This year: to keep hold of the important things, stopping to restack the load as often as necessary.
by Robert Frost
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with—hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best.
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.
In answer to some questions I’ve been getting lately, I’m reprinting here an article I wrote for the Virginia Home Education Association (now the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers) newsletter about three years ago. Naturally, there have been some changes since then…the two-year-old in the piece was, of course, Beanie, who is now about to turn five. And our current two-year-old, Wonderboy, wasn’t even a guess when I penned this article. How impossible, now, to imagine our home without him!
I must also disclose that we do in fact have two vehicles now. When I wrote the article, we had three children whose carseats and boosters fit snugly—perhaps a trifle too snugly—into the backseat of our Saturn. Wonderboy necessitated a larger vehicle: I now drive a minivan. Since the Saturn was already paid for (and consumes less fuel), we kept it to use for outings when fewer than four children were included.
Other than those changes, the patterns of our days continue in much the same rhythm as I describe below. When I’m on my game, I try to do a lot of the dinner prep in the mornings now; I rely much more on my crock pot than I used to. (Although with the run of illness we’ve had this month, I admit I have emphatically NOT been on my game in the dinner department lately.) We’ve had to weave Wonderboy’s physical and speech therapy into our days, and as the girls get older they have more out-of-the-house interests and activities. The details shift, but the big things remain. And Playmobil is just as popular here as ever.
The Homeschooling Freelancing Life
“How on earth do you do it?”
That’s the question I’m most often asked when people find out that I write novels for a living while homeschooling my three children. If the conversation occurs in person (instead of online), I can see the raised eyebrows, the quick reassessment of first impressions. Oh, so the tousled hair and crooked sweater are because she’s an ARTIST, not a slob! Why, look at those kids climbing all over her, and yet she still manages to write books! She must be some kind of superwoman!
Nah, you were right the first time. I’m no superwoman. My sweater is buttoned wrong because I put it on while supervising a toothpaste battle, and my hair’s a mess because my two-year-old fiber fanatic can’t keep her hands out of it. I write detailed historical fiction about life in eighteenth-century Scotland while chomping on gummy bears and listening to Playmobil princesses shriek at intrusive Playmobil sheep directly above my head.
But still, it works. I spend most of the day with my kids, “playing school” (as they call it) or just plain playing; and in the afternoons I go downstairs to our basement office and write novels about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother and great-grandmother. It’s my dream job, my dream life. Our dream life. My husband is a freelance writer, too. Mostly comic books, in his case. He’s the one listening to the rat-tat-tat of little plastic sheep feet during the part of the day that I’m upstairs.
Scott quit his job as an editor at DC Comics when our second daughter, Rose, was born. Our oldest girl, Jane, was three years old then, in the midst of a harrowing chemotherapy regimen to battle leukemia. (I am extremely thankful to be able to say that she is now, at age seven, a healthy, lively chatterbox with a penchant for Narnia books and messy experiments.) After eighteen months spent shuttling between hospital and office, Scott wanted to be home with his girls. We gave his health insurance benefits a regretful kiss good-bye and took the plunge.
At the time, we lived in a cramped New York apartment with one bedroom for the four of us, and an office roughly the size of a filing cabinet. Three years and another baby later, we moved to a beautiful little town in Virginia—thus realizing another dream Scott and I had shared since our undergrad days at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. Virginia. We couldn’t wait to get here, and every evening when I watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge, I know why.
So here we are, the five of us (so far). As I said, it’s an ideal arrangement—provided new assignments come in at the right time. My schedule is fairly stable: I have a certain number of books under contract, and nervewracking but predictable deadlines. Scott has a more fluid schedule, taking jobs as they come. Usually that’s exactly when I’ve got a giant deadline breathing down my neck. (Deadlines always have bad breath.)
Deadline panic is one of my biggest challenges. Another, and perhaps the biggest, is managing to actually sit down and write. By 3:30 in the afternoon, which is when my writing shift begins, my brain is tired. I’m more in the mood to curl up with a good book than to attempt to write one. The first half hour is a struggle. But the office is peaceful, and if I can stay away from email until I’ve got a page or three behind me, I’m all right.
Another challenge, of course, is surviving on a budget. Freelance writers aren’t the only people to know that pinch. Like everyone else, we find ways to make it work. We have only one car (don’t need another, since no one has to leave home for work or school). We rarely eat out, and of course you don’t need a big clothing budget when your only coworkers are your spouse and children.
When Scott first quit his job to go freelance, friends asked us how we were going to handle being together all the time. Won’t you get sick of each other? Ha! Not hardly. On work days, we’re two ships passing in the stairway (at least until dinnertime). A dozen times a day, I have to resist the impulse to run downstairs for a quick chat. It’s so tempting, knowing he’s there.
Sometimes he’ll use a coffee break as an excuse to visit us during our lesson time. “Lesson time,” by the way, is a term I use loosely. We have a relaxed approach heavy on literature, handcrafts, and nature walks, with comic relief provided by the aforementioned two-year-old. Most mornings, though, there’s an hour or so during which the girls and I are clustered around the table discussing history, math, and German, which they are learning faster than I am. Suddenly Daddy will appear in the doorway. Those are the best moments, when I sit back and watch, grinning, while the girls trip over each other to get to him first and tell him all about what we’re doing. “Look at my cursive F’s!” “Look at this goat I sculpted out of beeswax!” “Wookie ME, Daddy!”
