Remote Learning Results in Unexpected Closeness

This isn’t the school year we planned for.

My work partner, focused and in the zone

Instead of new shoes, piles of fresh notebooks, pencil cases, locker organizers, and backpacks, this year started off more with a tiptoe than a bang. Come to think of it, I never took a “First Day of School” picture like I usually do. On the first day of classes, two of my kids woke up, showered, and unceremoniously walked to the dining room table a few feet away from where they’d just grabbed the milk for their breakfast cereal. Our school, like many across the country during the pandemic, is starting the year out with remote learning, allowing students to stay home and attend classes virtually.

Whereas our house used to wait empty most days, now our entire life seems to play out in two rooms of our house. My son sets up his high school learning command center in our sunroom, while my daughter sits across the dining room table from me. As I clack away on my laptop working remotely for my job at a public library, she attends Zoom classes and reviews Google Classroom for her middle school assignments.

When I check social media groups, parents seem outraged, signified by the number of exclamation points they use.

“We are failing our children!!” writes one mom. 

“E-learning is not working!!” says another. 

“My son isn’t being challenged enough!!” says a father.

I understand the frustration during these times of frequent handwashing and canceled plans. Still, I can’t muster the level of anger some are feeling. In fact, I actually appreciate the surprising advantages of remote learning.

I look over my laptop to see my daughter with her head cocked at a thoughtful angle. She is listening intently to her teacher over a Zoom call as she lazily reaches over to a bowl of sliced peaches positioned between us. We’ve started a new quiet routine with unspoken rules: when heading to the kitchen for a snack, always bring back enough to share with your “co-workers.”

Her classes are the soundtrack to my day—I’ve become accustomed to the voice of her Industrial Tech teacher, who tells stories about his various summer jobs when he was a teen. The social studies teacher always sings “Good morning, Good morning!” before taking attendance. The English teacher affectionately calls the students “my babies” (pronounced BAY-bez).

How often do our plans really work out anyway?

Carol Pavlik

This isn’t the school year we planned for. But how often do our plans really work out anyway? I’m taking this year as it comes, holding on to the things I know to be true: We are safe. We are healthy (today, anyway). We get to be together when normally, we’d be too busy for more than a quick hello before going on to our next obligation. Instead, I get a front-row seat to the expression of bravery on my kid’s face when she pipes up to answer a question, or the way she furrows her brow when she doesn’t understand something. Sometimes, I know how to help her. Other times, her eighth grade curriculum leaves me in the dust and I have to admit that I don’t know.

Remote learning has brought a closeness to my teenagers that I didn’t know was possible. As much as I long to get back to “normal,” I’m trying to hold these days of togetherness close to my heart. I have a feeling I’ll kind of miss them when they’re gone.

Originally published Sept. 10, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

IKEA Builds Character

Photo by Alexander Isreb from Pexels

The Swedish store Ikea might be known for its assemble-your-own furniture, but in my house, each project turns into what could only be classified as “Assemble-Your-Own Rollercoaster of Emotions.”

Since our family downsized to a modest 2-bedroom home five years ago, Ikea and its compact line of furniture with a minimalist mindset has been a crucial ingredient in our ongoing quest to live life in a smaller space. I have to admit that I love the way Ikea items come in compact boxes with just a booklet of illustrated instructions, an Allen wrench, and a variety of bolts, brackets, and pegs. Such a vote of confidence! It’s as if to say, We believe in you. We know you can build this!

Until recently, our four children haven’t had the luxury of their own room. But now that our oldest two are adults living in their own apartments, our two youngest, ages 13 and 16, are gleefully spreading out, one claiming a small but sunny bedroom on the main floor, the other setting up an impressive “man cave” down in our partially finished basement.

Reese is 16. His basement man cave consists of a favorite Van Gogh print, a record player for his impressive vinyl collection, a bean bag chair, and a video game system. All it lacked, it seemed, was a bed. He’d graduated from the bunk bed that served him well until a growth spurt catapulted him into the stratosphere. It was time for a real bed, replete with built-in drawers and shelves.

