Summer reading.

“Is it really possible to detect talent in fourteen-year-old children?” Bernard asked.

“Yes, but it’s rarely possible to predict whether the divine spark will keep burning with enough steadiness to survive the world.”  From “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.

Our summer reading menu has been a bit paltry thus far, I’ll admit.  Who has time to read with all the traveling we’ve been doing?  It’s been especially hard since the kids and I do some of it by listening to books on tape in the car, and we haven’t been doing much driving these days.  There’s been a lot of flying, but little driving.  In fact, we’ve been listening to the same two books for over a month now, and that is unusual for us.  Ordinarily, we finish them quickly.  We can’t stand not to, even if that means sitting in the car in the driveway while the neighbors wonder about our sanity.

But one of the books that I have managed to read this summer stands out.  This book spoke to me in such a way that I can’t bring myself to return it to the library yet; it feels like I will be losing a friend when I do so.  The overdue fines are racking up along with the guilt at being a book hog; this unwillingness to return it isn’t coming from a logical place, I assure you.  Since I’m finally writing down what it meant to me, though, I should be able to let go soon.  Maybe today…

In any case, the book is called “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.  It’s historical fiction, which is a favorite genre of mine.  The author has done an excellent of job of fleshing out the characters, so much so that I really did feel like they had become my friends by the end of the book.

The book is about the history of the Tiffany Glass Co., but from the viewpoint of one of the women artists who worked for the company back at the turn of the last century.  What a beautiful perspective it offers on so many aspects of New York in the late 1800s:  the plight of immigrants, the difficulties faced by women, in particular single women who needed to support themselves.  A main point of the book is in fact the main character Clara Driscoll’s singleness; a Tiffany company policy doesn’t allow women to work once they are married.  Early in the story, Clara marries, leaves the company, and then comes back a short time later after the death of her husband.  She is an artist, and finds so much fulfillment in the work that she pleads for her job again so that she can go back to doing what she loves.  I find it hard to imagine a time when a woman would have to choose either marrying or continuing to have a career.  Oh, wait, maybe I can imagine it…

But I digress.  In the end, the choice in many ways is made for her.  I won’t spoil the book, but when the man she has been friends with for years finally admits his feelings for her, she describes it thus:

“Breathless and half frightened at the prospects, I glimpsed my larger self shining in his eyes, and I loved him for showing it to me.”

Isn’t that what we all want, even if we don’t realize it?  Someone, friend or lover, to show us the best in us, our larger selves?  And yet, for someone who has kept the divine spark of artistic talent glowing within herself, what a terrible thing to be forced to give up. Ah, the beautiful dilemma of it!

Okay, now that I’ve shared about the pleasure that this incredible book gave to me, I feel better.  I think I can now quit being a library delinquent and finally give it back so that others can enjoy it as well.  If you live near me, here in Atlanta, Georgia, go check it out at once.

I just happen to know of a copy that will be available later this week.

 

Vreeland, S.  (2012).  Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  New York:  Random House.

 

 

PS-  I did finally return it and pay my overdue fines on all our books from this summer.  It was an all-time high $8.50 for me, but my debts are now paid.  I can sleep at night.  But I probably should have just bought a copy of it!

Journeys.

IMG_4255As my one faithful reader (thanks, Mom) may have noticed, I’m doing a little revamping of my blog. Polishing it up a bit, changing the format, adding some more pictures- not a lot, but I hope just enough to add a little spice.  That’s kind of what I’m doing in my life as well:  a little rethinking, a little polishing, a little reframing.  It’s summertime, after all, so since we’re taking a break from homeschooling, I have extra time for myself.  Sometimes, it’s necessary to do a little housekeeping in order to keep everything from feeling a little, well, stale.

