Yesterday's creative pursuit: a triptych, painted by Alice. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

In the trenches: At home with my kids

Despite all the uncertainty swirling about that highlights all I can’t control, there is one thing I can control: the atmosphere inside my home.

Sandisfield — “When are you going to start homeschooling me?” was the question from my 13-year-old daughter that surprised me at a recent family dinner. We’ve been having a lot of those lately — breakfast and lunch, too (but more on that in a minute). “Umm, I’m not,” I practically blurted out, half laughing, half choking on whatever I was eating. “Mom, I’m serious,” she said, employing that look that made me feel like she was the grownup for a hot second. “Yes, sweetie, I am, too,” I told her, because I am incredibly serious about turning this epic spate of uncertainty — that lurks on deserted downtown streets in Great Barrington and is woven into our friends’ FB status updates and Insta posts — into a time of certainty and connection for me and my kids no matter how excruciating that might feel IRL (um, in real life, that is, for any of you lacking a captive teenager to teach you these important terms right now.)

This morning’s impromptu parade, led by Alice carrying an American flag, and Kathryn (who is taking out the mulch). Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

When I walked into the kitchen this morning, my kids were eating breakfast together — oatmeal for one, ramen for the other — having a spirited discussion about their favorite camp counselors. My older daughter signed up to spend four weeks as a counselor-in-training at the camp she has been attending for a decade; my younger daughter plans to try sleep away camp for the first time. One kid’s boarding school has closed for the remainder of the year, the other has a loose return date of May 5, but I’m skeptical — highly skeptical. And here’s the thing: I don’t have the heart to tell them that summer might be cancelled, too. In the meantime, I’m working to remain present, which brings me back to the real kernel: homeschooling. I want my kids to remain engaged and relatively screen-free, but I have zero plans of corralling them around the dining room table and holding school hours. My decision is two-fold: For starters, I’ve pretty much forgotten how to do seventh-grade math. But really, I don’t want my kids to get stressed out and anxious. You see, there is a silver lining. Despite all the uncertainty swirling about that highlights all I can’t control, there is one thing I can control: the atmosphere inside my home. In order to cultivate my kids’ natural curiosity, I made a single, simple request: Each day, I have asked them to spend one hour doing each of these things: reading, creating, moving and learning something new.

My incredibly dog-eared copy of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ from when I first read it 33 years ago. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

This strategy has worked pretty well so far. We have been hiking like crazy, and exploring the many trails and off-the-beaten-path places that punctuate the (very) rural place where we live; the amount I’ve walked in the past two weeks (a whopping 28 miles total!) is rivaled only by the amount I have been cooking — and the kids are on board, too. Alice recently learned to make her grandpa’s pancakes from scratch (cooked crispy around the edges in a cast iron skillet) and vegan chocolate cake from my tattered “Joy of Cooking.” We started reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” together (from the very same copy I read in 1987 while a seventh-grader at Lenox Memorial Middle School), and she has been painting. Yesterday she filled an old window frame that hangs over the woodstove with a trio of masking tape and acrylic paints on watercolor paper. And as I type, she is practicing “Tequila” by Dan + Shay, which she has taught herself to sing/play on the electronic keyboard. I’ve got to admit, I’m impressed.

Kathryn took it upon herself to sign up for “Egyptian Art and Architecture,” one of the free, online courses being offered by Harvard. She finished the Harry Potter series (for the second or third time) and is now reading “It Occurs To Me That I am America.” She also spends plenty of time watching “Impractical Jokers” and listening to old music (currently Journey and the Beatles). Her school will begin distance learning next Monday, requiring one (or two) 45-minute synchronous classes each morning. We’ve got to set up Zoom accounts; I probably need to get a little more strict about screen time; and I will continue to dive in with my kids when invited. None of this is to suggest that I don’t dissolve from time to time; I do, and I’ve been leaning heavily (and virtually) on my best friend to remind me of the big picture and cheer me out of my doldrums. But this is what I’m stressing: We can do hard things. And staying home isn’t one of them.

Alice practicing piano in her free time (and pajamas). Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

It’s a line that author Glennon Doyle uses liberally in her third memoir, “Untamed,” which I just finished reading. She reminds readers that helping our kids to navigate hard things, and to honor themselves in the process, builds character and resilience. I think, as parents, we’ve all been asked to do hard things. And I will be the first to admit that we can’t really start comparing what you consider hard with my perception, and vice versa. This is simply to say that we’re all in this together, and still the ironies abound. Gas is hovering around $2.13 a gallon, and I have nowhere to go; oil prices are rock bottom, and yet I’m still paying last year’s lock-in price (a small price to pay for a real, live human on the phone who promises not to cash that last check I sent). Yesterday I wrote a check for a CSA share at a local farm (I decided I can’t afford not to invest in reliable, local food for the coming months), and this morning, I have already called Rep. Richard Neal’s office four times (I keep getting an answering machine) to find out when the newest Fed package, that will allow freelance/gig workers to get unemployment benefits, will begin to flow through the state.

Last night’s dinner, with veggies courtesy of Jan Johnson at Mill River Farm. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

I suppose I just divulged quite a bit of personal information, which, in this particular publication, is kind of new for me (I’m far more comfortable telling other people’s stories, after all). But here’s the real take-home message: In 10 months, or 10 years, when you hear your kids (or grandkids) talking about the spring of 2020 — when school was cancelled, businesses closed and we all stayed home — what do you want their stories to sound like? Will they be riddled with fear and anxiety, with a focus on all the quotidian details swirling out of their control? Or will they be carefree stories, full of hope, about all they gained? Namely, a seemingly endless string of simple days spent dialing down to the most basic of priorities: communication and connection, appreciation and understanding. I, for one, vote for the latter, which means, in the days and months ahead, I’ve got a big job — epic, really. We all do — if not just for ourselves and our own well-being, then for the very impressionable young people who are not only watching, but who are also poised to follow in our footsteps. Therefore, let’s make a collective decision — not simply to tread lightly, rather to move deliberately. The seeds we sow today will sprout in the coming weeks and months; what do you want those tender seedlings to look like? The power to shape them, of course, is in our hands.