This was a job for IKEA — and Reese, who would have to assemble his own bed.

My son started the task with a certain expression of excitement, hope, and determination on his face. He tore into the boxes, quickly opened the instruction booklet, and set to work.

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

“No Mom, I’ve got this,” said Reese. “This is my challenge for the day.”

Two hours later: “Need any help?”

“Nope! This is going to take longer than I thought, but I’m fine!”

By lunch time, I hadn’t seen him emerge from the man cave. From the top of the stairs, I could hear muffled muttering. I tiptoed down the stairs. Did I just hear a curse word?? I wasn’t going to press the issue. I recognized the flush of frustration in my son’s face as his eyes darted back and forth between the partially assembled bed, the instructions, then back to the bed. His shoulders sagged.

“Why is this side a whole inch lower than the other side?” he asked me. The bed was unmistakably lopsided. We spent a few minutes comparing the structure to the line drawings in the booklet. We located an upside-down piece. Crisis averted. Sighing deeply, my son took up the Allen wrench and set to the task of disassembling a few pieces in order to fix the errant board. I decided to back away slowly. A few minutes later, I brought him some lunch and a cold drink. He was going to need nourishment for the afternoon ahead.

Thirty minutes later: “How’s it going?”

“Better, Mom! Thanks for lunch. I’m not going to let this bed win. I know I can do this!”

The afternoon progressed with occasional scuffling and banging noises coming from the man cave. On a bright note, I didn’t hear any more muttering or cursing.

This is the genius of Ikea. A humble item of furniture becomes so much more — it is transformed into an object of prey: Something that must be chased, wrangled, and dominated. My son went into the arena armed only with an Allen wrench and a firmly set jaw. He came out beaten, battered … but victorious.

Later that evening, I visited Reese in his man cave. He was surrounded by the trappings of his very own kingdom: the vinyl collection, the video games, and the beanbag chair. But there, as he proudly displayed the completely assembled bed, he looked different to me. His eyes were brighter, his shoulders broader. There was a swagger that hadn’t been there before.

He had assembled the rollercoaster of emotions, clung tightly during the twists and turns — and came out triumphant.

Originally published Aug. 20, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Minimalists: This is Our Moment

Photo by Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash

Fellow minimalists: We didn’t realize it, but the way we’ve been editing our lives down, tossing out the extra, non-essentials in our lives has uncannily prepared us perfectly for this wave of COVID-19, the pandemic that is keeping most of us at home right now.

There was no way we could’ve guessed.

As I’ve said before, minimalism is an ongoing process, and one person’s minimalism may be completely different than another’s version. But the thread that binds us all together is our desire to get rid of the extra—because we’ve realized that having too much actually takes away from our happiness and peace of mind.

Here are a few ways our practice of minimalism has made this trying time of social distancing a little more bearable—especially those of us hunkered down with our families.

We’ve cleared the clutter
There is more room in our house to play and create. There are clear surfaces for puzzles, games, and art.

We’ve cleared our schedule
We’ve already taken steps to clear our calendars of extra obligations. We’ve had some practice not using busy-ness as a badge of honor. We’re comfortable with moments of stillness and rest.

We’ve practiced sharing space
Our smaller house has one bathroom, and we share bedrooms. We’ve got this whole “living in close quarters with others” down cold.

We know how to communicate with our roommates
Since our house is small, we’ve already learned to say, “I need a few minutes of quiet,” or, “I’m planning to take a long, relaxing bubble bath. Anyone need to get in the bathroom before I start?”

We have a safety net
Minimalism, for us, had a lot to do with finances. We’ve cut down our spending by a lot (hellooooo, small house mortgage payment!), which means that we’re not spending every dollar we earn as soon as we earn it. In these uncertain times, that helps me sleep a little better at night. 

But most importantly …

We’re all doing the best we can.
No one knew this was going to happen. Not really. We’re all just winging it. We’re all coming up with a new normal for right now that works for us. There are no wrong answers! 

If anything good comes from this period of social distancing, let it be that we discover that we’re more resourceful than we thought. We’ll probably discover we are more connected to our neighbors than we originally thought, too. And with all this time at home living a slower pace, I have a feeling some new beauty will be created.