Or maybe that’s just me.  I admit it:  I get a little bored sometimes.  While most people really don’t like change, I rather thrive on it (Mostly.  Nothing too drastic like a move to Utah.  I draw the line there).  But the fact is that life changes around us whether we like it or not, so we can either embrace it or not.  So it is with everything, even educating my children.  When I set out on the journey of homeschooling my kids, I confess that my ideas about it were much more limited than they are now.  A dear friend told me early on that the worst mistake I could make was to try to make it look like public school, and she was so, so right.  But even knowing that, when public school is all you have ever known, it can be hard not to compare yourself and your progress to the very thing you have left behind.  I’m trying to stop that.  To quit comparing my teaching style or my kids’ learning styles, or even our day to day schedules and routines… and accept that we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much.

But even that’s not the real struggle for me.  The real struggle for me has been more about who I am in all this.  What is a homeschooling mom?  What am I becoming?  Am I giving up part of who I am?  Do I have to wear no makeup and long denim skirts and let my armpit hair grow?  That’s what my friend in California is doing, after all…

When I first took on homeschooling and was telling some of my old friends about my intentions, I was quick to tell them that I was NOT going to be one of those.  Silly, I know.  But looking back I can definitely see that I was afraid I’d have to give up some part of me in order to teach my children.  I feared giving up the part of me that likes getting her nails done and having good hair and makeup.  And yes, even fashion, which I have to confess that I love (though mall shopping or shopping in crowded places is still completely out of the question.  Don’t even ask).  Sadly, though, I have given that person up, to some extent, for the last several years.  So I’m trying to rethink that.

Why does homeschooling so often seem to be about my own education more than that of my children?

I’m also rethinking the title I came up with three years ago for this journal that I’m keeping.  I’m learning, each year more and more, that while I may be able to use the events of my life as a story, it’s certainly not a tidy story line or one that I can predict.  I can’t point to its beginning or to its ending.  For goodness’ sake, I can’t even say where I’m going to be from one week to the next sometimes.  There is no “once upon a time,” “happily ever after,” or “the end” going on in my world.  And I may not be done with my title selecting yet, either.  Delicious ambiguity.  I like it, for now.  It seems to define life, or at least my life, quite well.  I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, or where I’m going to be or even, perhaps, who I’m going to be.

Now, here’s the etymology behind my title change.  Ambi: Latin meaning “around, about, or both.”  Ambiguity:  “the quality of uncertainty in meaning.”  Delicious:  From Latin deliciae, meaning “very pleasing; delightful.”

But in this case, it really just means me trying to delight in and enjoy the fact that I don’t have a clue what life’s going to throw my direction next.  With homeschooling or anything else.

The Accidental Homeschooler Tourist Travelers

I snapped this on our last trip to Paris while out for breakfast with my girl at Laduree tea room.
I snapped this on our last trip to Paris while out for breakfast with my girl at Laduree tea room.

I often feel like so much of my life has happened by accident, by chance.  I talk to many people who’ve planned for everything, while for me, it just hasn’t been like that.  I mean, these people know they are going to homeschool before their children are even born!  Before they’re even MARRIED!  I didn’t even get to LIVE with my husband for a while after I married him (thank you, US military)!  Maybe I’m just feeling a “grass is greener” sort of thing- in other words, I only think that others have things figured out while I feel like I’m wandering through life like Mr. Magoo…   Lucky them if they do- my life sure hasn’t allowed me to get so comfortable, that’s for sure.  We seem to be constantly living by surprise!  As in, surprise!  You are going back to New Mexico with your infant daughter, even though you just moved to the Gulf Coast (thank you again, US military)!

But here’s what I mean.  I never set out to join the military.  I stumbled into it when I wasn’t hired by my first choice in career directions.  Of course,  then I met the Pilot, which was obviously meant to be.  I only have to look at my amazing little family to know that.  Also, I never set out to homeschool.  In fact, I’d say it never actually even crossed my mind until my daughter was in the first grade.  And even then it took a mighty shove to get us to make the leap, which we didn’t even do till 4 years later when my son was struggling.  Okay, yes, I see it.  This was obviously meant to be as well- I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We set out last year, thinking we were meant to relocate to the West, and yet it was so, so wrong for us and here we are now, in a community back in the Atlanta area that we absolutely love.  We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d tried.  And we did try, and yet, it seems that this was meant to be as well, this thing so opposite of what we thought was going to happen.

