Monday, October 20, 2008

Ants on the Freeway

I am a passenger, stuck in traffic on the freeway.

Looking out my window, I notice an ant colony marching with purpose, carrying tiny bits of something on their backs. I observe them for several minutes, while traffic is at a complete stop, noting that their entire operation occurs within inches of the fog line.

I feel empathy for these ants, working so hard, oblivious to the dangers lurking inches away.

Just then I imagine my own life, with my daily happenings, and I wonder what dangers a wide-angled view might reveal. With my mind I shrink the traffic jam into a tiny dot and the whole earth to the size of a bouncy-ball. Still, I can't see what danger prowls just out of view, waiting to ambush me and all of humankind.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

It's too cold and wet to be at the park; our solitary presence here proves this point. I wipe off the slides and swings with a sweatshirt someone has left behind, but the water smears, then reforms tiny rivulets, refusing to absorb. Sylvia leads Eli and I on a hike through the "woods;" her word for the dirt path, tree-lined perimeter of the park.

As we wind our way back to the play area, I see three tall boys enter the park. They are too old to be at the park at 10 a.m. on a weekday, I think; shouldn't they be in school? Anticipating the inevitable lighting of cigarettes and tossing about of profanities, I intend to keep a close eye on them. Just then one boy sprints to the swings and enthusiastically jumps on. He pumps and swings, kicking off his shoes once he reaches the desired height.

For a moment, I am surprised, but then I smile, believing I know these boys' secret. They don't want to grow up! They miss the swings and slides of their childhood! They've cut class simply to play at the park!

Visually locating the other boys, I recognize immediately that it isn't so. One boy has pilfered a plastic rocking horse from the baby area, and he's pushing it through play-tunnels, over rocks, and onto the dirt path, like an overgrown toddler with a tonka toy. His energy is focused on the toy with laser-like intensity; he takes no notice of Eli, who is watching him nearby.

Now I see the third boy-- only now I recognize he's a grown man-- talking on his cell phone. "Yeah, we're at the park. No, it's fine; they're cool right now," he says to the listener, and then continues on with some mundane conversation. Intermittently he checks on the boys, but his gaze conveys only the cool attachment of a paid caregiver.

It's time to leave the park now, and I push the stroller past the boy on the swing. Despite the chill in the air, he points bare toes to the gray sky, and smiles inwardly, without showing any teeth. I keep walking, wishing I could whisper an incantation like a secret password to gain admittance into his world, if only for a moment, if only just to ask him what he thinks about when he looks at ants up close.

Monday, October 06, 2008

"On Shoofly Pie & Homemade Pudding," OR "How I Became Amish This Weekend"

Some of my life-altering decisions can be traced back to the confluence of seemingly random events. Just over a year ago, Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" joined forces with a random blog comment from a New Zealander, and I was forced to rethink my food consumption. At that time, I made the radical and personally unprecedented decision to cook our meals from scratch using local, whole ingredients.

Now another change is coming to my household, this time brought about by the coupling of an Amish Cookbook with a friend's random comment.

Please allow me to explain in three short Acts.

[Act One: Those Amish Folk are Doing Something Right.]

Unlike the previous 4 weekends, last weekend we didn't travel, or overschedule, or do much of anything, really. We were able to sit, and be, and think. I got my Sunday afternoon nap, which is a sure indicator of a successful weekend.

On Saturday, I brought over a portion of Green Enchiladas ("Simply in Season" cookbook, p. 145) to my elderly neighbor. She had a treat waiting for me: a book called "Amish Cooking for Kids." I dove into the cookbook when I got home, revelling in the drawings: rosey-cheeked Amish children in home-made clothes bearing baskets of fresh-baked bread, children frolicking outside and carrying bushels of just-picked apples to the horse-drawn cart, and children polishing their shoes with a brush while their little brother pulls his hand-made wooden toy by its string. Sigh, to be Amish is to be happy, I thought superficially. Well, except for the strange beards without mustaches, I mused, my Amish husband would need to be clean-shaven.

[Act Two: Those Regular American Folk are Doing Something Wrong.]

On Sunday after church, I hugged my friend Beth. "How're you doing?" I asked. "Good," she replied, "just busy. You know how it is, just really busy." I do know how it is, and I've given that answer many times in the past: "Oh we're all doing well, except we're just too busy."

I've had similar conversations with other friends countless times, but this time-- no doubt because of those rosey-cheeked children-- it got to me. I spent part of Sunday afternoon noodling over the problem: Why are we too busy? Who decides what events go on our schedule? For the most part, we do. Who decides when and how much gets done? For the most part, we do. So who needs to accept responsibility for making us too busy? We do!

[Act three: Let's Become Amish!]

Sunday afternoon while Eli napped upstairs (truth: banged against his door shouting "I don't want to be IN HERE!"), and while I napped on the main floor (truth: drifted in and out of sleep, disturbed by Eli's banging and my mental disconcertion over our lack of Amishness), Tobin and the girls went outside to pick our apples. Instead of bushels they picked a plastic bin-full, and instead of loading them onto a horse-drawn cart they simply placed them onto our front porch. Still, I was happy with their efforts.

Post nap, for a blissful period of, say, ten minutes, Sylvia washed apples, I sat on the couch and peeled the apples, and Eleanor nibbled the peeled apples as we all listened to a classic version of Beauty & the Beast on my iPod (from this site).

Really, it was lovely.

In the evening, Tobin and I had a dinner date, at which I made the following announcement: "I think we should get a bunch of money and buy a farm in Mt. Vernon and spend our lives raising crops and eating them, and teaching our children simple pleasures such as string games, bread-making, and banjo-playing."

After a good laugh (by Tobin) and a long conversation (in which Tobin reminded me what farming is really like), we settled upon the following changes:

*No more mid-week TV or movies for the kids. Instead we will have Movie Night on Fridays, complete with popcorn and snacks.

*This means that after dinner, we will play together as a family. We will divide and conquer, with one of us playing games with the girls while the other occupies Eli with some other activity.

*We will try to get outside with the kids as much as possible.

*When we're not late, we will not hurry. (Duh!)

*We will continue to limit extra-curricular activities to avoid spending our lives shuttling the kids from one event to another. This means Eleanor will not be a Campfire Girl and may never learn ballet. (So be it, Amen and Amen).

*We will say no as much as possible to commitments that only serve to make us busy.

*We will reinstate Monday night Family Meetings, in which we light candles, sing an opening song, learn about a virtue (tonight was Gentleness), talk about our week, sing a closing song, and blow out the candles.

*We will endeavor to say YES when the kids ask us to do something healthy with them.

*We will be deliberate in how we choose to spend our time.

*We will not, in fact, actually become Amish. Yet.
Are you also struggling to combat busy-ness? Please comment and share your best ideas with me!