On Power and Autonomy and Working It Out in Unlikely Places

I sit on the couch, eyes red from crying, as she asks me, “So you’re wanting to take back your power?”

Jarred out of the sea of my emotions, I respond with an emphatic, “No! I don’t want power!”

Curious, she leans in, “Hmmm…why not?”

I tell her, “If I have power, then I am responsible. I am accountable. I am to blame. If things just happen to me, I am a sympathetic character. If I have power and want things and make choices and people disagree with those choices, they will blame me, not have sympathy for me. I don’t want that.”

Questions of identity swirl around in my mind these days. Who am I? What is most important to me? What am I doing with my “one wild and precious life?” Where am I going?

And the fact that I have choices – that I am a responsible actor, an agent in my own life – is an ever-present under-current.

Isn’t it odd that I’d lost sight of that for a time? I have this beautiful life, and I absolutely set myself along this path. I have always wanted to be good, and I have striven to live up to that ideal. I am a Christian wife, a homeschooling mom to four kids, two of whom are adopted, I have spoken at women’s retreats, and I am smart and I am kind, and I am generally good at most things that I do. And yet something has been missing for me, in me, along this path.

And I’ve wondered, as I’ve moved forward, am I a passenger, or am I the driver? I have sometimes lived as if I am walking out a formula, doing all the right things – not like I’m having an adventure in this beautiful world.

I realized recently that all of this is part of what I’m working out, what I’m practicing, in what is perhaps an unlikely arena.

I remember starting to ride horses. Miranda had a scary fall and was resistant to getting back up on her pony right away, so I rode him around for a little while before we got Miranda back up there. It was intimidating! It felt like I was so high up in the air (two years in, this is hilarious to me – he was just a pony!) – and like I didn’t actually have any control over what we were doing. But also? I had fun. And I took the risk of asking if it would be ridiculous for me to take lessons with the girls after that. It felt vulnerable to pursue something that I knew I wouldn’t be good at and something that would be just for my enjoyment. And then when Courtney said it would be fine for me to start doing lessons with the girls, I was both anxious and excited.

I’ve shared before about what I was learning through riding – about having fun, about being the learner instead of the teacher, about being vulnerable, about asking questions, and about persevering.

I’m still learning, but I’m finding that the lessons are different right now.

I’ve started jumping recently, and I love it. For a second, you’re flying. But it requires more of you as a rider, and there is more risk involved.

I’m learning that sometimes what looks the most intimidating ends up being the most fun.

I’m learning that the people around you matter. It helps to watch, to pay attention to what others are doing and to be able to observe and reflect. It helps to have a guide – someone on the ground who can tell you when you’re going too fast and when you’re pulling too hard on your reins and how to use your seat and what in the world just happened there.

But I think most of all, what I’m learning is that if you want to be a good rider, you cannot be a passenger – you are responsible for riding your horse. You cannot just sit there and expect that things will go well. Whether you take action or not, you are still responsible for the outcome. Where your horse goes and what they do along the way is, in large part, up to you. There are a lot of things you cannot control – but you are still responsible for working with what you have. You use the tools you have, you work on developing your skills, and you grasp at the glimmers of deeper understanding that flash before you. Even if you’re not the rider you wish you were, even if you don’t really know what to do, you are still responsible for doing your best and trying to make it happen.

Courtney tells me that I’m not as afraid as I should be. I’m certain that this is largely because it has been a long time since I’ve fallen. I know that another fall is coming, and I’m scared that once it happens, I’ll lose that willingness to try anything Courtney and Kris point me toward. I don’t want to lose it. This is where I’m practicing being brave.


Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 6): Day 99: Activities Outside Our Home?

Obviously, as homeschoolers, the primary structure of our lives was already set up pretty well for staying home before the pandemic hit. However, my kids did lose all of their activities outside of our home – in addition to play dates with friends, we used to be part of a homeschool enrichment group, all four kids swam 2-3 times per week, the big kids and I usually rode horses a few times per month, and we attended other activities (art shows, concerts, museum shows, etc) as we could. We stopped all of that abruptly mid-March. That seemed like the wisest course of action – particularly for our family, with multiple vulnerable members.

It has been a long few months, though, without that social interaction, without the ability to swim (especially now that the summer weather has arrived!), without the ability to move our bodies in ways other than walking, running, and biking. Matt and I have been talking about whether there are ways we could give ourselves and our kids some opportunities to leave the house and have fun without seriously compromising our safety. We’ve been reading articles about how the coronavirus spreads and looking at rankings of activities in terms of their risk levels.