So here’s the latest example of our living by surprise:  My daughter and I have stumbled into a last minute trip to London and Paris.  How in the world does that happen, you ask?  Well, the school the kids attend one day a week had a trip for the high schoolers planned that had a few cancellations and they needed someone to take the spots who isn’t affected by last-minute airfare (we excel at last minute airfare, thanks to the Pilot).  And so, my girl and I are off this Friday to London for about a week, followed by a few days in Paris.  I still haven’t quite wrapped my brain around this fact.  Of course, since we only decided to go a few days ago, I suppose being in a bit of shock is to be expected.

And do you know what the best part of this particular surprise is?  The things we are going to be visiting and seeing in England all tie in with the history that she and I have been working on this entire past semester.  I wrote last month about how incredibly our trip to Alcatraz had worked out for us, having just read a book about Alcatraz and all.  Well, I think that this one is going to work out even better.  Talk about an educational experience- read history, then go see the history.

I couldn’t have planned this one better if I’d tried, either.

Now, it’s not that we’re not planners, or that we don’t at least attempt to plan.  We do, we genuinely do.  Or at least I do.  I don’t think the Pilot is upset by our wanderings at all.  For me, however, there is a certain level of stress that comes with things being up in the air so often, which leads me to my envy of others whose lives seems so calm and ordered, so well-thought out.  Our jaunt out west, for example, led to a roaring case of shingles for me, on my face, no less.  Obviously the stress of it all does indeed get to me sometimes.

Of course, there’s the chance that I am only imagining that others lives are tidier than mine.  Or perhaps the lesson here is one in trust.  Truly, I couldn’t have planned so many things that have happened to me in my life better than they have worked out.  And for all that disorderly, chaotic, messy, delightful, stressful fun, I am truly grateful.

As Robert Burns put it, the best laid schemes of mice and men do often go awry.  But here’s where I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Burns:  It doesn’t always lead to grief and pain.

Sometimes, it leads to joy.

 

 

 

Yes, we are doing schoolwork.

In case anyone is wondering.  It’s not all play and no work, here in France.  Nope, no way.  We are definitely continuing with our homeschooling!  It just looks a little different.

I had a bit of an epiphany a few weeks ago.  During the week, or at least at first, we weren’t going much of anywhere, me and the kids.  We were trying to be unobtrusive, not to stand out, because French children are in school for so many hours of the day and I didn’t want to be too obvious as homeschoolers here in Europe since it’s not something that is understood or particularly well-accepted.  We were spending our mornings at our kitchen table, dutifully doing our French lessons, our math, and our reading.  Practicing our handwriting, like we usually do, by writing on the windows with special markers.  But then it dawned on me that it was probably more valuable to spend less time in the books and more time out in the world experience life in France, and especially, hearing the language.  After all, we only get a few months here, and once we return home, it won’t be so easy to immerse ourselves in a foreign language anymore.  And so, that’s what we’re doing.  We do our math and our reading, but as for that French textbook- forget about it.  It was boring anyway!  And kids are sponges when it comes to language, so what better way for them to learn than by soaking it up?

So now, we are still spending our mornings doing our devotionals and math lessons, and still reading loads of books together, but we’re looking a little “unschoolish” these days as well (I just made that word up).  We have learned lots at Les Fontaines Salees, where prehistoric man soaked in the mineral waters, followed by the Celts and then the Romans and so on…  plus, the museum there was terrific.  We have watched monks at Vezelay, and sat in a cathedral watching an artist restore the frescoes on the ceiling in Autun.  We’ve tromped around castle ruins in Germany, and toured chateaux with Louis XIV’s coat of arms painted on the walls, and tasted freshly roasted chestnuts on the streets of Heidelberg.

