2020: My Year in Review (and what I have learned)

Porch life

Reading my Kindle on our front porch while my husband reheated food on the grill during Hurricane Sally.

Small is almost always better than big . . . the circle of people in your life who care enough about you to help you when things go wrong is really small. They’re a lot of peopleyour friends on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, in the fake digital world . . . but the actual number of people who will take affirmative steps to help you is very very small . . . it’s like eightso your loyalty always has to be to themyour family and your closest friends, above anything else. Period. And anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that your real loyalty has got to be to some larger group of peoplesome political group or some group of people who look like yougive them the middle finger. Those are your enemies. They are trying to destroy the fortifications that will protect you through life, which are the people you love and love you back. — Tucker Carlson

For me, this year was the eye in a storm that included a pandemic, civic unrest, and a hurricane. My university abruptly shifted to online classes in the middle of the spring semester, my daughter’s school closed, and my husband and I found out we were having another child. Being stuck at home for months helped me learn a lot about myself as I reflected on what was going on in the world beyond my little world at home.

I learned that our country is reenacting a civil war, divided not into blue and gray but red and blue (and mask-wearers and anti-maskers). Regarding the masks, I am somewhere in between. I liken wearing a mask in a store to wearing a shirt and shoes, but I don’t wear masks when I’m outside, in my car, or my home. I never realized until this year just how little people respect other people’s space and property.

I learned that public schools are essential, and their purpose shouldn’t be so that both parents can work (school is not a daycare); school should be about educating the population. A quality grade school education shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy; I want to grow up in an educated society. When we lived in a more agrarian society, not everyone had to be as book-smart educated as they are now.

Because schools are essential, teachers are essential workers. We live in a society where both parents often have to work (when people are poor, survival always trumps education, just as paying rent trumps dentistry or eating what’s cheap trumps eating healthy). Homeschooling takes time (which many parents don’t have) and an incredible amount of dedication. Teaching is also a skill. You can be well-educated., but you are not a teacher if you don’t know how to explain something in a way someone else can understand. I’ve learned that it is so much easier to do than teach (though teaching is doing) because teaching depends on our patience and ability to help students overcome obstacles such as a short attention span, learning disabilities, et cetera. If your child has special needs, homeschooling is even more challenging.

I realized that it was a pretty great system when one parent (husband or wife) could work while their spouse could take care of the house and kids. I work from home, my husband pretty much takes care of everything else (though I pitch in on the laundry and dishes whenever I can), and we both homeschool. Our house stays clean and neat, and our meals are wholesome and delicious.

It’s a scary thought, but I realized just how dependent our society is on public school and how much lower-income children need it for education, food, health screenings, counseling, socialization, and so forth. It is deeply disturbing that due to the lockdowns, there are children who are shut up in an abusive house and cut off from the world, with no one to advocate for them. These children may be protected from bullying by other children but not from the adults who are the worst kind of bullies.

As for higher ed, virtual and remote school works for many courses (college students should have the proper scaffolding and be self-motivated enough by that time to distance learn), but most young children need face-to-face instruction. I remember there used to be a rule about no more than two hours of screen time, but I guess that doesn’t apply anymore (though it still does in our house; our TV is rarely on during the day, and I’m not motivated to teach with a tablet).

I keep homeschooling simple: I instruct verbally, using a whiteboard to illustrate my points. We read paper books, do art projects with tactile materials, and use physical objects for math. However, what I teach her is not limited to academics. I teach her the house rules and why they exist. She learns about fitness, nutrition, and proper self-care, as well as having manners, morals, and knowing her intrinsic value. I teach her about having faith in God, the importance of family, and being a good friend.

I realized you can’t be too much of a minimalist if you are homeschooling. I have a whole library of books for bedtime stories, Homeschool Book Club, and ones specifically used to teach children how to read. We also have stacks of games and puzzles and a closet full of art supplies. Everything gets enjoyed.

I realized that my time is more limited than ever. I used to blog thrice a week; now, it’s mostly once a week and only because I have back-up posts, and that’s okay. 

I realized Shirley Jackson is overrated. Many of her stories just end.

I realized how sleazy child beauty pageants are. I used to think they were harmless fun of little girls playing dress up, but with all the child trafficking going on, I realize these pageants sexualize little girls, and it’s abhorrent.

