Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mom's Week Off

Because it was unthinkable to do otherwise, last week my kids headed off to camp. This is a tradition entrenched in the culture of America in general and our family and a couple close friends in particular, so as far as the small fry were concerned, it was worth structuring our return from abroad around spending a week at camp, getting worn ragged in the happiest of ways from dawn until past dusk.



While they were fishing, water-skiing, jumping into lakes, conquering the shaving cream slide, and enjoying Bible study and skits, I was doing two important things:

1. Looking for a house for us to buy. (We found one! Thanks, Lord!)
2. Reconnecting with some of my people.

This is the second year I've sent all three to camp, and the first year I haven't had a house to pack up in their absence. Let me tell you, the temptation for a full-time, homeschooling mama who suddenly finds herself with some free and quiet time on her hands is to GET STUFF DONE.

But you know what? This wasn't the time to get stuff done. It was the time to muzzle my addiction to productivity and focus on relationships. It was the time to sit and have coffee or lunch with a few precious people, one or two at a time, and just reconnect. Mostly because none of them have been blogging their lives for the past year, I just needed to sit and listen.

Because half of my heart still lingers across the Atlantic, spending this time to invest in relationships with some of the people who make this place beautiful to me instead of frantically checking off a to-do list or creating impressive projects felt like the most important thing to do. It runs counter to the American culture, where everyone seems to be so very busy, and actually connects me to one of the things I loved most about our life over there, which was its relative simplicity.

I find myself wanting to hold on to this way of life that more closely aligns with what we say is important to us. How will this work in the face of a strong and anxious tide swirling and grasping at us? I don't know, but I'm praying and seeking.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There and Back Again: The Trip Home

So. We're home. 

Or rather, we are back in our other home, the home we left a year ago in order to go make a home in England. This home is the one we call Texas. 

The very end of our time there was a pretty intense whirlwind of packing, decision-making, moving, cleaning, and saying goodbyes. Honestly, I don't know how people do this stuff alone. We were blessed with so much help in those crazy days -- help in the form of dinners, playtime for our kids, packing up boxes, making my tired and scattered brain focus on one room at a time, loading furniture, accepting hand-me-downs, running the vacuum, providing rooms to sleep in on our last night, chauffeuring here and there -- all of it. Special thanks for above-and-beyond rolling up of those sleeves go to our beloved neighbors, the Kings, and our friends Anne, Sarah and Dominika. How amazing is it that these people, and others there, unselfishly invested in us this past year, knowing that that only meant painful goodbyes on the road ahead? 

Today marks one week since we made our final farewells to the lovely city of Cambridge and the people we hold dear there. Our time there felt all too short in many ways.  In the last few days, I've found myself repeatedly thinking, "What were we doing one week ago right now?" and feeling my head spin at how much as happened, how many miles we've traveled, and how different life looks in the space of just one week. 

"Be patient with reverse culture shock," an experienced friend told me, and I think what she probably meant was that it's normal to go through a period of intensely mixed feelings and thoughts of wanting to be in two places at once. Some things do seem shocking: the brashness and inanity of American politics and culture that's splayed all over the television, for example -- I can barely stomach it. On the other hand, some things feel so much like life before we left that it's as if we're slipping back in to a pair of shoes we left behind. I dry our glut of clothes in a dryer, and they're done in 45 minutes. I meet friends for lunch or coffee. And I have to ask myself, "That all did happen, right? That was real, right?"

So here's proof that it was real. These are a few shots of our last day in Cambridge on July 1, and our three days of travel back to Texas. 

 Anne and her daughter Alice drove us to the train station that last day, but first had to take us by our house and provide moral support while we said the tearful-est of goodbyes to our neighbors. Something tells me that having neighbors like these guys may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 Three of our four neighbors (one was on a walk, since he doesn't do goodbyes, which somehow made me cry even more) waving goodbye. (Not pictured: Anne handing me tissues as we drove away.)

