardless of what he called the hike, Mom's feet walked the Appalachian Trail. 

I call it a dream fulfilled. 

My mom. One of the World's Best People. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Native American Day

Last year we remembered Columbus Day with a corresponding art project. This year I decided to focus on Native Americans since my national day calendar lists both Native American Day and Columbus Day on October 11.

We started school by choosing Native American names for ourselves, then coming up with a system to fine anyone who used the wrong name. It is hard to teach old dogs new tricks, my friends. Abooksigun, in my experience, is infinitely harder to remember than Tyler. 

Bird Song, holding Singing Waters

John was at work when we chose new names, so the children kindly volunteered to help him out. Last suggestion I heard was Long John. 

Every time we forgot to call someone by their Indian name,
we had to pay the offended person in bead money.

I love our creative writing tablets because I can incorporate national days into the school day with little effort. This time, they copied Native American symbols into their tablets.

We used the same symbols when painting buffalo hides. To make the buffalo hides, we crumpled brown paper bags, smoothed them out, then painted symbols or pictures, using just a few colors. Detailed instructions are found on this website, where I sourced the idea.

Well, some of us painted symbols. One of us
just painted. 

Themed menus are a fun way to make any day feel celebratory, so I looked online for Native American recipes. Some of them were impossible to make since I didn't have a good source for bear grease or buffalo meat. Lacking those key ingredients, I knew our food would be inferior to the real deal. Despite its shady authenticity, our dinner menu suited our purposes nicely. 

Fry Bread
Sweet Potatoes
Nuts & Seeds
Nasaump, a cornmeal and berry porridge

It was a satisfying ending to a great day. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Making DIY Ink

Ever since I heard that it is possible to make ink from natural substances, I wanted to try it with my children. Yesterday Tyler triumphantly brought me pokeberry ink that was nearly ready to be used. He had pounded the berries with his mortar and pestle (plastic cup and a stick). I strained the liquid and mixed in vinegar and salt to preserve the color. 

Today in the children's creative journals, I assigned the children to write a message using a quill and pokeberry ink. 

But if one color is good, more is better, right?

We looked for things in nature that stain your fingers. Walnuts. Leaves. Flowers. 

To get green ink, I collected a wad of green leaves and blended them with a little bit of water. Walnuts shells needed to be boiled for 15 minutes, as did the vinca petals. Once I had highly colored liquid, I added salt and vinegar to each color, which supposedly preserves the color. 

Boiling yellow mum petals failed to make yellow ink, but I remembered reading about turmeric being a good choice. I ran out of time and patience in waiting for the turmeric to fully dissolve in water, so we used it prematurely. If we were going to paint canvases to sell, I would have wanted to find a way to have my yellow less watery.

But the yellow paint worked fine for our purposes. We used the quill to do smaller spaces, words, or outlines and brushes for everything else.

Maybe someday I'll experiment with more kinds of berries, onion peels, dirt, chili powder, and purple cabbage. I'd also like to try mixing paint colors to see the new combinations we can come up with. But for now, my desire to make natural ink is fully satisfied. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Curing Destination Disease

Ever travel with a person stricken by Destination Disease? If you have, you know what it is like. No unnecessary breaks. No avoidable waypoints. No relaxed meals. Just get in the car and drive with bug-eyed determination to your destination. 

Steve Gilliland, a motivational speaker, calls that hammer-down traveling style the Destination Disease. Unfortunately, John and I have been guilty of that, at least to some degree. Grandparents live a day's drive away which means we start driving in the morning and muscle through boredom and travel-weariness by watching mile markers slip by the windows. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can start having fun. This past weekend, though, we decided to take Gilliland's advice and enjoy the ride. 

We broke up an 11-hour drive by stopping at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia

Each house, with exception to the West African replica, comes from the country it represents. The buildings were torn apart in their native homelands, their bricks numbered and marked for correct position and orientation, and the buildings were reassembled at the museum. For my LEGO-loving children, this sounded like the biggest LEGO challenge ever. Each house represented the kinds of homes the early American immigrants would have had (or desired to have) in their homeland. 

English house in the 1600's
One room of the English house

Irish farm from the 1700s

Many of the stops had friendly, informed volunteers who told us about the era and answered our questions.

A German man cooked era-appropriate food in the
German kitchen. He apologized for not being able to share 
the food with us. The best he could do, he said, was to let us smell his
breath after he finished eating, if we were interested. We weren't.

The tinsmith

One of the favorite stops for all of us was the African compound, probably because we could easily imagine we were back in Ghana. We recognized the woven fish trap (hanging beside the pole on the left side of the picture), the food, the gourds. They even had bamboo and banana plants growing nearby. 

But best of all was the family time. To humor our ride-loving threesome, we rented a golf cart instead of walking two miles around the premises. Walking would have made the most sense, considering we were breaking up a road trip, but the fun of a golf cart easily offset the missed exercise. We drove from one house to the next, happy to be together on a stunning September day.