I realized that a Facebook friendship (unlike the Supreme Court) is not a lifetime appointment. And that goes both ways. When a woman I’d thought would be a lifelong friend unfriended me because I disagreed with her on a political issue, I realized that we live in a world where people with different beliefs, if they dare express them to one another, even in the nicest way possible, probably can’t be friends but in the most superficial way. 

I realized that if the holidays are stressing you out, you are doing them wrong. Even though I design all my Christmas cards, not everyone has to get one every year. We use the same Christmas decorations year after year, many of which we got from after-Christmas sales. We plan our holiday menus a month in advance to stock up on items when they are on sale. Also, don’t be afraid to regift (provided what you are regifting is in mint condition and is something you truly believe the other person may like. It’s always lovely to sweeten it up with a little gift card to a lunch out somewhere to support a local business).

I’ve realized that as much as I’ve enjoyed being a student, I’m ready to move on (especially since I have a few lit classes I dread taking). My priorities have changed, and I look forward to having more time for my writing and family. However, I will finish uni because I want to be an example to my daughters that you finish what you start—that children are not a barrier to accomplishing other things besides their raising.

So achieving my other goals may take me a little longer, but I will be doing other great (and fun) things in the meantime. However, it’s okay to admit that being a mother requires sacrifice. If you try to have it all, you’ll end up having to do it all, rather than enjoying all you have.

Cheers to 2021!

The Forgotten Children of 2020

unicornThe little blind child,
who cannot touch Santa’s beard;
the little deaf child,
who cannot read Santa’s lips;
the unborn child,
who exists because two people
were under lockdown
but who may never see
his or her grandparents
except through a screen or glass;
the lonely child,
from whom kindness and touch
is denied him—
like the Romanian babies of Communism;
the poor child,
whose needs remain at the bottom of the pyramid;
the special needs child,
isolated from others like her
but loved without pre-existing conditions—
who sees Santa in a way no one else does,
sensing his spirit in her parents,
if not his presence in strangers.

Practical Minimalism: Things Can Lead to Experiences

Shelfie

Experiences are better than things, but a thing can lead to experiences.

The minimalistic creed that experiences are always better than things is untrue, for I say it depends on the experience (and the thing).  

The experience of going to the library was okay, but the experience of a book I buy and read multiple times is better. Since Covid, I have subscribed to Amazon Kindle Unlimited for me and have added many more books to my daughter’s physical library.

The experience of shopping for a new phone was a hassle, but using that phone to group text my friends for a girls’ night out, promote my Instagram poetry, or play Scrabble is better; buying a new TV was forgettable, but having a 42″ screen where my husband and I watch Wheel of Fortune is better. We bond over skewering Pat for some of the !@#$ he says and the contestants for the bad calls they make. 

The experience of going to the Pensacola Interstate Fair was all right (I make better, and cleaner, fair food at home), but I’ve had just as much fun playing with my daughter in the big blow-up pool (a “thing”) in our backyard.

Some experiences have sucked (like revisiting the Italian restaurant where my husband and I used to go when we met ten years ago), where my time would’ve been better spent watching the current Holiday Baking Championship.

However, some experiences have been wonderful. Sometimes, the simplest experiences are best, such as having a meal at Chick-Fil-A with my family (before Covid), meeting friends for drinks and tacos (or one-on-one for coffee), reading a new bedtime story, playing board games, singing Christmas carols, trying a new baking recipe (will be making my first savory cheesecake next week), making Christmas placemats (a laminator is a must for any homeschooling classroom), creating unique Christmas cards via TouchNotes for some of my friends, and so forth. 

Experiences like these are what life is made of, and most of them aren’t Facebook or Instagram picture-worthy.  

There’s a great quote in the movie Tully, in which Tully tells Marlo (a married mother of three young children who seems to be struggling with the baby blues) that she hasn’t failed but has made her biggest dream come true: “That sameness that you despise, that’s your gift to them [Marlo’s children]. Waking up every day and doing the same things for them over and over. You are boring. Your marriage is boring. Your house is boring, but that’s … incredible! That’s a big dream, to grow up and be dull and constant, and then raise your kids in that circle of safety.”

You don’t have to experience something new every day because every day in and of itself is an experience. My best experiences haven’t always included pictures but are in the stories I tell and the memories I share.