 My dear friend Claire and her family met us at the train station for more tearful goodbyes. Caroline kept a stiff upper lip, as you can see, while the rest of us wobbled. 

Anne, Alice, two more of the kids' friends, and my other friend Sarah and her girls all accompanied us on the train to London for our last afternoon of fun in the city. Here we are at King's Cross for the final time. 

We chose to spend the afternoon at the amazing Museum of Natural History. Why did we wait until our last day to do this?? The kids probably could have spent the whole day just in the Discovery Lab. 

In the blur of rush hour at the South Kensington underground station, we had to head toward Heathrow Airport to meet Tim while our friends returned to King's Cross and then to Cambridge. Under this sign, with hordes streaming past us, we exchanged our final hugs and erupted into fresh tears all around. As we descended the stairs, we could hear them calling "Goodbye! Goodbye!" And then we were that family, weeping on the platform while the commuters next to us avoided eye contact, keeping calm and carrying on as the Brits do best. Later, Alice told her mom that she would always remember that spot in the underground station. I think we will too. 

The first leg of our journey took us from London to Reykjavik, Iceland, where we had to collect all our luggage at midnight (our body clocks said 1:00 a.m.) and take a very stuffed taxi to our hotel. 

The next day, Wednesday, was recovery day. A coach bus picked us up at our hotel and took us to Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon. Only twenty minutes from the airport, this is a geothermal lagoon where you can bathe in 100-degree mineral water, slather your face with white mud, walk around in a bathrobe like everyone else, and just basically forget that you're in the middle of a transatlantic move. Ahhhh ...

Caroline was absolutely indignant that her age required her to wear floaties as per Blue Lagoon rules, so we tried to cheer her up with a bit of floatie solidarity. Look at that man of mine. Can you see why I married him? :-) 

 That evening, we flew to Boston, where we were met by a few of my sweet family members. They brought us dinner and sat with us at our airport hotel while we ate and struggled to form coherent conversation. The next morning after breakfast, the kids made a beeline for the hotel computers to see if they had any email from their British friends (they did).

Our final leg of the journey, from Boston to Austin, was interrupted by a six-hour delay in Houston. Six. Hours. By 12:30 a.m., our welcome committee was down to our stalwart family members, who had camped out, played cards, and watched the monitors in frustration for six hours until our zombie-like faces appeared at the top of the escalators. They had big homemade banners, party hats and party blowers, and I think everyone in the Austin airport became clear on the fact that the Diller family was returning from England!

The next day, I mean later that day, after a few hours of sleep, we were ready for some family bonding (cousin time playing Jungle Speed!) and visits from friends.




Our first day home conveniently coincided with the Fourth of July, so why not have a party?

And now … Forward. Forward through the Texas summer heat. Forward through remembering how to drive a car. Forward through reunions and remembrances. Forward through finding a new house to live in. Forward through holding on and letting go. 

Yesterday, two scrapbooks arrived from Shutterfly. One was our book of highlights from the year abroad. I pored over it, lingering over the memories. The other was our family yearbook for 2013. Since half of that year took place here in Texas, I could reflect not only on our last transatlantic move and those first few months in England, but also on the beauty of the life we had, and will have again, here. It will not look the same in every respect. We're not the same people we were a year ago, and neither are the folks we left behind. But the joys in the rearview mirror reminded me of the joys that lie ahead. 

Deep breath. Forward. 

P.S. I just want to thank all of you who have followed along on our journey this past year and have sent, spoken, or even just thought words of encouragement. Those kept me going, kept me writing, and meant more than you know. In the rough times, I thought of you and decided to give thanks and put one foot in front of the other, embracing the adventure for all of us. Let's do this again some time, okay? 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ups and Downs of a Year Abroad


With one week to go until our life here in Cambridge ends and we leave an empty rental house behind, hand over our bicycles to their next owners, and hug our friends goodbye, I've been reflecting on what this chapter has meant to us. Some of the experience feels so hard to put into words, and some of the lessons learned probably won't crystallize until weeks, months, or even years have passed. But I've had a good deal of time to think as I pedal past the Cam River day by day, and a few things come to mind. (As an aside, I know I'll miss those quiet 20-minute snippets of personal airspace to think and pray. It's not quite the same behind the wheel of a car. You know, the car I'll need to remember how to drive after an 11-month total hiatus.)