Waiting in the shadows for the forge's volunteer
to return from his lunch break

Our success in breaking up the journey to South Carolina with the museum and a hotel for the night made us appreciate Steve Gilliland's advice to enjoy the ride.

With that insight freshly impressed upon us, John and I asked the children if they'd like to stop for the night to break up the 11-hour drive home. But anticipating a school holiday the next day, they opted to drive hammer-down with bug-eyed determination through travel weariness and boredom and get home yet that night. 

We humored them. I suppose this means none of us are completely cured of Destination Disease.  

But perhaps we are on the road to recovery. When we only had a few hours to go, our youngest said, "Mommy, I need to snuggle with you." The van needed fuel anyway, so we stopped and fueled up, then sat in the parking lot an extra ten minutes for no better reason than to let the youngest snuggle with his best mommy.

I call that enjoying the ride.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The License Plate Map

Starting point: Lancaster County, PA

Destination: Greenwood, SC 

Our maps app said it would take 9 hours and 52 minutes to drive that distance. But if you add in the inevitable road construction and the child who needs to visit rest stops with shocking regularity and occasional meals to stave off starvation, ten hours wasn't going to get us to the wedding in Greenwood. I knew we would need something to entertain the children along the way. 

We have Scribd, that wonderous library of audiobooks which we listened to by the hour. And we have an endless store of music that we listened to or sang with.

But my stroke of genius was taking along a blank map of the US so we could color in the State of each license plate we saw. John was already locking the house door when I decided to print one, so I begged his pardon and dashed back to the school room long enough to print a blank map. At first there were many spaces to color. But as the trip wore on, coloring in the spaces of much-needed states gave the same rush as fitting in the last pieces of a puzzle. For a long time, Kentucky and Vermont were the only two we needed to finish coloring the eastern half of the US. We dearly wanted them.

I suggested to John that he drive through a rest stop solely so we could read the license plates on the semis. He humored me, but just when we slowed on the ramp of the rest area, the child-with-the-mouse-like-bladder needed to go potty which meant we parked with the cars instead of driving through the corridor of trucks.

Even without a nest of truck plates to aid us, we saw a car from Kentucky in South Carolina and a Vermont tag in Pennsylvania after dark, less than two hours from home. The children were sleeping, so I colored in Vermont with deep satisfaction. 

Our map at the end of our trip

If you want to use this idea, I suggest you consider: 

1. a map for each child. We had one map and while it made the game a fun family event, it also created the question of who gets to color in the spaces. With only two children who wanted the pleasure, it was easily resolved, but larger families might run into larger issues with this.

2. a blank map instead of a labeled one. If I had thought of this fast enough, my children would have honed their map skills along the way. 

3. a map with Canadian provinces as well. After we saw a plate for the third province, I drew them onto the map and hoped no Canadian or cartographer would look at my sketches too closely.

4. coloring each state every time to you see it. This would make commonly seen states dark and infrequent ones much lighter. We considered coming up with a plan for this, but decided against it lest we wear holes in the page for the states we traveled through. But I still think it would add interest to the map of an older child. Color the state black after seeing it ten times, if you don't mind keeping score. 

All told, the map was great entertainment. Even for the mom.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Education and its Dilemma

Our homeschool is about to begin, and I thought it might be an appropriate time to share this article, one I wrote a few years ago.

     I wasn’t going to be a homeschooling mom. My own education took place in a private church school, surrounded by peers. Friendly competitions pushed my grades higher than they might have been if I hadn’t had to announce my score to twenty classmates. With happy memories behind me, I expected my future children to attend a brick-and-mortar school with classmates, chalkboards, and teachers.

     Not only did I have a positive experience to look back on, but a friend shared horror stories of integrating poorly-educated homeschooled children into her classroom. Fourth graders could hardly read. That clinched it. I would never be a homeschooling mom.

      But through the years, the “I will never” was slowly chipped away. I met another kind of homeschooled children. Some were annual winners of the local spelling bee and one child played piano like a master when he was eleven. I met a homeschooling mom who tailored classes to fit the needs of each child, churning out a dozen who knew more than I did. They weren’t social misfits; they spoke comfortably with adults and easily with peers.

    I rubbed shoulders with die-hard homeschooling moms who touted the benefits of teaching your children at home. To some, this was more than an optional schooling alternative; this was a God-given mandate. “God gave your children to you,” they said with their arms around their preschoolers. “It is your job to train your children. It doesn’t seem right to place them in someone else’s care for most of the day.”

     “Plus,” they told me, “when you homeschool, you can tailor the education to fit each child’s learning style, unlike a classroom where everyone is forced to go at a pre-determined pace. This is where homeschooling shines.”

    Other moms, pinning daisies in their hair, said, “I love the flexibility of homeschool.”