There are other moments, of course—plenty of them—the kind that involve rapid increases of blood pressure. I have one of those moments every time I pay the health insurance premium. Scott had one just now, while I was writing this article. The usual hum of high-pitched voices over my head was suddenly punctuated by a horrified shout and a roar. “LISSA!” This was no Playmobil princess, nor an obstreperous plastic sheep. It seems a diaper explosion of the most nauseating kind had coincided with the boiling-over of a pot of broccoli. I raced upstairs just in time to save the broccoli and (whew) too late to help with the diaper. Sorry, honey.
Scott winds up with dinner duty most nights, since I work in the afternoons. (I take Thursdays off and he takes Fridays off, allowing us each a full day with the children for field trips and such, and a full day of writing to make up for too much time spent enjoying each other’s company earlier in the week.) He also does the laundry, the vacuuming, and most of the shopping. I do all the tidying and most of the cleaning. That’s my answer to the “How do you do it?” question, by the way. I can “do it” because I’ve got help with the big bundle of stuff that comprises our IT. I can do it because we’ve figured out a good schedule and a fair workload for everyone in the family. When we stick to it, it works.
Of course we rarely do stick to it faithfully, not for long. Stuff happens. Life intrudes like a Playmobil sheep. It intruded for six weeks this summer, when four out of the five of us had chicken pox, one after the other. (My bad luck not to have gotten them out of the way as a kid.) Few things wreak havoc on a writing schedule like chicken pox. Except for five or six things that have happened to us since…
It’s a constant juggling act, and sure, juggling is a risky art. Sometimes a ball comes hurtling down to whack you on the head. But you never have your hands on all the balls at once. One task at a time, one purpose for each moment.
Sometimes, early in the morning, the girls will come padding into our bedroom and climb under the covers to snuggle with Scott and me. I’ll hear the schoolbus go growling by our window in the gray dawn, accompanied by the urgent footfalls of neighbor children hurrying to get to the corner. It will occur to me that the lights had to come on in those other houses an hour ago or more, commencing a frantic effort to get up and out on time. At times like this I know that my question isn’t How on earth do you do it? but Why on earth wouldn’t we try?
December 30, 2005 @ 9:27 am | Filed under: Books
…and that’s in Chapter 1 alone. I’m reading Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks to the girls. They—we, I should say—connected to the characters so instantly, from the very first page, that it’s hard to believe we only just met them. Jane seemed to find the connection so emotionally charged that she spent half the chapter with a blanket over her head, needing a refuge, I presume, in which to absorb the shock of having encountered a girl so apparently like her own self in the pages of this book. (The ten-year-old sister is named—guess what—Jane, and, like my ten-year-old Jane, is a dreamy sort of girl who likes to write stories.) Rose grinned wickedly over the barbed remarks of wisecracking Skye, and Beanie could not be restrained from leaping to her feet and echoing every line uttered by four-year-old Batty—who, like our Bean, prefers to spend her time wearing a pair of silken butterfly wings.
I understand Jane’s reaction—I’m a little goosebumped myself. We know these girls. How exciting to know our friendship is only just beginning! I can’t wait for Chapter 2.
Beanie stayed awake past ten the other night, long after the lights had been turned out, her sisters had fallen asleep, and even the story tape the girls were listening to had wound to its satisfying end and clicked off. I know this because she got out of bed and padded downstairs to tell us she couldn’t sleep. I followed her back up to the girls’ room and climbed into bed beside Beanie, because she is not quite five years old and the days when she won’t need mommy to snuggle with her are not so very far away.
She poured herself into the curve shaped by my arms and my swelling stomach, and we lay there a while in the dark, listening to the soft breathing of her two older sisters, while her newest sister, the one who’ll be born in April, bump-bump-bumped little taps against Beanie’s back. Bean sighed, the kind of long, happy, exaggerated sigh you only ever hear a child make. This is very good, that sigh was saying.
Then, into the hush, Beanie whispered a question. A dark room, late at night, cuddled up with your mother: it was exactly the sort of moment that brings out the philosopher in a child, and when she began to speak, I waited for the deep, probing question that was bound to come.
"Mommy," she murmured, "did you know that ducks never get wet? Because they have waterproof feathers!"
Um, no. No, I don’t think I did know that. Well, there you go.
“If you’re looking for news about the Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan, then this is the website for you.”*
EdWonk also has a most interesting collection of posts on education (from all sorts of schoolers—public, private, home, you name it) at this week’s Carnival of Education.
*Looks like that link is no longer live. Here’s an alternate site for Iraq War statistics.
For those of you who have not been following the comments to my recent posts on Dickens (here and here), Nancy Brown & Love2Learn Mom were kind enough to tell me about G. K. Chesterton’s biography of Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men. I’ve ordered it from the library and am excited to begin—the perfect kick-off to a new year of reading.
I’ve decided upon a Chesterton and Dickens concentration for the upcoming year. I don’t know that I’ll achieve the long-term goal of Writing and Living, who, as you know, plans to read Dickens’s entire body of work in 2006, but I plan to spend a few months, at least, in the company of these two amiable gentlemen, Gilbert and Charles.
A useful (and delightful) link: The American Chesterton Society blog.
My other monthly reading goals for 2006:
• Two children’s novels a month—newly published, or new to me
(first on the list: The Penderwicks—no surprise there)
• At least one adult novel not by Dickens
(first on the list: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Life of Pi by Yann Martel)