Where we’ve landed is that we need to maintain our separation from most of the activities in which we had previously engaged. It just isn’t safe to go hang around indoors with large numbers of people. It isn’t even safe to have sustained close proximity with others outdoors.

But the one activity that seemed much less risky than others was horseback riding. It’s basically an activity that requires social distancing – if you get closer than one horse-length away from another horse and rider, you’re putting your horse (and yourself!) in danger of getting kicked!

I talked to our trainer, who has put into place guidelines limiting numbers of people at the barn at any one time, which made us feel safer returning. She also has rules about social distancing – essentially, if you can’t tack up your own horse, you can’t come right now, because that would require having someone outside of your household super close to you as they helped you prepare to ride and take care of your horse after riding.

I returned to lessons a couple weeks ago – obviously taking care of my own horse and riding outdoors and staying distant from everyone else. I love having an activity that challenges me in a different way than my everyday life and that is purely fun.

And this week, I took the girls to ride, and we made sure to schedule their ride for a time when no one else would be in the barn. They aren’t self-sufficient, but having a mom who participates in the same activity as you and can help you catch and care for your horse has its advantages.

It was so nice to give them this opportunity to leave the house and get back to riding! This was only the third time since March that Miranda had even been in a car at all. And this was the only actual activity they have done in months (other drives included exciting missions such as “going to the hospital parking lot to change a flat tire” and “going to throw rocks in the river” and “taking recycling to the drop off sites” and “just going for a drive”). This was significantly more interesting 😉

They didn’t do a lesson or focus on building skills – this was all just about having a chance to ride and have fun.

Miranda was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help a pony who has a pretty low weight limit (and thus can’t be ridden by most of the adult and teenage riders who have been at the barn recently) get back into work.

MeiMei wasn’t sure she remembered horses being this large!

It took a bit of time for them to get used to being back in the saddle, but once they got going, they were back to trotting, weaving, and riding all around!

I’ve certainly enjoyed getting back into riding, and I’m glad the girls were able to go this week, too. In this world in which we almost entirely stay home, it’s nice to have one very low-risk activity we can do!

Back to School – for Me!

I’ve written recently about re-evaluating the stories I’ve told myself about my life and about contemplating these questions, “Am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?”

I wrote in that post, “I do not feel like I am wildly alive. I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive? Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment.”

I took some flak for that post. Some people seemed to think that I was writing about becoming more selfish and inwardly focused.

That wasn’t it. I am looking at myself, my life, and the ways in which I interact with the world around me – but not just to obtain gains for myself. I am passionate about loving people well. I believe that all of us, when working together, can help one another grow so much more than any of us can on our own. I think I could do more to use my gifts and talents.

I started examining myself, thinking about what those gifts and talents are, contemplating my own interests and passions. I thought about what nourishes my soul and what I could see for my future. I sought counsel from friends. I talked with people who know me well.

And I decided to apply to graduate school.

Because I am a researcher at heart, I spent hours pouring over websites and talking to representatives of various programs. I evaluated what features were most important to me. And then I took the plunge and applied to my top choice program.

I heard back from them quickly, and I am proud to share that I will be starting the program to earn my Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Bradley University this fall!

I am intimidated by the prospect of continuing to be a full-time homeschooling mom, a part-time employee, and now also a part-time grad student. However, I think it is important for me to work toward a career about which I am passionate. I think it is important for me to continue to learn. I think it is important for my kids to see me doing those things. And while I recognize that there is immense privilege in saying this – because we need to stay very isolated while the pandemic continues to rage, I actually have more free time to begin an undertaking of this nature than I have had in years.

I believe those years have prepared me well for this moment, though. I love academics and was an excellent student during my time at Northwestern University. In the years since then, I have maintained a strong commitment to introspection and personal growth. I have spent countless hours doing “lay counseling” and informal mentorship in church contexts. I’ve worked hard to learn how to cultivate relationships with each of my children, with their own unique personalities and their own backgrounds. I’ve had to learn about and practice trauma-informed parenting, and I now help others to do the same. All of those experiences have shaped me into the person I am today and will inform my studies of counseling and ultimately prepare me to become a counselor. I am so excited – I can’t wait!!

Homeschool Year 2019-2020 is Complete!