When my job situation often changed (the nature of being a student worker), with my husband and I moving every two or three years (you have to go where you can afford to live), I found myself in a constant state of anxiety. However, we are finally reaching a level of homeostasis that feels an awful lot like contentment (not to be confused with complacency). 

I love my life as it is, which doesn’t mean that I don’t want more; I am just working towards being more. I tell my daughter in homeschool: The more you know, the more you can do, and the richer your life will be, for the more you will be able to do for yourself and others.

I remember a motivational speaker once saying that the two things that make us happiest are helping others and creating something. This Christmas season, I have been fortunate enough to do both. I would also say that staying connected to friends and family (in-person, if possible, or via telephone, not text) is the third part of that, for being giving of your time is the greatest gift.

” … remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

The Diminutive Form of Sarah

Missing the days of summer activities coming to a close
in air-conditioned oases;
of falling asleep on cool sheets under ceiling fans
to Alexa’s thunderstorm sounds;
of resting in peace & dreams,
knowing that the Ring will BOLO for trespassers,
porch pirates,
& all manner of opportunists.
Missing the days of piping hot food
& ice-cold drinks;
of barbecue leftovers in the oven
& banana pudding ice cream,
frozen solid;
missing the days of being blasted 
by the cold dark from the freezer
& bathed by the cool light from the fridge.
Missing the days of glassware that sparkles
& freshly-laundered clothes.
Missing the days of entering a warm shower
& exiting a cool one.
Missing the days of switches instead of wicks,
the security of half-full gas tanks,
& streetlights that banish the creeping, creepy night-dark.
Missing the days of waking up recharged,
with devices fully charged.

Life seems to stop
when the power stops:
For some,
it does,
for others,
time simply passes more slowly:
broken up by weather updates
& neighborhood watch texts—
like x’s on calendars
or dots on a timeline.
Some serve others,
while others wait for service;
still others simply leave
because they can,
taking their face coverings with them
to avoid the Godless wrath of Covid—
an unseen force jockeying with this other unseen force
to be the star of the 24/7 news programming.
In the back of our minds,
we all are pacing
in Life’s Waiting Room—
that most frustrating place to which we all go,
discovered in the lab of Dr. Seuss’s imagination—
except this space is muggy-hot & pitch-black,
dispelled only by the whisper of a breeze
or the flicker of a candle,
& we are suddenly aware of all 
that goes on behind the scenes
to improve our quality of life.

When the World Became Separated

Peppers

When the world no longer had to worry about rude cashiers
or those just having a bad day,
they no longer met the ones who brightened their day
or the ones whose day they could brighten.
When the world no longer stopped for directions,
they didn’t accidentally end up
talking to someone they didn’t know
or question where they were going.
When the world no longer dined out,
there were no more idle conversations with the servers
who didn’t sing for their supper
but auditioned for their livelihood.
When the world no longer went to the movies,
there was no sharing the laughter,
no need for applause,
or even the opportunity to be collectively embarrassed
when something sexually explicit
reared its ugly head.
When the world learned how to make great coffee
and internet access was affordable to all,
coffee shop conversation,
like water cooler talk,
disappeared,
When the parents became the only teachers,
the only children became little adults,
and those with siblings did not learn how to make friends
beyond their bloodline;
for those who did venture into this brave new world
of shared spaces,
while covering their identity and keeping their distance,
saw others not as possible friends
but as carriers of the unseen
that could take their life.
When the world no longer needed to see the faces of those
who had not been filtered through their social media preferences,
they only saw the caricatures on TV—
the programming that had fomented a second civil war
based on the first.
When the bridal showers with sexy gifts
and the weddings with trite toasts
and the ultrasounds with fathers present
and the baby showers with silly games
and the events with boring speeches
and the birthday parties with other children
and the funerals with sad, funny stories of the departed
and the Thanksgiving dinners with heated political conversations
and the Christmas parties with annoying relatives
and the sermons that humanized Jesus
as much as they deified Him
made everyone realize how much they missed just being there
amongst it all,
for everything was no longer happenstance
but deliberate,
and there was a sameness to the days
that made them seem longer but lesser.
Those who could withstand the isolation because they were not alone
found a new appreciation for what and who they had at home,
but those who were alone and susceptible
pined for touch and smell and being present
in real-time
with real people.
When the world finally became unmasked
and love in the time of COVID
returned,
those who had been watching the summer of destruction
through it all
would never see the world
as it had once seemed to be.

