anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

There’s an unfinished newsletter sitting in this word document above the words I’m typing, due in two days.

There’s another post just below them. And besides these, there’s another unopened document full of unused notes and unfinished scraps of thought, and two books that shift so often from the back burner to the front burner and back again that the contents of both are muddled and I’m not sure which is which.

This is my life. I’m not sure if it’s the seven kids – it’s easy to blame distraction on them – or just me. Probably, it’s just me.

When we go for a drive I don’t just bring one ball of yarn, or one knitting project. Oh, no. Because we might get stuck in traffic, or the next world war might start, or an undiscovered underwater volcano might erupt and take out the only bridge between Anchorage and the MatSu Valley, and a girl needs some yarn on hand for delays. Friends, I take a work in progress, two sets of needles, a notebook, travel scissors, and enough yarn in eight colors to make hats for every toddler in southcentral Alaska.

anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

These are called live stitches. They’re what happen when one of those toddlers finds a mitten-in-progress and pulls the needles out.

And live stitches, as knitters know, are really just dying stitches if they’re not secured to something. Off the needle, they are without anchor and vulnerable to the slightest tug rendering them nonexistent.

That’s us, too. I grew up in a city called Anchorage and was well into my teens before I got past the familiarity of its name and realized it wasn’t just my hometown, it was a real word that meant something.

Mooring. Refuge, dock, port, harbor.

It’s not a place to stay, of course. I don’t mean the city (though that was the case for us), but the safe place. We are meant for the wide ocean, but sometimes we take on too much water.

Why could he not bring order to his life? Why could he not clear his table of its clutter of books and papers and concentrate on just one book, one subject? Why did imagination so often intervene…?

“Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze.”

– David McCullough, John Adams

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I like that word, ballast. It means equilibrium, balance, counterweight, stability, support. It’s what you get in anchorage – the word, not the city. Well, maybe the city, but don’t count on it.

And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

– Mark 6:51, ESV

Jesus didn’t chide his disciples for their boat being too small, or for going out into the storm. He didn’t say, “Wow, you’ve got a full plate,” and lecture them about taking on more than they could chew.

He didn’t preach to them about how irresponsible it was to be far out from shore, away from the safety of anchorage.

He was the anchorage. He brought the ballast with Him.

I need that, because we have bigger issues here than knitting addictions and unfinished chapters. I’m writing some more on this Jesus-in-the-storm ballast for that newsletter, and you can subscribe here to get it in your inbox. It’ll go out in a couple of days, barring volcanic eruptions, velociraptor sightings, or the zombie apocalypse…in which case I’ll be knitting, probably.

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the day of small things

Our oldest is now a big fifteen-year-old. He reaches things off the high shelves, opens tight jars for me, and chops wood. He even (gasp) shaves. He was our smallest baby — now he wears Vince’s shirts that have shrunk in the wash.

the day of small things - Copperlight Wood

On his big day, Vin took him and four of his siblings on a birthday outing and left me at home with the other two kids and the task of making clam chowder for lunch. Piece of cake.

The two boys who stayed home played close by while I chopped potatoes and onions. They spun gears in the dining room, wearing the varnish off the table. Maybe I should’ve stopped them. Maybe I should’ve told them to simmer down, just a little. But I didn’t – it was a beautiful moment, them playing together like normal kids, making noise and messes and laughing memories. We need more of this.

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The music was loud and the sun streamed in, and the house was completely still except for the shrieking activity around the table and the flames under the soup pot. Maybe that doesn’t describe stillness to you, but to me it was like our house was in a coma.

What to do, what to do…I was at a loss once the soup was simmering. It’s astonishing how inspired you can be with three shots of espresso and only two kids in the house.

I could read. I could turn on the computer and open that file of 60,000 words I’m working on. I could wash the kitchen windows. I could re-pot the rootbound plant on the counter. I could do almost anything short of flying to the moon — but no, I only had a few minutes before they all came back home, and I needed to keep an eye on the stove to keep what was simmering from scorching.

I scrubbed the grime and grungus off the sink dropper – such a little thing. The hot water ran and the steam rose, and stainless steel started to shine again. The sun hit it and sparkled, and I realized this was the first day of blue skies after a week of dreary, smeary grey in the weary early winter.

We had our first frost last night – this morning the lawns are all grey, with a pale, bright sunshine on them: wonderfully beautiful. And somehow exciting. The first beginning of winter always excites me; it makes me want adventures.

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children

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The big boy and crew came back hungry for chowder and full of news about the new Lego store. This kid got his first Lego set when he was three years old. That was only ten minutes ago, and now he builds them into robots. Little things into big things.