Stay well, my friends. Be kind to yourself and others.

Xoxo,

Carol

We bought a little camper

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper,
which is kind of the same thing.”

Unknown

The fun started when we rented an RV for our family vacation this past summer: a 32-foot monstrosity with room enough for 8 to sleep. It was a bucket-list item that we wanted to try: load up the whole tribe, traverse the Midwest, and end up at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For a week, we were all together with our four kids, ranging from age 12 to 23, plus our son’s girlfriend, seeing the sights, watching Old Faithful erupt, searching the scenery for bears, elk, and moose (our efforts were rewarded on all counts). There was so much laughter and singing. We hiked and climbed, oohed and aahed. Books and playlists were shared. There were so. many. chess games. It’s a trip we’ll remember for a long time.

We’ve done a lot of tent camping over the years. Taking babies and toddlers and young children to a campground is work, but it’s also magical. The outdoors is the perfect playground for kids. But as my husband likes to say, “As time goes on, the ground gets harder.” Our rented RV opened our eyes to the convenience of having a little place to come in from out of the rain, while not missing out on the campfires and simplicity of camping.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Band Director at the wheel of the rented RV. It’s a 32-foot monstrosity and he handled it like a pro!

Soon after returning from Yellowstone, we bought a camping trailer. Our little teardrop is more compact, more suited for weekend getaways. It sleeps 3.

Our “new-to-us” little camper!

Check out this photo of us on our maiden voyage. Next to us is our friend’s car. She slept in a specially fitted tent for her Prius, called a Habitent. It’s pretty awesome. It transformed her little car into a wilderness getaway. Plus, she added twinkly lights which gets my full approval.

So, I stand by the fact that the happiest times of my life are spent in small spaces: my small house (a.k.a. the Cozy Cottage); a college dorm room; cabins in Michigan; bedtime stories in my kids’ treehouse. We don’t need a lot of space to feel happy and peaceful: in fact, it’s my experience is that the smaller the space, the more expansive the joy.

I’m looking forward to big adventures in the beautiful world in our little house on wheels!

Get Out!

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Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

When my kids were toddlers, distraction was my most useful parenting tool. If you’re in a store with a 3 year-old and he suddenly wants a 5-foot stuffed bunny that the store so kindly placed right at eye level of your little darling, you know just saying “No” isn’t going to cut it. If he wants that bunny more than anything, on top of being tired and hungry, things are going to get ugly quick unless you come up with a distraction. There’s going to be a scene.

“Look!” you say with feigned enthusiasm. “Look over there!” (What’s over there? I don’t know. Anything: a picture of a puppy, a balloon, a flashing light … whatever gets the focus off that 5-foot stuffed bunny.) If you use just the right lilt in your voice and swing the cart in the right direction, you might make him forget that he was about to scream bloody murder about that bunny. Take that moment, multiply it by 100 times a day, and there you have the life of a toddler.

But maybe it’s not that different for adults.

Maybe I’m tired and hungry, but I’m feeling frustrated today. Irritable. I’m thinking about events currently in the news, thinking about work and family obligations, and today is a day I just wanted to relax. I wanted things to go my way. But they didn’t. Same goes for my husband. We spent a good amount of time this afternoon complaining to each other about the maddening things that hijacked our plans for a relaxing, stress-free day.

The more we talked, the more we were getting upset: not at each other, really. We were just feeding off each other’s frustrations, and as we counted the ways things had not gone our way, our voices got louder, and tone got sharper, our blood pressure was mounting.

Time to get out

We’ve been here before. Life is stressful. A lot of times it’s just little stuff, but even a tiny pebble in your shoe can be maddening sometimes.

Our little house, only two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, and my beloved reading porch, sometimes isn’t enough to contain the mounting frustrations of every day life. Today is one of those days.

