an accidental feast

The almost-ten-year-old: Afton’s looking at the largest baking bowl we own, full of flour and some other white ingredient…which, from the look on his face, is probably called “regret.”

I ask him what it is. He says it’s four cups flour, and four teaspoons – or was it tablespoons? – of baking powder. Uh oh.

an accidental feast: how we rise when we think we've made a flop

“What are you trying to make?”

He points to the cookbook. “Jalapeño cheesebread, but it’s a double batch.” And that sounds awesome, but he’s using a cornbread recipe and he’s actually quadrupled it. I try to explain that he’ll have to switch recipes and make the cornbread instead, and it’s okay, because I can help figure out the ratios and such…but, no, he says. It’s not okay. Panic is setting in, and he starts speaking desperately, without punctuation:

“I needed four cups but I was using the half-cup scoop so I did eight scoops but I don’t want any cornmeal and do I really have to make cornbread because I want it to be like French bread but I don’t want to have to wait for it to rise!

The rising thing always gets me, too. But no, I tell him, you can’t make French bread, cheesy or otherwise, with baking powder. It needs yeast; it has to rise.

There is a quiet, tense pause. Then he says:

“I think I can separate the flour from the baking powder with static electricity.”

And this, my friends, is why people are afraid to homeschool. They say it’s because they can’t teach high school math, but the truth is they’re terrified their nine-year-old is going to blow up the kitchen by separating flour from baking powder using static electricity.

(That night during dinner cleanup, we asked him where he heard about that. He shrugged and said it was from a science book. I turned to Vin and said, “That does it. No more science.”)

But four batches of cornbread later (perfect, cheesy, drool-worthy, jalapeño cornbread…), he learned a lesson that we all get eventually: things don’t always work out the way we expect, and we don’t always end up where we planned.

We’ve lived here for eight years, but we never expected to end up in Wasilla. Initially, we resisted moving at all and justified it with reasons that sounded good – but it turned out that what we were staying for in Anchorage was exactly what God was trying to get us away from. He had something so much better for us, if we’d trust Him enough to let go.

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And we did let go. But we thought we were supposed to move to Eagle River, and when we started looking, there was nothing available there. We searched and prayed and eventually went with plan B: we found land in Palmer. We made plans and a million phone calls, and hired subcontractors to build a house, and ten days before we were supposed to break ground, our bank went under…so that didn’t work out, either.

Sometimes when things don’t work out, fear starts to take root: What if this is the beginning of a pattern, and the next bend in the road is even worse? What if we think He told us to do this, but we heard wrong? What if we’re just waiting for the next shoe to drop?

But…what if none of those scenarios are the case at all?

What if the things in our lives that aren’t working out only seem that way because they’re not finished yet?

What if we are judging the end product by the messy middle phase? Like cake or cornbread that needs to bake for an hour, but we pulled it out of the oven when it’s still doughy and unset – we followed the recipe, used all the right ingredients, but we checked its progress too early. It’s not done yet because there’s no shortcut to waiting for it to rise.

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I still don’t know why He didn’t just tell us right out to move to Wasilla nine years ago. Maybe He knew it was too far off our radar and we had to warm up to the idea; maybe there were timing issues; maybe He knew we were stubborn (no way) and wanted to test our obedience. Maybe it was a million different things.

Maybe He wanted to teach us that even when life doesn’t go the way we plan, it still works out. He knew we would need to remember that in the years ahead.

The end product might not look at all what we signed up for. It might not be what we wanted at all  — no one plans ahead anticipating disease, disaster, divorce, or other heartbreak. That’s fair; He doesn’t want those things either and He grieves with us. But He is the master at taking the most screwed up recipes — all of our accidents, failures, and near-misses — and even when it feels like we’re having hot water for dinner, He’s redeeming it all into a gourmet feast.

Life needs yeast in order to rise.

And sometimes, things are hard simply because that’s the nature of expanding our comfort zone, living and learning deep and wide. It’s not because we are failing; it’s because we are not those who shrink back…even from homeschool.

That same kid, a few days later, is right back at it — and this time he has a project he wants to tackle with the sewing machine. The fabric is stretchy, the machine is unfamiliar, and he looks up at me.

“I prayed first,” he says, and hits the pedal.