Last week we wrapped up our 2019-2020 homeschool school year!

We don’t care much at all about “grade levels,” but based on their ages, this was Atticus’s pre-kindergarten year and FangFang’s kindergarten year. Here they are with their books for the year (their Sonlight stacks, for those in the homeschool community), holding some of their favorites!

We primarily used Sonlight’s Pre-K or 4/5 package (centered around Exploring God’s World), along with Handwriting Without Tears and Singapore Math K. Both are learning to read, which is such a nerve-wracking stage for me as a mom – it feels like the most important academic skill to impart. Fortunately both of them did great with their readers for the year – phew!

FangFang reports that her favorite thing to study this year was Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and when she grows up she wants to be a doctor, and she wants to help animals with her sisters. She also says she would like to be an artist, a scientist, a police, a fire fighter, an ambulance, and a cooker.

Atticus says that his favorite thing to study was Uncle Wiggily and the Fox, and when he grows up he wants to be a fire fighter, a police, a boat rider, a diver, and a doctor.

Miranda and MeiMei insisted upon sitting on the couch for their photo, which actually hides some of the substantial amount of work they completed this year! Based on their ages, this was Miranda’s 4th grade year and MeiMei’s 3rd grade year.

Obvious from their choice of books to hold in their photo, both loved some of our Science studies this year! Miranda also really enjoyed History. This year we used Sonlight’s Core E package focused around US History 1865-Present, and our Science studies was the Science E program, Electricity, Magnetism, and Astronomy. Both continued their math learning using Singapore, with Miranda finishing the 4B book and starting 5A and MeiMei about to finish the 2B book. They have also started learning to type this year, clocking about 10 wpm at this point. This year they also really took ownership of their lapbook projects, completing most independently and then coming to tell me about them afterwards.

MeiMei’s favorite thing to study this year was human anatomy (which she learned about in our homeschool group and independently – so, basically, nothing that I taught her!). When she grows up, she wants to work at an animal shelter with Miranda. When she’s not working, she’ll stay at her house with Miranda (they plan to live together) and read and play and do grown up stuff.

Miranda’s favorite subject this year was…Science, especially the microscope book! (“Mom,” she tells me, “put in the ‘dot, dot, dot’ and then an exclamation point, so it looks exciting!”). When she grows up, she wants to work at an animal shelter and help animals and study animals. She’s talked about getting a PhD in either Biology or Zoology. She’d also like to be a famous author.

It was absolutely a strange year, but honestly, staying home so much enabled us to finish our school year much earlier than we sometimes do, which feels so nice and freeing. We celebrated by making homemade pizza, a favorite meal of the entire family!

It was a good year. I love seeing the growth in each one of my kiddos!

Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 5): Day 76: Staying Home in the Midst of Re-Opening

It is now day 76 of our staying home whenever possible. America is strange right now.

There is no vaccine for the coronavirus. While there are a few treatments that may offer glimmers of hope, nothing has proven to be dramatically efficacious.

And yet Americans are tired of staying home. Some believe the coronavirus is not as serious as people are making it out to be. Others are annoyed that they can no longer be served as usual – there were protests in my rich, white hometown (just miles from Milwaukee, in which the Black community is suffering and dying at alarming rates). Some are convinced that they personally are young and healthy and are likely to survive, so they would prefer to risk exposure in order to return to business as usual. Whatever the reasons, many people want to be out and about and would like to return to their lives as they existed pre-pandemic.

I really resonate with this tweet –

Wishing for something doesn’t make it so – but we seem to be pretending that it can.

For our governmental leaders, the move to re-open the country seems to be primarily politically motivated. People are filing for unemployment at unprecedented rates. Many do not have savings to sustain them for long periods without a paycheck. People and businesses need relief. The solution presented by our politicians is that the country should begin to open again. However, as businesses re-open their doors and call employees back to work, even those who do not feel safe returning are rendered ineligible for unemployment benefits. It is a terrible situation to face. I wish that, in America, we were willing to look for economic solutions to economic problems – instead of forcing people back to work in situations that may cost them their lives in the name of preserving the economy (and/or politicians’ political futures).

Our family is incredibly fortunate that, at least for now, Matt and I are both able to work from home. We don’t have to go anywhere on a daily basis.

Even we, though, have not been able to maintain our policy of zero tolerance for contact with the outside world.

