Thursday, 28 September 2017

Living our lives

Annie Dillard writes that “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Our days are big and busy. They are filled with very good things. We have jobs we love and side hustles we enjoy and hobbies we’re learning and a family that craves time together. But we sprint from breakfast to bed. We rush. We wish for margin. And there is one part of the day that bothers us. A lot. Every day, on the morning commute, Oscar asks a question. A wonderful, eye-widening question. Okay, sometimes they are ridiculous: “If ear wax tasted good, would you eat it?” But more often than not, they inspire action research. More often than not he wants to know if the chemical that changes a chameleon’s color can be used for other purposes or if we can cook our own bubble gum or if any of the wildflowers on grampa’s farm are edible and could he dare his cousins to eat them or how can he build his own hydraulic lift at home and raise the dog to the ceiling and also if we ever went to Dia de los Muertos celebrations someday could he paint his own skeleton costume and could it be an esqueleto with a light saber? But seeing as we are on the expressway and have meetings in twenty minutes, and a whole lotta doing ahead and some people only got in half a cup of coffee, we tell him that when we get home we’ll look that up. For four school years, our son has inquired about his world, marveled at his planet and potential projects (and his ear wax), wanted to figure something out from a genuine place of interest, and we have replied with, “When we get home, let’s look that up.”
And when we get home, because we are tired people in our 40s, and we never got to all our emails during the day, and Oscar is eager to start building that Lego hot dog stand, and we are staring down an overflowing to-do list that we created ourselves full of things we want to do but are so overwhelmed by that we do something else--we do not look things up.

If Annie Dillard is right, and if Gretchen Rubin is correct when we she says, “What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while,” then it’s more than just Oscar starting to ask big questions.

Our school is turning a lens towards personalized learning, and the last two summers I’ve carefully watched my son through that perspective. I’ve watched how he chooses to learn when unfettered. My summertime boy is a joyful creature. He runs wildly outside, chases cousins barefoot through sagebrush (a plant he’s possibly dared them to eat), investigates snakes, and builds outdoor hideouts with hand-drawn construction paper campfires. He also returns with stacks of delicious books from the library, draws blueprints of booby traps he plans to set for his mother, creates local bakery donut rubrics, and beats me in card games. We are not a family that knows the word “bored”. Like us, Oscar creates and plans and builds. This is a family of makers.
As we learn how to offer our students more choice, agency, and individualization here in Singapore, those morning question deferments really get under our skin. We are bothered by our state as school-year-inside-people, quietly crafting independently away in air conditioning. We are unsettled. It worries us that this magical age of questions and wonder and not rolling-your-eyes at your parents might pass us by---another line on a todo list we didn’t get to.

It’s time--maybe the best time and only time and most timely time--for a reset. For a todo list that includes planting a garden and planning a canoe trip and heading to the library to get books on chameleons.

Beginning in June, we’re going to live in a tiny house among family pear orchards in a little town in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll settle next door to Patrick’s siblings, two sets of beloved cousins, one cousin-we-call-uncle, an aunt who is actually a first cousin, a magician who is a third cousin, the magician’s daughter who is an artist, the artist’s husband who makes good margaritas, six chickens, two amazing grandparents, one black lab, and several sets of friends (some of whom, yes, are cousins). We’re going to offer to test out your outdoor gear, house-sit your lake home, and drive your campervan. We’re going to be rooted and also nomads. We’re going to see if all those hobbies we’ve filled evenings with can pay the medical insurance. We’re going to teach Oscar to pull weeds and rake autumn leaves and knock down icicles. We’re going to practice our Spanish in Mexico (hopefully in time for Dia de los Muertos) and our physics on the ski hill (Well, actually, Patrick warns me that I’m going to blow out my knee if I learn to downhill ski at 42. But that too is an opportunity for inquiry).
We are very aware that some of this will be hard. Or frustrating. Or a failure. We expect to get exasperated with one another. I anticipate my role as a homeschooling mom to be one that I welcome ending after nine months. I worry people will interpret our year as a rebellion against school or stable jobs. Are you kidding? No way. We are enormous fans of both, and we plan to return to both. With relish. But as Oscar only has memory of one season (hot), and continues to ask questions despite our apathy at answering, and he seems to enjoy our company, and Patrick and I both have parents we’d like to love on, and North America has some pretty darn good outdoor adventure, and it just seems in every aspect to be the very best and possibly only time to do this---we’re taking a leap to live differently for a year.

At its worst, we’ll be crying for a schedule by June 2019 and relishing heading back to “normal” overseas teaching life. And what a grand worst that is. I chose it 14 years ago, and I’ll choose it again. (Gratefully. Please. Hire me.) I value it, and I’ll miss it. At its best, we’ll have brought the neighbor a home-baked pie, hiked new trails, pickled homegrown green beans, built our own kayaks, expanded our Spanish, hugged grandmas, babysat cousins, illustrated things, written words, talked to people, explored ideas, paid the bills, loved each other and cultivated the margin we crave. I’ll take either option. And I’ll know that we spent every day living our lives. I have no doubts that some days in our 500 square foot cabin will incite sighs and job searching and enrollment letters to the local elementary school. There will be compromises. There will be winter flus. There will be conflict. We’ll all be sharing one bathroom, for heaven’s sake. But I also have hope that we will have mornings where Oscar asks a question, a really good question, and it leads to reading together. And then getting out a map. And hopping on our bikes. And exploring a new trail. And having a picnic lunch that Oscar packed from food we grew ourselves. We won’t have to ask Oscar to wait when he asks. We won’t forget to get back to him. As a family, we will have time and space (well, 500 square feet of it) to seek the answers to all of our questions together.

PS. Lest you think we’re all sunshine and rainbows, do know that we expect a little of this:

worry tank.jpg


  1. Brilliant. Inspiring. Worthy. Enviable. This is a life worth living. Do it.

  2. While SAS was a huge blessing in my life, there is so much livin' to be experienced once you leave... at a leisurely pace... with time to smell the flowers. Be open to the possibility that this one year experiment may become a lifestyle for life... tiny house movement, living with less but living more fully. A grand adventure lies ahead. Congratulations!

  3. Love it! All the best for you three. And we will do that illustrated book!

  4. Rebecca shared your blog with me and I just texted her this message about you, Becky: "Man, that girl can write!" And you can ... and you will. Please know you are ALWAYS welcome to spend some time in Bellingham at my little home with Catniss, the cute and very friendly cat. Oscar would love her, I just know it. I salute your decision to follow these instincts. You get one life. Oscar gets one childhood. You'll relish this year with family and the beautiful PNW, I know you will. What happens next? You simply do not have to know. And that's the pleasure of the unknown. [P.S. Put the weekend of Feb. 23, 2019 on your calendar to come to Bellingham and WWU for our sweet 16th Children's Literature Conference. It'd be an awesome homecoming weekend!