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!

westward ho

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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work that God sees: a lesson for mothers

Daylight is increasing rapidly now and it’s slanting into our house in ways we haven’t seen in a year.  I notice it reflecting off two pieces of old scotch tape on the ceiling. They must’ve been from the paper snowflakes that we hang at Christmastime every year…except last year I was sick and we had kittens and everything was running on minimalist survival mode. Now that I think of it, we didn’t hang snowflakes last year. So those pieces of tape have been there for at least 15 months and I never noticed.

work that God sees: a lesson for mothers

And they’re still on ceiling. Knowing they are there is an entirely different thing from taking the time to stop what I’m doing to drag the piano bench over and stand on my tiptoes to flail at small pieces of plastic that may or may not come off in one piece. Even in the magical second trimester it sounds exhausting. Not to mention dangerous.

The days are so full, there’s no time for nesting yet. I’d love to nest, to find more margin and quiet. But this season is pregnant in many ways, and just getting through the school day is enough to drive me batty.

Check this journal assignment. Print out these papers. Figure out how to multiply algebraic fractions. Find a map of Cape Horn. Check on the progress of the avocado plant, and find out exactly how toxic it is to cats who like to attack houseplants.

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I don’t mind doing school with the kids. You might think I’m nuts for saying this, but I even kind of like re-learning algebra with our oldest. It’s a game, a puzzle, a mystery with a perfect solution. Give me a quiet room and some time with a sheet of paper and a sharp pencil, and I’m a happy, geeky camper.

What I do mind is trying to help one kid with algebra on my left while helping another kid with arithmetic on my right, fielding questions from two other kids, and keeping a covert eye on another child who would rather do the potty dance than ask politely to go to the bathroom. It’s whiplash where I need white space, and it makes me the grumpiest camper in the house.

I’ve noticed that I get super peevish when they take turns asking the same question in five minute increments so I get to answer the same thing over and over and over. What’s for dinner? When’s Dad coming home? Are you going to share that chocolate?

My answers (and temper) get pretty short. Food. Later. Are you kidding?!

My other sore point lately is interruptions — which I thought we had conquered, but these things crop up again after a while until we are playing Bad Manners Whack-A-Mole — and I am quickly fried when I’m in the middle of an important talk with one kid only to have another kiddo (or two or three) come in and simultaneously ask/request/complain about something as urgent as an argument over who left the jar of peanut butter on the counter.

Before I boil over, I send two-thirds of them outside — all the math I have brainpower left for — and gut a squash for dinner. Are they ever listening? Don’t they see what I’m already doing?

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The honest answer is No, not always. And part of it, I know, is that I need to be listening closer and seeing them more, too. So much of it comes back to the mama and the environment created by her own attitude.

But another part of it is that they should not have to hear or see everything, because we are not doing our work for bragging rights, recognition, or applause. We are doing a work that God sees.

And why they went I cannot tell: some say it was to win gold. It may be so; but the noblest deeds which have been done on earth have not been done for gold. It was not for the sake of gold that the Lord came down and died, and the Apostles went out to preach the good news in all lands…

And there are heroes in our days also, who do noble deeds, but not for gold. Our discoverers did not go to make themselves rich when they sailed out one after another in to the dreary frozen seas’ nor did the ladies who went out last year to drudge in the hospitals of the East, making themselves poor, that they might be rich in noble works. And young men, too, whom you know, children, and some of them of your own kin, did they say to themselves, “How much money shall I earn?” when they went out to the war, leaving wealth, and comfort, and a pleasant home, and all that money can give, to face hunger and thirst, and wounds and death, that they might fight for their country and their Queen? No, children, there is a better thing on earth than wealth, a better thing than life itself’ and that is, to have done something before you die, for which good men may honour you, and God your Father smile upon your work.

– Charles Kingsley, The Heroes

Yes. All of that. But still…it would be nice to know that something grand is coming out of all this mundane chaos. The laundry will always need to be done, the budget will always need to be met, and the lessons (academic and otherwise) will always need to be taught. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up and do it all over again, and our kids will be one day older. And so will we. And where are we going with all of these days, anyway?

Is it someplace grand? Is it something beyond dishes and manners and algebra?

And He answers in scripture, in His own words:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.

– John 14:12, ESV

Honestly, I don’t think this is a very helpful answer at first because I’ve never really understood it. We will do greater things than He did? I checked the Greek, and “greater” really does mean greater: larger, older, louder, more.

Greater things than this we will do…did You really mean that? Is that what we’re doing? How is that possible?

Yes, I meant that, He says, and it’s possible for many reasons.