     That flexibility part made me wary. I heard of homeschoolers who mowed yard, pulled weeds, and raked leaves for a day of school under the umbrella of “studying agriculture.” I supposed that kind of flexibility produced fourth graders who couldn’t read.

     When my firstborn reached school age, we were in Ghana. I was going to become a homeschooling mom whether I liked the idea or not. Then came the next weighty problem: What curriculum should we use? Opinions rolled in.

    “Using self-paced programs is like tossing a pile of books in your child’s lap and saying, ‘Go educate yourself.’ But homeschooling is much more than that. It is being involved in every area of your child’s life, including their education. Plus, CLE is hopelessly boring.”

     “Abeka is advanced academically but it is very patriotic.”

     “ACE has a terrible writing program. The children are in, like, seventh grade and can’t give speeches or write essays. Plus, ACE is much too easy. All they do is fill in blanks.”

     “Rod and Staff is far too narrow-minded. They even put Adam in a plain-cut suit in the Garden of Eden in one of the illustrations.”

     “If you use any curriculum that doesn’t share your values, you will lose your children to the world.”

     “The whole book approach is the only way to go. You retain information through books you read, not by cramming for tests. Use a program where your children read living storybooks with guided discussions instead of textbooks with tests. These books give your children a whole world education, not one so focused on American history alone. Children need to learn about more than just Christopher Columbus, you know?”

     Using storybooks to educate my children appealed to me, but I sensed strong feelings behind the opposition: “Sonlight recommends ungodly books that condone or make light of sin, just because it is great literature. I would never allow my children to read those books.”

     Seasoned, build-your-child’s-educational-experience-people hinted that sticking with a single publisher for every subject was an inferior way to educate children. “Every curriculum has strengths and weaknesses, so your job is to ascertain your child’s learning style, then pick textbooks based on that. For my oldest son, I use Apologia for science, the Mystery of History for world history, and Saxon for math. But my second child used none of these.”

     And the final piece of advice: “If we are going to reclaim our children’s education, we don’t need to model our days after the public school system. One of the best things you can give your children is a love for learning, and you don’t get that by giving them a stack of textbooks. Learning is meant to be fun! We tried the textbook approach, but it did not work for us. I am not going to have war in my home for the next twelve years trying to force worksheets upon my crying child, so we switched to the whole book approach and it revolutionized our school days.”

     I wasn’t the only one who was unsure about educating my children with no tests and textbooks. "I'd be wary of the 'no worksheets' idea," my cousin wrote. "Sure, Thomas Edison may have learned that way, but Thomas Edison was the exception, not the rule. I'd like to tell those moms that unless they are confident their child will produce the world's next lightbulb, they are safest sitting little Johnny down and having him endure the drudgery of storing information the boring way. I'm all into interesting and hands-on, but there's something rotten at the bottom of this they-don't-even-know-they're-learning approach. I'd say, 'Exactly. And furthermore, does anyone else?'"

    By the time the barrage of opinions ended, we had already dipped cautious oars into the waters of homeschool. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. But judging by the Winds of Opinion, everything I had done so far was wrong, and my boat rocked dangerously. What did it matter if my kindergartener could read simple storybooks and write in cursive, or that my second grader could multiply and divide? I was guilty of being a textbook girl. Too structured. My curriculum was flawed. And my children, in spite of my most interesting diversions, were counting the days until summer break. I was failing, in other words. Maybe sending them to a real school was my only hope of redemption.

     My sense of failure might have shipwrecked our homeschool had voices of encouragement not penetrated my fog. One of them was my husband’s who listened to me process opinions endlessly and was still able to chart a straight course.

     “I’m not comfortable with the whole book, no-textbook approach,” he said. “Let’s use a traditional curriculum, worksheets included, to make sure the foundation is solid. Then, if you want to, add reading material to the side. Our children will get the best of both worlds.”

    “My children have been counting the days until school lets out, too,” one non-homeschooling mom told me. “It is normal at this time of year.”

     “This isn’t a perfect world,” someone else conceded. “School is what you make of it, brick and mortar or homeschool. Curricula are good or bad depending on the teacher. If it is working well for your family, don’t let the naysayers discourage you.”

     Encouraged, I filed my list of Sonlight book titles (mom-approved ones, of course) so I can add them to our library someday. I loosened up just a little until I can enjoy some of the flexibility homeschooling offers. No, I still don’t call a baking spree as a full day of Home Ec, even if they stir in the chocolate chips and press ‘start’ on the timer. But instead of copying a recommended paragraph into a textbook for his penmanship class, my second grader wrote a report on antlions he found on our property. When he read about a blind child, we wrote his name in Braille on cardstock and read a book about Louis Braille. That, in addition to his regular work. He didn’t even know he was learning.

     Indeed, school is what you make of it. For now, we are a homeschool family, making the most of an imperfect curriculum with an imperfect teacher at the helm.