So we got out. We walked right out of our house and distracted ourselves, the way we distracted our little toddlers for so many years in the past. Now, as I write, I’m sitting at a table at our local library, in front of a gorgeous window overlooking a park. It’s so quiet here. There’s free wi-fi and a coffee shop downstairs. Bathrooms I don’t have to clean. Looking across the table, I see my husband’s face. He’s happily clacking away on his laptop. The creases in his forehead that were there just a few hours ago are gone.

A change of scenery, a change of pace, is good for all of us. In fact, it’s necessary. And for some reason, living in our small house has amplified that lesson for me. For one, the small house has fewer chores that demand my time. It takes just a few minutes to tidy it up. And because it’s so small, it’s taught me that my whole life can’t take place inside the walls of my house. I have to get out some times. I have to walk out the door and see new views and meet new people.

Sometimes I need quiet. Sometimes I need noise to drown out my worries. But the point is that a change of scenery can be good and give us a much-needed change in perspective. Today, getting out turned I-can’t-believe-that-happened into I-feel-so-lucky-to-be-here-right-now.

Attitude adjustment achieved. Adult temper tantrum thwarted.

 

Thank you for airing your clean laundry in public

There are a lot of things we don’t talk about with our acquaintances. Certain things, like money, or sex, or illness, or past traumas. Or mistakes.

The line, “Please don’t air your dirty laundry in public” is one of those idioms addressing this phenomenon of secrets. “Please, we don’t want to hear about that unpleasantness.”

(Just to be clear: airing other people’s dirty laundry? That’s a no-no. Keep your hands in your own laundry, please.)

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Photo by Karen Maes on Unsplash

I, for one, am a fan of hanging out laundry in public. And by that, I’m referring to actual laundry. You know: sheets, and pillowcases. Towels and underwear. Years ago, I heard a rumor that in the somewhat conservative suburb where I live, there is an ordinance against hanging your clothes out on a clothesline. It prompted me to immediately purchase a clothesline. Consider it my own form of suburban civil disobedience.

The laundry police have never stopped by my house, even though I religiously hang freshly cleaned laundry out on the line to dry. I love the ritual of pulling out cold, damp clothes from my basement washing machine, carrying them upstairs in a clothes basket balanced on my hip, then shaking them out on my deck and attaching them to my line with wooden clothespins. Almost immediately, you can feel the moisture from the fabric being pulled out by the warmth of the sun. All that free energy, plus the added bonus of being outside and hearing birds sing in the back yard while you do a mundane chore. I don’t often compare myself to Snow White, but my clothesline does make me feel a bit like that domestic Disney waif.

In the same way, this blog is a way for me to air a little of my “clean” laundry. The process of downsizing our home began four years ago when a combination of a pay freeze, bad financial decisions, consumerism, and valuing things over experiences and peace of mind resulted in us living in a house that was beginning to feel less and less like home and more like an albatross hanging around our necks.

Three times now, I’ve spoken in public about our family’s experience of downsizing to a smaller home. There are a couple things that always feel a little embarrassing to say out loud: that in the process of moving, we not only donated a bunch of stuff, but we additionally filled two dumpsters of stuff from our home! That is hard to admit out loud. But it’s true.

The other difficult thing to say out loud: our monthly mortgage payment used to be nearly 50% of our monthly income. We thought that was normal. We thought that was the price of the American Dream! Then, when we attended Financial Peace University and started working toward financial wellness, we learned that our mortgage payment should actually be closer to 25% of our monthly income.

(By the way, the first time I heard that 25% number, I scoffed. I thought it was impossible to achieve. But I’m here to tell you it IS possible, and WOW, does it make a difference in the way you sleep at night!)

But I want to say these things out loud now. I’m compelled to! Because not too long ago, we thought we were doing the right thing. We thought we were keeping up with the Joneses, even if we were feeling exhausted and worried all the time.

Our little house has taught us so much. Our lives are more balanced. We’ve had some rich experiences in the past few years that have happened as a direct result of our move to a much smaller home.

So this is why I air my laundry, and I encourage you to, too. Clean up the messes in your life the best you can, then talk about it! Encourage others who may be silently suffering, wondering, or searching. Be honest and vulnerable and human. We aren’t all that different from each other.