But for starters…well, Love, I was never a mother.

thrown a curve

Don’t hate me, but my husband is amazing at doing the laundry. He tackles most of it on Mondays when I’m puttering around the house with other projects — and I guess I never noticed this before, but even though he does the bulk of it, I’m usually the one who folds the fitted sheets. I finally realized this because as I was getting fresh sheets out of the closet, they looked…well, not like I had folded them. More like they’d been used to loosely mummify someone’s forearm, and then firmly stuffed into the shelf to avoid unwrapping. Vin later confirmed that this was exactly what he’d done.

thrown a curve: navigating unfamiliar territory without fear (Copperlight Wood)

Now, if the fitted sheets in your closet look like that, I’m not judging you. I never thought fitted sheets were actually supposed to be folded once they came out of the package, but that for the remainder of their days the owners must resort to wadding them up like a fat gauze bandage. Or, like a huge replica of a salvaged roll of toilet paper after Knightley has unrolled approximately three miles of it.

But I was nurtured by a sweet and savvy grandma who not only introduced me to Jesus, but also taught me mysteries of the gospel including, but not limited to, old hymns, soup on Sundays, and the art of folding a fitted sheet. And no, height wasn’t an excuse, because she was just a wee nudge past five feet tall. Despite the fact that I had grown up thinking that it just isn’t done, she au contraire’d me and showed how simple it was:

It’s the pockets. Make sure they’re empty – no straggling socks or unmentionables hiding in there – and just tuck them in each other. Fold over, retuck. Fold in the curved sides. Fold again, with straight sides, and done – a beautiful rectangle of linen closet goodness.

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It was not impossible. It was amazing. Anyone can handle a flat sheet with straight sides, but the fitted sheet throws us because of the curves. Like so many tasks in life — dumb stuff, big stuff, life-changing stuff — what seems to be impossible is usually just unfamiliar territory.

Buttercup: We’ll never survive!

Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.

– The Princess Bride

Every endeavor that we tackle has innumerable details and problems that we don’t know how to solve at first. Starting a business, starting a family, starting a mission, or just starting over – we quail too early, too often, when thrown for a curve. So much is at stake in our wavering.

We all know the stories about how the American Revolution was a difficult and often desperate struggle. But we forget in hindsight how unlikely it was that our forefathers would succeed. Many times defeat seemed all but inevitable. Yet that small band of patriot-statesmen achieved a victory against a long-established ruler of seemingly unlimited power and authority. They did so by remaining dedicated to America’s cause and to each other…fighting hard at every turn…knowing that their success or failure would determine whether they, or possibly any people, would ever fight again for the great cause of self-government.

– Paul Ryan, quoted from Imprimis, July/August 2014 (reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College)

I get confounded over the dumbest things sometimes. Most of them involve technology. We’re formatting Upside Down to paperback (and then we hope to move into large print…!) and it took me an embarrassing amount of time just to learn how to delete a page that I couldn’t even figure out how to access. That done, I had to remove a footnote separator that had been plaguing me for months. Little details left undone, pockets left with unmentionables hiding in them, stalling the clean look of a finished product.

It’s a learning curve, and sometimes I don’t want to learn. But after some tense touch-and-go strife with the lens cap, I even figured out how to use our new camera. Then I finally discovered how to change my contact email on most of my important accounts, and then, oh unstoppable momentum — tada! — converted to a Pinterest business account. All roads lead to Pinterest.

We tend to mistake the unexpected, unknown, or inconvenient for the impossible. But…au contraire

And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”

– Judges 6:14-16, ESV

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

– Joshua 1:9, ESV

More than fitted sheets, more than irritating technology (or whatever your personal bane is), we face circumstances and events not bargained for on our knees. We do not know how to do this, we don’t know how it’s going to work out, we don’t remember signing up for this. We don’t know if we’re strong enough.

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But we do know that champions aren’t made on the easy paths, where every plan goes perfectly. Roads with curves are far more beautiful than straight highways. And maybe this is just my Alaskan bias, but rugged mountain landscapes always trump the flat, treeless prairies. People don’t stop in wonder while driving through flatlands like they do when they see the mountains and valleys wrought by tension that made the earth shake and change its shape.

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Your story, and my story, is more breathtaking with curves.

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

– Ephesians 2:17-19

What we really need is someone to show us the way through the unknown. We fight the feelings of it just isn’t done with the au contraire of the Father who loves us and has good plans for us in the midst of the unexpected.