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!

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.

A Big Birthday – Miranda Grace is Ten!

Miranda is our kiddo who most wants to have birthday parties with friends, so there was much dramatic discussion leading up to her birthday about whether it was even worth celebrating her birthday this year, since she couldn’t have a party. I told her that it was very sad that she couldn’t have a party, but we still wanted to celebrate her. We’d have to see what the coming months look like in terms of the possibility for a party, but in the meantime, it is good to celebrate each person and acknowledge their special days.

We went out of our way to do what we could to make her tenth(!!) birthday a special day within the context of the limitations of our social isolation, and we tried to celebrate it as well as possible!

The day began with some birthday gifts – first up, some homemade cards from sweet MeiMei <3

Usually Matt and I try to give a lot of our gifts in the form of certificates for future experiences we know our children will enjoy…but that, too, is rather impossible this year. Both Miranda and MeiMei have been spending copious amounts of time reading lately, and especially with the public library closed, we used Miranda’s birthday as an opportunity to expand our personal “upper elementary reading for pleasure” library. She also received some new art supplies, as well as several stuffed animal dragons (the Wings of Fire series has been a favorite for some time, and the kids all enjoy playing with dragons).

Some of our good friends drove by to wave from their car and say happy birthday to Miranda, which she enjoyed, as well <3

Her biggest request for the day was that we not do school, and I was happy to give the kiddos a day off. Fortunately, we had beautiful weather that day, and we spent a good portion of the day playing outside.

Several family members also called and FaceTimed with Miranda, which she loved!

In our family, when it’s your birthday, you get to choose a special breakfast cereal (Froot Loops) and whatever dinner you want. Miranda actually got a bonus meal, in that Courtney asked her what she’d like for lunch and sent her delivery from a local favorite Chinese restaurant, House of Chow. Her dinner of choice was homemade pizza, and she helped make her favorite – cheese pizza!

For her birthday dessert, she chose a “Peep cake,” though we had to substitute marshmallows, since stores were out of Peeps by the time I made our pre-birthday grocery order. I completely forgot to order candles, but luckily Matt came up with the idea to melt together two candles we already had to make a Roman numeral X for her.

There was no grand party, but we certainly enjoyed celebrating her as a family. In addition to our standard “high/low/buffalo/act of kindness/looking forward to” dinner activity, we added a category for each person to share something they love and appreciate about Miranda – she soaks up that affirmation.

It’s so strange to think that she is ten years old now. If she is ten, that also means that I have been a mother for ten years! On some level, that seems so natural to me – I have always wanted to be a mom, more than anything else. But it also seems like it was just yesterday that she was born!

She is undeniably her own person. We think she is an Enneagram 8 – a challenger through and through. She has firm convictions, which may or may not line up with Matt’s or mine. She views the world in black and white, and to say that she much prefers leading to following would be a gross understatement. She feels all feelings big, and we work hard on distinguishing between emotions, thoughts, and actions. While that sometimes presents challenges for her, it also means that her love and compassion are more than generous. She thrives when given opportunities to take responsibility, whether for cooking a meal or putting her little sister to bed (a ritual she and FangFang have recently started choosing for themselves most nights). Her love of animals is her reason for being a strict vegetarian, and she is great with our cats – the only cat allowed to sleep in a bedroom at night is Rosie, who spends almost every night on Miranda’s top bunk with her. Miranda dreams about wanting to be a baker and an engineer and a scientist, as well as wanting to be in charge of any number of things!

Being her mother is one of the great challenges and great joys of my life <3

Happy birthday, Miranda Grace!

Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 4): Day 43 At Home: How the Kiddos are Handling It All

As a mom of four children, obviously one of my major concerns and questions heading into this time of social distancing was about how my kids would handle it.

This is definitely not the case for everyone, but honestly, most of our kids are generally really enjoying it!

When I asked them their thoughts one recent evening, Miranda told me that she LOVED it – she had so much more time to do fun things like reading. She and MeiMei are really into the Wings of Fire series right now and have read the books multiple times. She said that she feels so free at home. In addition to doing school (here she is working on one of her History lapbook projects), she’s been using her time to read, to bake, to make art, and to play creatively.

MeiMei says that there are things she doesn’t like, but mostly she likes it. She says that she definitely likes getting more time to read, and she likes going on walks (she did ride for part of our walk here but also walked for a significant portion!).

Poor FangFang is our sole true extroverted child, and I think she is the least happy with this period of social isolation. She tells me that she doesn’t like staying at home and likes going to HEaT (our homeschool enrichment group) and going places in general. We are doing our best to give her some fun at-home experiences, though!

Atticus tells me that he loves being home – that there is much more time to build with Legos and read and do fun stuff! He really has been spending a ton of time playing with Legos. I’m also treasuring the little conversations we’ve been able to have. The other night, I was brushing the tangles out of his curls after his bath, and he told me, “Mom, I love my hair. I want to keep it long. I don’t want to look just like everyone else. My hair makes me look cool.”

Honestly, this has been a very interesting experience for me. It makes me wonder whether maybe we’re doing too much. We always talked about how, as we homeschooled, we wanted to be very intentional about giving our kids opportunities to interact with other kids and to learn from other adults. We have worked very hard to find awesome opportunities for them to do that – we love our homeschool enrichment group, our swim club, and our horseback riding lessons! But also…I do love that my kids are getting opportunities just to relax – to read, to have creative fun play on their own, and to be outside more.