Porch Life

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Visible across the way from our house are two homes that cause a lot of discussion when my husband and I take the dog for a walk. For 3-1/2 years since we moved into this neighborhood, we’ve passed these two homes countless times; you could say they are part of our daily scenery.

The one house is what you’d call a farmhouse style: it looms large with lots of sunny windows. It’s a newer construction boasting all the amenities, conveniences, and 21st century square footage coupled with old fashioned curb appeal. The best thing about this house, to me, is the lovely wraparound porch. Hanging between the porch posts are lush, green plants in baskets. Those plants are never dried up or wilted! The porch has wicker furniture, bedecked with luxurious cushions and throw pillows. If there was ever a place to flop down on an August afternoon into a soft, fluffy cushion on a wicker chair and fan yourself with your wide-brimmed hat while saying, “I do declare, what I wouldn’t give for some Sweet Tea right at this moment!” it is on that porch.

Never, not once, have I seen anyone sitting on that porch!

Beside the Sweet Tea house is a 50s ranch, utilitarian, small in size, but neat as a pin. The owners, let’s call them Tony and Flo, keep the sidewalk swept, the grass mowed, and the shrubs well manicured.

Tony and Flo don’t have a porch. They barely have a stoop. From their house, they could practically reach out and touch the Sweet Tea porch, but they’re probably too polite. Instead, Tony and Flo get two lawn chairs from their garage, set them up on their asphalt driveway, and sit, happy as clams, living their best porch life on a makeshift, asphalt driveway. They always wave to me when I’m out walking the dog, and I often see them talking with neighbors passing by. They look positively serene out there.

How can a Sweet Tea porch sit empty, while a slab of asphalt is the site of so much contentment and community?

This is the lesson our little house has taught me. I’ve only just learned it and I suspect Tony and Flo have known for much longer: It’s not about chasing after the bigger, better stuff. It’s about having just what you need, then taking time often to slow down and celebrate and feel gratitude for what you already have.

Summer is coming to a close: the cicadas’ song tells me so. Find your porch, whether you have a Sweet Tea spot or just a patch of grass or asphalt big enough for a chair. Have a seat, look around, smile at your neighbors, and tell yourself, “Aren’t I lucky?”

xoxo,

Carol

 

 

Returning Home

silhouette photo of person holding door knob
Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

 

After a week of vacation, we returned home.

Immediately, I set to work on our massive laundry pile. As I work through one load at a time, I check pockets, finding handfuls of sand. Fresh memories flash through my mind like an old slide projector. Children watching the waves crash to the shore … *click* … finding smooth rocks and stowing them in an upturned frisbee to bring home to my garden … *click* … screeching seagulls calling each other, swooping near beachgoers, searching for crumbs dropped by distracted children …

On the last day of vacation, it was time to pack up. I felt satisfied. We hit that sweet spot of being gone long enough to clear our minds, but not so long that boredom set in. We’d had a good time and it was time to return home.

Returning home to the Cozy Cottage feels markedly different than returning to our previous homes. This home feels like a place of refuge, a place that opens its arms and welcomes us in without demanding too much in return.

“It smells old in here,” said my daughter, crinkling her nose.

Well, yes. After a week of being shut tight, the air in the house was less-than-fresh. Smells of our last few meals and our sweet dog produced a stale olfactory cocktail. But no matter. Home is the best place to be–once the windows are thrown open to let in the fresh air.

 

xoxo,

Carol

IKEA: Deconstructing My Feelings

All I wanted was a lamp.

Since moving to the Cozy Cottage, IKEA has become a champion for my journey to minimalism. Their furniture has clean lines, and a lot of it is built for small spaces. And it’s affordable. For example, our IKEA bed is the bomb. It has four huge drawers beneath the bed. It’s brilliant! We don’t even need a dresser.

But this last trip was … not good. It started out on a bright note, but by the time we got home, we were tired, frustrated, irritated with each other and … still didn’t have a lamp. It started me thinking … is IKEA really a champion for minimalists? Or is it the bane of our existence, with its labrynthian layout and low-cost/poor quality items that aren’t finished until we lug them home and pour our own sweat equity into the construction via Allen Wrench? It left me feeling confused.