Experience is indeed the best teacher.

A few months ago, I lamented about the fact that I live in the suburbs and that my kids don’t get enough nature.  For now, that is no longer a concern.  Today, a Saturday, they spent the entire day outside on the several acres that go with the house that we’ve rented.  They built enough tree forts, far from the prying eyes of our HOA, to stock them up on their nature needs for a while.  And they’ll do it again tomorrow if it doesn’t rain.  We don’t have TV or video games at all, so that isn’t even an option.  Today, they asked me if it would be okay if they ran together to the end of the lane.  Of course I said yes.  Nature deficit?  I don’t think so.  At least not for now.

There.  I just thought I’d clear that up, in case anyone reading what I’m writing had any doubts as to the educational value of our time here in France, about my home-made, homegrown language immersion course.

I’d say that it’s actually going very, very well.

What I’ve learned so far.

Cathedral St. Lazaire in Autun, France. Unbelievably, there is a huge Ingres painting hanging in here.

I’ve learned quite a bit so far, in our first 3 weeks here in France.  Really more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I’ve decided to make a list of those things.  Some of the lessons have been acquired with much pain, so I’d really rather not have to relearn them.  Thus, writing them down seems like a good idea.

1.  Driving in Paris at rush hour is something to be avoided at all costs.  Sit and drink coffee, eat pastries, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO PROCRASTINATE AND AVOID IT.   The people who whine about Atlanta traffic clearly have never been anywhere else in the entire world.  By comparison, Atlanta traffic is one big tailgate party.  Sorry, folks.  But at least our road signs make sense.

2.  To get a fire really going in your woodburning stove, critical mass must be achieved.  There is no such thing as making a halfway or small fire.  You have to get that thing cooking.  And ashes are the best thing for cleaning off the glass.  Which is strange.

3.  French butcher shops smell, umm, odd.  Do not be alarmed.  And don’t worry, they will remove the chicken’s head when you purchase it and not expect you to keep it.  Chickens in America originally had heads too, one must remember.

4.  French shopkeepers in tourist towns (or perhaps other towns, for that matter) have no sense of humor.  None.  Whatsoever.  If your 8 year old winds the silly, cheap, tacky display music box the wrong way, just run away, quickly.  Offering to pay will not help.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

5.  You’d better have food in your house before Sunday comes, ’cause they don’t care if you’re starving- that grocery store will not open for anyone.

6.   The wine in Burgundy is shockingly good.  They grow only pinot noir (at least in the area around Beaune) and “grand cru” means the best of the best grapes.  Only 2% get to be called this, followed by “premier cru.”  I didn’t know this before.  Trader Joe’s sell neither type.  And if someone has ever explained this to me before, I didn’t listen.

7.  The Loir, or Edible Dormouse, loves dog food (http://www.lost-in-france.com/wildlife-in-france/650-edible-dormouse).  I know this because one shares our house.  I should have been suspicious earlier, because my mini dachshund never finishes her dog food (yuck, how boring!)  So the empty plate should have tipped me off.  I figured it out only when I heard her eating at her dish, only to look down and see that she was sitting next to me.  A few nights later, I came face to face with the dog food thief- good thing he was cute.  I screamed anyway.  Supposedly he’ll go into hibernation soon.

8. Twenty-four hour gas stations do not take American credit cards.  You’d better plan accordingly.  And as luck would have it, that’s all our town has- those unattended gas stations where you can only use credit cards.  That was an almost-panic moment the other day.  So fill up when you see an actual gas station, even if you still have half a tank.

9.  Get to the bakery first thing in the morning, if you want choices.  Otherwise, you will be forced to experiment.  Which isn’t always a bad thing…

10.  Lunchtime is absolutely, positively, and completely sacred.  You must plan everything you do in France around this truth, which includes securing a table for yourself.  If you arrive at a restaurant too much after the magic hour, chances are they will be full.  And that, malheureusement, is that.  