…but who dare despise the day of small things, if it has proved to be the dawn of mighty ones?

– Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!

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I’ve been working on this blanket for years – you can tell, because the color scheme dates it back to the sixties (kidding, but not kidding…) – and it’s finally down to just two squares and trimming left. In this day of imported department store specials, it feels both trivial and sacred to spend time on it compared to everything else going on in and around us. There’s always more to be learned, taught, cooked, written, cleaned, hugged, and disciplined; the dishes and laundry are never done. There are pages to read, and pages to write. And there is always more stitching to do – but the difference with stitching is that you can see exactly what progress has been made.

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A finished book can go on a shelf, but there’s no way to measure what was really absorbed in the reading. The hamper will be full again tomorrow. And you can teach and lecture and assign consequences till the cows come home but those kids are still going to tie fake spiders to the tail of their little brother’s favorite stuffed animal, and try to get the cat to walk on his front legs wheelbarrow style, and color their own body parts with green marker. I’ve, um, heard it happens. In some families.

But with this blanket, I can see exactly what’s been achieved. This row, that round of colors – done. And that is incredibly satisfying in the midst of all the other intangibles.

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Our kids are big and little, busy and slow, high school and infant, and life right now is full of their needs and their changes and their noise. These days I often feel rootbound, spinning gears. I typed most of this one handed while holding this almost-four-month-old, who will be a big fifteen-year-old in about ten minutes. There are a million things I could do, but I don’t regret holding him. I don’t regret keeping an eye on these kids to keep what is simmering in them from scorching.

The dirty socks, the worn-down pencils, the minutes that fill long and short days – small things, baby steps, leading to mighty movements. It is the sacred monotony of these early days that write history.

slow going: a case for resisting the rush to do it all

This is weeks in the making. Like almost everything else lately, blog posts are slow going — two paragraphs at a time, about four nights a week – and from my station on the couch I can see dishes overcrowding the kitchen counter that I haven’t taken care of yet. There’s some folded laundry on the back of the other couch that still needs to be taken upstairs. A zillion other little things probably need to be done but I refuse to think too hard about them — we’ve reached the stage of Take It Easy And Don’t Get Too Ambitious, For Crying Out Loud.

Or if you prefer, the British version:

KEEP CALM

IT’S THE THIRD TRIMESTER

There’s this silly little fantasy I’ve had forever. Chalk it up to reading too many L.M. Montgomery books in adolescence, but I’ve always longed to have our beds covered in handmade quilts and afghans. Not store-bought, not mass-produced, not matchy-matchy trendy designs that will be out-of-date in less than five years (hello, chevron). Just handmade, homemade, cozy goodness.

It has yet to happen. The only beds in our family that have ever been covered in hand-stitched virtue are cribs and toddler beds, and since most of us don’t fit in those anymore, there’s still a lot of stitching to do. I’ve had three blankets in progress for about six years. I might just make it before our oldest graduates and moves out…but won’t hold my breath.

slow going: a case for resisting the rush to do it all

He’s starting high school. I have no idea how that happened.

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We school year-round and our summer term just started: Twain, Tozer, Tennyson. Kim by Kipling. Life of Fred and lots of writing. Beatrix Potter and Mother Goose; language arts and language therapy. Nature study and sewing and robotics, oh my. This is all happening.

But it’s not happening at a frenetic, must-get-it-all-done, no-time-to-smell-the-roses pace. It’s gradual, not graded; slow, not sloppy. It is often outside, or under the blanket fort, or all over the kitchen table, or in the garden, as we go.

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It’s no rush. One of the beauties of the year-round routine is that learning is a lifestyle, opposed to the whiplash of longer days packed with schoolwork for months at a time interspersed with weeks of (relatively) empty leisure that several of our kids (and honestly, myself) just have a really hard time with. We need the consistency of shorter school days with more free time. I don’t think we do more or less than other homeschoolers who have a more traditional schedule; we just spread it out a little more evenly – like jam on toast, versus jam on a waffle.

(oh…waffles…)

But either way the schedule runs, this lifetime of learning never feels done, and we’re tempted to feel constantly behind because there are always more subjects, more books, more things to try, than there is time for. Like making a postage stamp quilt by hand for a king-sized bed, it’s practically never ending and meant to be that way. If we were looking for a quick fix we’d be less interested in the process and more interested in just slapping two sheets together and buzzing them together by machine, all matchy-matchy…which is strangely similar to what happens in many places where bureaucracy trumps the joy of learning.

slow going collage

Learning kindles more learning, like rows of stitches built on the rows before – one day at a time, one page at a time, one stitch at a time.

A child . . . must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible programme.

– Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 161-2

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It doesn’t look the same for each kid. One of our daughters goes outside with the Alaska Wild Plants book to identify young growing things in her journal, but we have other kiddos who just want to play in the dirt and climb trees – no inspirational sketchbooks, no field guilds, and may the good Lord help you if you even think of mentioning the phrase “nature study” – but if given enough room, these same kids will surprise us with an accurate and detailed hand-drawn map of our yard and house.

I can’t take credit for those things. I’ve tried to assign projects like them before, and from the wailing and gnashing of teeth that ensued, you’d think I’d told the kids we were all going to have our molars extracted without anesthesia.

In the spirit of choosing our battles, I’ve learned (slowly) that they need room to come up with most of these projects and ideas on their own. The very same kid who made this such a painfully clear lesson recently spelled out all the differences between Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas — who have blurred fuzzily for me since elementary school — and I asked him how he knew so much. He said he read about them from a book that’s been on his brother’s bed – not an assigned book, not for school, just for perusing. No assignments, no narration, no pressure. No wailing and gnashing of teeth.

He’s the one entering high school with a year of early algebra credit already under his belt. And I am so proud of him, but we’re not learning for credits or bragging rights or degrees.

We’re learning because He made us to grow and seek Him out. We find Him in science, in literature, in relationships, in the slow and steady pursuit of stitching life together. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. 

And it takes lots of timeThe dishes can wait.

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worth keeping

I’m not sure if this means that nesting has started or not, but I started making an ambitious new baby sweater – skinny needles, thin wool, and a pattern with a mock-cable stitch that I’ve wanted to try since at least three babies ago.

worth keeping: truth for mamas who feel threadbare

I showed it to Vin. “It looks…girlish,” he said.

“That’s because the photo shows it in pink, on a girl. I’m making it in blue, see?” I hold up all the work I have to show for myself – ¾ inches of knitted fabric on a long metal needle with steel blue wool attached to it. A masculine, virile color, even for someone who spits up and wears onesies.

“No, it’s the style.”

“It’s a cardigan.”

“Well, cardigans are girlish.”

“No, they’re not. Boys can wear cardigans.” But I pause to reconsider, remembering a recent court hearing we went to for our friends’ adoption, where at least a dozen Alaskan boys in attendance wore their favorite flannels.

“Well, little boys can definitely wear cardigans,” I tell him. “Little boys in Ireland and England probably wear cardigans all the time.”

He shrugs and starts to walk upstairs. But, oh no, that’s not the end of this argument.

I yell up after him. “Hey! Churchill wore cardigans!”

And that, my friends, is the end of the argument.

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We organized the girls’ closet that same weekend. This was also probably not nesting, just us noticing that it’s time for the clothes to shift down to the next youngest sibling regardless of how much the nine-year-old loves her size 4T hoodie. We managed to smuggle out some of the rattiest clothing ever known to Oliver Twist’s old orphanage.

Paint stains. Food stains. Ripped knees, torn lace, shredded cuffs, and elastic stretched beyond recognition – items of clothing so well-loved that no amount of reason or dignity could convince a child that they were hopelessly unsalvageable and that so help me if you somehow slip past inspection and manage to wear these in public again I might be tempted to throw myself in front of a fast-moving grocery cart in the produce aisle.

Most of it went in the burn barrel, but some of it was hoarded with a stash of fabric scraps to wait for the day when I am a perfectly sanctified crafty mama who can turn her children’s favorite clothing into a quilt. Or, maybe a doll’s blanket. Or…let’s be realistic. A pincushion.

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Because I get threadbare, too. Worn and unraveled, some days I find myself in my favorite flannel – the one with the missing button and torn pocket – and the piano teacher comes over and sees me in it and, well, what the heck. Who cares.

Or, other days – and I can neither confirm nor deny that it was today – the internet repair guy comes 40 minutes early, and contrary to the assurances on the phone that they wouldn’t even need to enter the house, they not only do have to enter the house, but they also have to rearrange your furniture, knock over a vase, and access the crawlspace while six kids are everywhere and two of them can’t do their school assignments because, wouldn’t you know, the internet is down again.

We are sweeping up shards of the morning before the breakfast dishes are even cleaned up, and No, you can’t help me, there’s glass and you might hurt yourself and my temper is on the verge of calling a taxi. It feels like an already shattered day is hopelessly unsalvageable and my edges are all ragged, sharp, and bleeding. Some days we are stretched beyond recognition and motherhood feels hopelessly unsalvageable.

But, oh no, that’s not the end of the argument.