Matt, who suffers from interstitial lung disease, was having lower oxygen levels than his pulmonologist wanted to see, so he needed to go in for additional testing and an appointment. He actually had to be tested for the coronavirus (video here) before he could do any of that because of the high risk nature of all of the patients in the pulmonology clinic and the risk of spreading the virus during the types of testing they do. I’m thankful he was able to go, though, as he is now feeling better, and he now has access to supplemental oxygen when he needs it.

Additionally, FangFang receives quarterly Pamidronate infusions to strengthen her bones, and she was due for another one this month. These aren’t absolutely life sustaining, but they greatly improve her quality of life. They also reduce the risk of serious fractures, any of which could necessitate an emergency trip to Omaha for surgery, which would be a much higher risk situation than a day at the hospital for an infusion. I consulted with her endocrinologist and decided to go ahead with the infusion but moved it up to May 7 (as soon as possible after Missouri’s re-opening date of May 4, to minimize the likelihood of widespread community transmission), and she and I spent the day at the hospital. The hospital has policies in place to minimize risk (only one parent and no siblings allowed to come with her, no waiting in the waiting room, no playrooms, no wagon rides, placing us in a private room with a private bathroom, and everyone was asked about symptoms and had temperatures taken upon arrival, and we were required to wear masks). We also brought all of our own food, so we would not need to interact with any food service personnel.

And then, in an unwelcome development, when we came out to the parking lot, we saw that one of our tires was completely flat. Matt had to come put on our spare tire so we could drive home, and the next day he took the tire to get patched. As low as we would like our exposure to be, we need our van to be drive-able.

I’ve been missing the ability to interact with friends and family, and while it is 100% worth it to me to keep our family safe, I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go see Courtney while her risk of exposure was minimal. For a couple weeks, her workplace was closed to the public, and she wasn’t doing appointments or lessons at all, employees were wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another, and she stayed out of stores and public places and didn’t do any of her supplemental jobs. After two weeks of that had passed, I got to go visit her for a weekend, which was a nice time of relaxing and fun.

We continue to order our groceries to be delivered (and try to tip well for those who do that work and assume the risk that we are avoiding). We order everything we can online, whether books, household supplies, or clothing. This past weekend I made my best guess at shoe sizes for the older girls – we’ll see whether they fit when they arrive! Matt had to go to Menards one day to get some supplies that we couldn’t easily order online to fix our leaking freezer, and we took advantage of that opportunity to have him pick up some paint and supplies so we could paint our hallway – ready to tackle some quarantine home improvement projects!

We’re still trying to stay home as much as we can, and overall, life feels pretty peaceful. In addition to our regular school work, there is time for board games, playing outside, and reading books for fun.

We have acknowledged that, two months in, we need to use wisdom, not absolute zero, as our guide for interactions outside of our home. Life is not black and white. We have very high risk family members. We will not be taking any significant risks. But we do have weigh the different risks involved in the various shades of gray and make the best decisions we can for our family. We can’t allow our health to deteriorate or our van to become un-usable or our freezer to leak perpetually, so we take those risks. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw caution to the wind and engage in ridiculous behavior. Some of the most dramatic examples of people flouting expert recommendations are coming out of Missouri this past weekend. It’s hard to have standards that we know others aren’t following.

I am mourning. Our neighborhood pool is opening for the summer, and while others enjoy that lovely activity, we’ll be at home, trying to find other ways to cope with the humid, 90-degree weather of Missouri summers. Our two almost-swimmers will not be mastering that skill this season. As Miranda’s swim team resumes practices again, she’ll be staying home.

We see pictures of friends out at parks or gathering together. We miss our people, too. We miss feeling like we belong to a community (an experience obviously exacerbated by having resigned our membership in our long-time church just months prior to a pandemic). We see others returning to life, more or less as normal.

Psychologically, it’s a strange experience. It feels almost like collective gaslighting. So many others are acting like there is no problem at all – like everything is normal. I’ve had moments of beginning to wonder whether I’m the one who has the truly skewed perspective. Am I over-reacting? Are the lengths to which I am going to keep my family safe (and protect anyone with whom we would need to come into contact) absolutely ridiculous?

And then I look at the statistics. And I read the stories. And I remember – the risk is DEATH. And for several members of my family, that risk is high. And we have no way of knowing the risk factors of anyone with whom we may need to come into contact. I’ll trade my summer at the pool to give us the best chance to preserve their lives. Everyone has to make their own choices. But as for me and my house, we will be staying home.