I decided to work out my feelings about it on Facebook. This is my post from last Sunday:


TRIP TO IKEA IN 13 EASY STEPS [a love story]

1. OMG. We’re at IKEA! I love IKEA
2. Look at all the great stuff!
3. Where am I? Didn’t I already pass this display?
4. OMG! I love this [thing I have to assemble myself]
5. Where are you?
6. Do you like this [thing I have to assemble myself]?
7. Why don’t you like it?
8. What do you mean? I don’t think it looks like that.
9. Well, if you don’t like it, then I’m not going to get it.
10. Fine.
11. OMG. I hate IKEA
12. Are you mad? I’m not mad. I think I’m just hungry and tired.
13. I’m sorry. But I still hate IKEA.


What followed was a very boisterous exchange of ideas and commiseration from many of my Facebook friends:

From Suzy: “The problem appears to be you missed a step–sit down at the restaurant and eat meatballs somewhere between Steps 6 and 11. Meatballs make everything better.”

From Amarelis:  “Too accurate. IKEA is always a good idea until you actually start shopping.”

Shannon: “I’m going tomorrow but have the item # and bin so I will be in and out! I’m convinced this is the way to do IKEA!”

Liz: “I bought glasses there once. It’s true, you get what you pay for. They were broken by the time I got home!”

Kathy: “I buy lingonberries by the case (way cheaper than anywhere else) because I make lots of Swedish chili in the winter!”

Mmmmm, Kathy, you tempt me with your talk of Swedish chili! Tell me, are the lingonberries kept in stock near the exit, or do I have to search for them somewhere on the third floor between duvet covers and the wine racks?

While I’m still left sorting out my feelings about IKEA, I do know one thing: I have some pretty awesome FB friends.

Rob sums it up best:

“I always get so Sklerf when I go there–at first it is Ploog, and then it gets Flurgen.”

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Simplifying the Schedule: This is gonna take a while

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Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

We did the hard part, right? We packed our belongings, filled two dumpsters, moved to a smaller home, lowered our expenses, and settled in. So, that’s it, right? We’re done here?

No. No. No. But it’s a great start. Since moving to our Cozy Cottage, we’ve made huge strides in identifying what is most important in our lives: experiences over things; less debt and therefore less stress; travel; following our creative dreams instead of being tied, like a ball and chain, to too many responsibilities.

But as a family of 6 (minus the one who is out and adulting on his own–and doing a great job of it), we are still going in 100 different directions.

Simplifying the schedule is going to take a while. Here’s how I’m trying to cope:

  1. This is my circus, these are my monkeys Accept it. The family is busy and vibrant; be grateful that they are active and doing a lot of things that they enjoy.
  2. My circus is different than your circus We all have different thresholds of what feels like “too busy.” My dear husband is perfectly happy doing twice as many things as I can handle. That’s okay. Sometimes he’s a whirling dervish, while I read a book. It happens.
  3. Say no You don’t have to say yes to everything. You can’t. And when you spread yourself too thin, it doesn’t help anything. You’re just going to feel bad about not doing your best.
  4. Calendar, calendar, calendar Our family has a paper calendar (ginormous squares, hanging on wall in kitchen), plus a Google Calendar that my husband and I both maintain through our computers or phones. Each Sunday night I sit down and go over the upcoming week. Which nights are the busiest? What will I be making for dinner? Do I need help with anything? Planning the week makes me feel much more in control of things. And despite the planning, monkey wrenches inevitably come up. Do the best you can. And breathe.
  5. Ask yourself, ‘Will this matter in a year?’ Sometimes things feel really big. Like, when you accidentally forget to pick up your kid, and you’re convinced he’s going to need extensive therapy from the feelings of abandonment. When you’re doing a hundred things, a couple things are bound to get messed up. When this happens, try to remind yourself of the 98 things you did right. Give yourself some slack.

What do you do to simplify your schedule? Tell me in the comments.

xoxoxo,

Carol

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