 

 

 

 

The Vikings are coming!

The basilica at Vezelay.

Okay, so not really.  Actually, they have already come, spent a week, and then went home.  And we had a wonderful time with these dear friends from Norway.  My husband met Harry back when they were both young pilots, trying to get flight time.  When my husband was hired to fly sailplanes out of a small airport in Atlanta, Harry was already there.  They quickly became friends, and from what I hear, they had a terrific time together doing the crazy things that 20-something year old single guys do in their free time.  Harry lived in the States for several years while accumulating flight time, and when he returned to Norway,  he met Anna.  Now they have two boys that are close in age to our children.  And they’ve become my friends now, too.  A few years ago, we spent two weeks at their home in Norway, which was an incredible experience for us.  It was nice to be able to repay their hospitality this past week.

We had a fun week together.  The Norwegians like their big, substantial breakfasts, so after a couple of days of the French style croissant and coffee thing which I lean towards, Harry pretty much pushed me out of the way and pulled out the smorgasbord.  We began our days with a HUGE breakfast, with baguettes (we were managing to somehow put away five of these huge loaves of bread per day), croissants, jam, this amazing gourmet butter that I accidentally bought but will continue buying, sausages, ham, eggs, fruit, and coffee.  The only problem with doing this is that by the time we were finished with our giant breakfast, the French were beginning to shut down the world for their own sacred ritual:  lunch.  Which meant that we were hanging around, waiting for things to open back up, pretty much every day.  We passed the time by packing a picnic lunch and finding a spot outdoors near whatever it was that we were visiting for the day, and this system worked pretty well for us.  We managed to do and see quite a lot, while remaining well-nourished at the same time.

It was their first time in France- the language barrier doesn’t only inhibit Americans, apparently, and they’d never felt comfortable traveling here before.   Thus, they were thrilled to go around the countryside with me able to do the talking for them.  We toured the sacred Basilique de Marie Madeleine at Vezelay,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbey_of_la_Madaleine,_V%C3%A9zelaythe , which is the starting point for one of the pilgrimages of the Compostella.  We also were able to see the Fontaines Salees, which are ancient springs that people have used as healing waters or for sacred rituals or just for bathing in for a very long time- the Romans, the Celts, and ancient people as well- possibly as far back as 2300 BC.  There is an old pump where you can taste the water coming from the earth, and it has a peculiar mineral taste but is also very salty, hence the name, which means “Salty Fountains.”

Les Fontaines Salees

A nearby chateau was also a favorite.  Silly me, I’d always imagined that most chateaux were found in the Loire Valley, but there are some beautiful ones dotting the countryside here as well.  The one we visited is called Chateau Bazoche http://www.chateau-bazoches.com/en/index.htm.

As far as homeschooling goes, the week was pretty much a loss.  Unless you count the amazing amounts of history they actually got to see and touch and walk around in, or the exposure to not only French but copious amounts of Norwegian… or the cultural exposure of being around our friends and their different ways of doing things.. or the VERY different way the French look at life…  Or the market that we happened across on our way to Vezelay where we sampled different foods and saw various birds (soon to be dinner) for sale.  Hmmm, maybe not such a loss after all.  Learning sure can be fun!

Chateau Bazoche, with running children.

Comfort zones.

This is our neighborhood, which has made the drive all worth it.

It’s good to leave comfort zones, sometimes.  To stretch yourself a little.  You’ve probably heard that quote by Eleanor Roosevelt- “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  Well, I’m certain I don’t hit the every day mark, by any means.  But I think that yesterday’s adventures should stock me up for a while, or at least I’m hoping so.  You see, yesterday we flew in to Charles de Gaulle airport, just me and the kids, and I rented a car and drove out of Paris in rush hour traffic, made my way through the French countryside, and found our house that included directions like “look for the 1 kilometer marker.”   It’s funny- such things never used to worry me before, but with kids, well,  there’s just something about being responsible for two more lives that makes me a little more nervous than I used to be.  So yesterday, I definitely stretched.