The truth is, friend, that these days of fraying and tear-staining are evidence of a mama who is so well-loved that no amount of reason or dignity could convince a child that they were hopelessly unsalvageable. We are worn to softness from daily use by children who run to us constantly for comfort, like that favorite blanket, never outgrown.

And yes, the over-use probably indicates that we need to do some extra hemming to put some hard edges into our days – a firm break here, a no-holds-barred nap there, and a bedtime that takes no prisoners – and doing so puts less wear and tear on everyone.

We are easier on our kids when we are easier on ourselves…and we’re in better shape than we think. You, and me, and these days, are worth keeping.

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P.S. But that sweater pattern? Iree checked it out and said, “Looks kinda…girlish.” (sigh)

 

cover me

A glittering day. The sun is up, but not awake yet – its light is still copper, like a red-haired child with curls sticking out every which way, rubbing his eyes. Morning came early and my hair is still damp from last night’s shower.

Three girls are up and bickering, requiring intervention at an average rate of two minutes per child, so in six minutes I’ve thrown the covers back three times. I give up and grab the coffee, and start throwing it back, instead.

cover me: resting in the waiting, when we want to hurry up and smell the roses (Copperlight Wood)

The day moves into breakfast, chores, lessons. You know how this goes – small details, a few more assignments every day, success gained in baby steps. Like the new blanket that will warm us in the fall, growing stitch by stitch – we work on it for a while, check our progress, and by golly – it doesn’t look any more finished than it did three weeks ago. It’s not nearly big enough to cover us. It’s nowhere near the size it’s supposed to be. And yet, there must be some progress, because I can see the colors changing.

The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child’s soul, will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards.

– Charlotte Mason, Home Education

cover me: resting in the waiting, when we want to hurry up and smell the roses (Copperlight Wood)

But we are impatient. Many days it feels like we’re caught somewhere between the need to enjoy the peculiarities of this season, and the need to rush some changes so we can enjoy this time more effectively. It’s a weird uneasiness, this hurry-up-and-smell-the-roses feeling.

That afternoon, on the couch with a sunburn so radioactive that NASA is probably tracking me, I’m trying to finish the last twenty pages of this Charlotte Mason book I started reading two years ago. I’m struggling mightily with that “power of attention and will” she speaks so highly of because there are five kids outside the open window telling stories to each other, eating lunch in a fort they made from a tarp and the patio table.

Over the clink of forks on plates and rustling of leaves in trees, I hear Iree, in an overdone British accent. “Loooong agooo, before the pushmi-pullyu was extinct—”

Andrey interrupts. “What is dat? It stinks? Ewww!!”

“No, extinct. Dead. No more of them are around anymore.” I can hear someone snickering – probably Afton, that red-haired child with curls everywhere.

The wonder that Almighty God can endure so far to leave the very making of an immortal being in the hands of human parents is only matched by the wonder that human parents can accept this divine trust with hardly a thought of its significance.

– Charlotte Mason, Home Education

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That night, like so many nights after the kids are in bed, we decompress and evaluate the day. Sometimes we look at the week and year ahead. We look at behavior and progress, in us and in our kids, and we wonder if the colors are changing.

We wonder if a child is ready for more freedom. We wonder if another child is ready for more responsibility. We wonder about our own faith – sometimes it feels like it’s not nearly big enough to cover us. It’s nowhere near the size it’s supposed to be.

We pray, and Vin puts it into words for me. “God, we’ve planted a lot of seed. We’re waiting…but we’re tired of looking at just dirt.”

And I remember something a friend said to me recently about attachment: The best progress is the slow progress. The best healing is the deep healing. Growth, and grief – they both process slowly.

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For the wife, sister, friend, daughter, mama – for the overrun one who finds herself crouched on the bathroom floor, elbows on knees, head in hands: When we feel like we’re making bricks without straw, we run to the unruffled One who calmly used a basket of loaves and fish to feed thousands.

Never fear, whatever may happen. You are both being led. Do not try to plan. I have planned. You are the builder, not the Architect.

Go very quietly, very gently. All is for the very best for you.

God Calling, edited by A.J. Russell

cover me: resting in the waiting, when we want to hurry up and smell the roses (Copperlight Wood)

On Sunday I sat with a child who never knew how to be held by a mother – who didn’t know how to relax in affection but would only submit in stiff fear: body rigid, legs unbending. She’s been our very own push-me-pull-you as she learns about body space, gentleness, and appropriate touch. And now she leans, rests against my side during the church service – not in fierce pushing as before, but gently laying her head on my shoulder. She nestles there, hands folded, legs hanging off the chair, one sandal kicked off. Resting.

It’s only because He is big enough to cover us, all of us. We can see the colors changing. Slowly, stitch by stitch, we make the blanket that warms and shelters.