Hugs from friends, yes; handshakes from strangers, no: Being an introvert in self-isolation

FlowersI have been in self-isolation since March 15th—the day before my seventh wedding anniversary. Except for picking up a 10-year-old webcam from a friend (which turned out to be incompatible with my 9-year-old PC), dropping Easter dinner off to my dad and grandmother, and a couple of other instances, I’ve been home, not being bored. My husband is the one who goes to the store to get supplies (doesn’t that phrase sound apocalyptic?). He always takes hand sanitizer with him and wears a bandana for a mask, the latter of which I had originally bought for my daughter’s Halloween hobo costume.

Homeschooling a 6-year-old, taking university-level classes that weren’t structured to be online classes, and working full-time (including trying to learn all the ins and outs of Zoom for my college writing tutoring job), on top of trying to ensure I get outside time (I’d go batty without a backyard), working on my “Great American Short Story” (for this year’s Saturday Evening Post’s “Great American Short Story contest”), and binge-watching The Mary Tyler Moore show on Hulu before our free trial runs out has been my life.

I enjoy not having to drive out to University twice a week, trying to find a place to park, lugging an umbrella around, spending money on lunch out, and being stuck there 5 hours (even though my classes are only 2 1/2 hours combined). My writing workshop class isn’t the same, but now that it’s almost over, I realize I could’ve been drinking during class (instant extroversion), but I’m not really a wine person at 11 in the a.m. (That’s what mimosas are for.)

Even though I’m an introvert, I like people—I just don’t like being around them all the time—but being on lockdown means I am in lockdown with my husband and daughter, who are home all the time. Such has been an adjustment, but we’ve adapted. I’m glad that I no longer feel overscheduled as that takes time away from just being (doing all the time gets tiresome).    

I do (not overdo) social media, so I keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. Though it’s not quite the same (and it never will be), it’s something to keep us connected and sharing stories (not just COVID ones), photos, funny memes, random thoughts, and Instagram poems. I thought staying home would be harder than it was, but I’ve realized I need more time in green or blue spaces—more natural therapy than the retail kind. I’ve also learned that when I order things online, it’s a more deliberate choice than when I’m filling up my cart at Target. As for the beach, I don’t love it like I used to. It’s a real drag having to lug an umbrella, chairs, and cooler a quarter-mile trudging through sand. However, if there were no people or waves (and I already lived on it), I would like it more.

Yes, I miss exercising in the pool at the Y, going out with friends (as rare as that is, considering my closest friends are students, have kids, jobs, etc.), browsing the big-box bookstores (where I can read the children’s books to see if they’re good before I buy them), walking around the craft store to get ideas, and even grocery shopping, but those things will be there when this pandemic ends.  

Knowing that makes all this easier.

Though I dig the social distancing (I dislike crowds, not people), I’m not making new connections, and I realized I wouldn’t have the friends I do had I not met them in person first. Though I miss making new friends (or trying to, anyway), I keep in mind this song:

Make new friends,
But keep the old.
One is silver,
And the other, gold.

Brownie points if you figure that one out.

A Light-Year of a Dark Mile

Shamrocke

When the world changed
from 6 degrees of separation
to 6 feet,
the longer this change
became a way of life,
the more that distance began to be
measured by time apart.
Children seemed to disappear
like caterpillars
into the cocoons of their homes,
their siblings their only friends;
but for the only child,
Mom & Dad
became their whole world,
other children,
a voice & a face on a screen.
FaceTiming with the grandparents,
whose hugs had become something dreamlike—
the spicy scent of Grandpa’s Clove gum
& wiry whiskers that felt like pine needles,
the intoxicating scent of Grandma’s Charly perfume
& powdery, rouged cheeks that left their mark—
began to fade into something indescribable.

Ode to TP

TP

No more leaves,
corn cobs,
or pages of the Sears & Roebuck catalogue
(thanks, but no thanks, Fingerhut):
TP is the !@#$.
Whether 2-ply or 3-,
lavender-scented or unscented—
(though floral scents
have an edge at filling
that crack in the vase),
TP takes a lot of crap.
Great for mock
bridal shower dresses,
tree garland
for unloved
principals & profs,
& butt-seat barriers
for public toilets,
TP is on a roll.
Now you’re running out
because of hoarders & bungholes,
but,
like any substitute teacher,
paper towels are willing
to do the job for less.