I made a rare exception to my general prohibition of high fructose corn syrup and bought my kids a box of these popsicles, which they (mostly MeiMei) request multiple times a day! Ah, the joys of childhood…

I also feel like there’s more time to say yes to things like just playing a family games together.

Some families are able to do all of that AND get through their school curriculum and do all of their extra activities. Maybe someday we will. The fact that I need to get in some work hours each day, too, is definitely a limiting factor on our time. I don’t really know how we’ll structure our lives once we get back to “normal.”

Honestly, I think “normal” is pretty far off for us. Even once our state re-opens (currently our governor is saying that will happen on Monday, May 4; as of today, our state has 6,321 confirmed cases and 218 total deaths), we will stay home. I have seen no data to suggest that we are better able to limit spread or offer effective life-saving treatment or are anywhere close to having a vaccine, and with multiple members of our family being high-risk for complications from the virus, it is safest for us to stay home. But someday…I hope we can make those choices again. And I wonder what that will look like for us!

Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 3): A COVID-19 Easter

This Easter weekend was one of the strangest I can remember. Holy Week didn’t feel quite like Holy Week. Easter didn’t feel quite like Easter.

As rather “older” members and sometimes leaders of our last church, we generally hosted large Easter gatherings in our home – the kind of open invitation gathering where everyone brings a dish to share and food and people overflow everywhere. The week leading up to Easter would be full of not only contemplation of Christ and His gift of Himself for us, but also the planning of the main meal and the coordinating of logistics as we tried to work out how to cook and serve a meal for a large group of people in between a church service and toddler naptimes.

This year was different. I’d gotten Easter candy for our kiddos ahead of time (though I forgot to get an Easter egg decorating kit – oops). Matt wanted to make turkey and mashed potatoes, so he took responsibility for that, and I only needed to throw together some simple sides for just our family. We knew we’d be going nowhere, nor would we have any obligations, so we could take a pretty laid back approach to the entire day.

Sarah Bessey’s Holy Week meditations were my saving grace in the days leading up to Easter, the one thing that made me feel like we were, in fact, approaching Easter at all. Having left our church recently, we have been attending another church that we really like, but we’re not exactly plugged in yet, so we’re not even really connected to church people virtually. We did watch the livestream of that church’s Easter Sunday morning service, though, which was sweet.

The most notable thing about Holy Week for me this year was Saturday. Every other year, it has felt simply like the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a day to use for cleaning the house and preparing for Easter. And this year it felt almost like the main event – because we are in a Holy Saturday kind of world right now.

I found myself frustrated by the memes that loudly proclaim, “It’s Friday – but Sunday’s coming!”

Yes. That is true. It is so very true.

But the disciples didn’t know that. Jesus’s mother didn’t know that. We can’t just skip over the devastation, the suffering, the agony, the questions, the fear, the anxiety. They were so real. They mattered. That in-between day mattered.

Jesus’s people thought He was the One. They thought He was going to usher in a new era – in which He would rescue them from their Roman conquerors and set them free. They didn’t understand that He came to offer a different sort of rescue and a different sort of freedom. We can look back now at their foolishness, at their failure to understand, and scoff condescendingly. We can dismiss their Saturday, that in-between time in which they had to live with their brokenness, sitting in the reality that they had just witnessed their world fall apart.

Or we can look around us at this Holy Saturday world in which we live right now. There is so much uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know. Schools are shut down, businesses closed. We stay at home. I have not driven my car anywhere in over a month. We all have so many questions.

As of the evening of Thursday, April 14, Johns Hopkins is reporting 2,158,250 cases worldwide with 144,243 deaths. Within the United States, there are 662,045 cases with 28,998 deaths. Of those, 5,560 cases (with 170 deaths) are in Missouri. Unemployment is ravaging the country, with more than 20 million people filing claims in 4 weeks.

And no one knows what to do to fix it. We wait for doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine. We wonder if there might be treatments for the virus, medications to mitigate its effects, to decrease the probability of its fatality. Politicians debate when we should reopen the economy and get people back to work, uncertain of how best to care for millions of suffering people – or perhaps uncertain of how people will weigh the loss of others’ lives against the loss of their own financial security as they decide how to vote this fall, wondering if perhaps a loss of a couple million lives would give them a more appealing result than the continuing job losses of millions more. Our governor today extended Missouri’s stay-at-home order from April 24 to May 3. That is only a little over two weeks away, but so much can change in two weeks. We’ll see what happens. For now – we stay home, and we wait. It’s a dark, Holy Saturday kind of time.

And yet…we can also enjoy the glimmers of Easter hope. We can see some moments of flickering beauty –

Kiddos watching a dancer worship with her talent as part of the Easter church service we watched.

Snuggles with my little kids.

Andrea Bocelli singing Amazing Grace to the empty plaza in Milan – giving of what he has to sing out hope to a hurting world.

And Easter dinners with family.

May there someday be a fulfillment of that Easter morning hope after our time of Holy Saturday darkness.

And in the meantime, may Sarah Bessey’s Easter benediction be true for us all –

May you be given the gift of believing today.

May you know God in the dark.

May you abide in the country of grace even while you are in exile.

May you know and experience God With Us.

May God wipe away every tear from your eye, may there be no more death or mourning or pain – someday.

May everything be made right, may the old order of things pass away.

Even if you are beginning the resurrection from the dark, may the light break through.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life,

and so may it be well with your soul.