Renting the car- no big deal.  The initial drive from the airport to Paris- also no big deal.  And then, driving the loop around Paris in order to continue south wasn’t a big deal.  Not really.  Unless you’re completely jet lagged, and driving a manual transmission at approximately an average of 20km an hour.  It took me absolutely forever just to skirt AROUND the city, and my foot began to go numb from holding in the clutch for so long. It was the rush hour part that was the most awful, though the crazy French road sign thing was also a challenge.  I never truly knew where I was going- it’s merely by the grace of God that somehow I made my way to the correct autoroute.   And the car does this trick when you put it in neutral and let out the clutch- it dies.  And then restarts when you push it back in.  Which, since the car is not a hybrid, I did not expect, and which worried me. But oh, this car had even more surprises in store for me, this tiny little Ford.

When I finally cleared Paris, which I had begun to doubt I would ever be able to do (I started to hate Paris- who hates Paris??), life improved.  I made progress, and in reality the drive wasn’t that long if you don’t count all the time sitting perfectly still while in Paris.  The countryside began to get more and more beautiful, and those lovely signs that the Europeans put along their major highways began to appear- the ones that show you what interesting thing that each town has to offer.  I started to see lots of warnings about the possibility of wildlife crossing the road, but noticed that they had built wildlife bridges over the autoroute in several places, which is a fabulous idea as far as I’m concerned.  Finally, I saw the sign announcing that I had entered the region of Burgundy.  Just as I was wondering if I’d be able to see the vineyards, I came over the top of a hill and voila:  grapevines as far as I could see.

And then, finally I left the autoroute for the smaller roads that would bring me to our town.  The closer I got, the more vague my directions became.  I found the town, but my directions said to leave the town heading south, and my darling little Ford has no compass, so I had no earthly idea which way south was (and this marked probably the hundredth time that I wished that the Pilot had been able to come with us at the beginning of our journey- he joins us in a few days).  I did the only reasonable thing, since I am a woman:  I stopped to ask directions at a bakery in the town center (and bought a baguette as well, of course).  While two women attempted to make sense of my directions (and could not, which made me feel better), the third took a look and said, “Oh, I live two houses away.  You can just follow me!”  Thank the good Lord in heaven above for sending me THAT blessing, because I was beginning to have visions of never, ever finding our house.  We both bought our bread, and she got in her car and I got in mine and started to back out… and couldn’t for the life of me figure out where reverse was on the car (that I was beginning to despise more and more by the moment).  Yes, indeed:  Surprise #2 of the tiny Ford was that reverse apparently involved a secret handshake that I was not privy to.

And that is when I was able to make my dramatic entrance into French life, into the town where we are staying.  The aforementioned surprise for me that my car had in store for me (I didn’t mention that I couldn’t roll down the window at the first toll booth I came to, did I?  The window controls are in the center console… Surprise #1).  I was in the town square, after all.  Not exactly empty.  Several men came over and tried to help me find reverse.  The kind lady that I was supposed to follow gave it a shot.  No good.  Not one of us could figure it out.  And so, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel issued an order to the gentlemen all around:  they were to push my car backwards out of its parking spot, which they promptly did (my guardian angel, who I would guess to be about 60, helped as well.  Unbelievable).  At last, I was going to make it to the house.  And thank goodness everyone in town knows we are here.

After that, it was only another 3 minutes to the house.  Easy enough to find if you know where you are going.

And by the way, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel came by later that day and took us to the market so we could fill our pantry without having to back my car out of another parking space.   Now, how’s that for French hospitality?  And how lucky am I that she just happens to be my neighbor?

And how lucky am I also that the house caretaker is a lovely British man who quickly decoded the Ford’s secret handshake?  I can now drive in reverse.  Whew.