There's an emotional trajectory to a year in a foreign environment. In my experience, you start out excited -- so! much! to! discover! The adjustment is bigger and the cultural gap wider than anticipated, and you miss folks on the home front (and Costco, and Central Market, and kombucha, and clothes dryers, and your KitchenAid mixer, and closets, and your dog, and, and, and …), but it still feels like an adventure, and you keep telling yourself during the inevitable bumps, "Hey, it's only a year!"

Around the 3-month mark, you're done. You feel like you've been on a really long trip, and you're ready to go home. You miss, more than anything, the depth of friendships you've cultivated over months and years with people who share history, humor, ideas, carpools, hearts with you. Being in the "get to know you" stage with every single person around you is exhausting. The days are short (literally, in English wintertime) but the year feels loooong.

At this point, you may experience something like the following: Under the weight of various cares and anxieties that press upon you one day, holding hostage your joy, God whispers to you a single verse: "'For I,' declares the Lord, 'will be a wall of fire around her, and I will be in the glory in her midst.'"(Zech. 2:5) Zechariah the prophet is referring to ancient Jerusalem, but in this moment the promise is for you. It becomes a lifeline to which you hold fast. He will shelter. He will provide. He will transform from within.

Around six months, you turn the corner. Perhaps it has something to do with the gradual return of longer sunlight and signs of spring, but time starts to accelerate. You've formed friendships that make up anchors in your weekly routine. They do not replace the ones back home, but they enlarge your heart. You've grown accustomed to the lifestyle differences that felt so glaring at first. Your ear has become attuned to the words, phrases, and accents around you. You know your way around. You've found ways to contribute, to serve, to let God come down and into you and then out of you in small offerings of love. This gives life purpose beyond yourself.


You realize that you've spent the whole year in an energizing trajectory of learning and growth. You celebrate small victories, like getting a carton of eggs safely home from the market in your bike basket after traversing the potholes on Jesus Green, and discover that unless you want homemade jam for your toast, perhaps it's best not to try that trick with fresh, ripe strawberries. And large victories too, like having developed ability to get anywhere you want to go in London by Underground and on foot without any fuss -- and to help someone else to do it too. '

Then before you know it, it's time to think about to packing up and going home. The weeks zoom by. You can't escape thoughts about all that you're going to miss and all the farewells that may or may not be permanent, at the same time that you start making plans with people back home and looking forward to seeing them and living life together again. You even entertain a few fantasies of staying a second year (which you don't even dare mention to your teenager!), an idea which seemed completely untenable six months previously. You decide instead to give daily, conscious thanks for being right here, right now … and for the grace that promises to rise up and meet you around the next bend in the river. 




Monday, June 16, 2014

How to Get A Cake Across Town: A Cambridge Dilemma

An episode occurred yesterday that so aptly captures the quirky uniqueness of our life here in Cambridge that I have to make note of it.

The cast of principals: Our next door neighbors -- Steven, Lesley, their 20-year-old daughter Ellie -- and Ellie's boyfriend, Jack. They're all very much a part of our daily life here, and there is much waving through windows and "popping over" back and forth. And, key to the story, we are all living the two-wheeled lifestyle.

So, Ellie and Jack share with Caroline (who's now eight and a half) a love for baking and decorating cakes and other sweet treats. The other night they were all poring over a cake-decorating book, oohing and ahhing over the photos, and Caroline decided that since it had been a whole, I don't know, two weeks since she and Ellie had made a dessert together, it was high time to take their skills to a new level. An occasion was quickly identified: Nonnie and Opa's (Tim's parents') 47th anniversary. And lo, the day before the anniversary (that would be yesterday), Ellie and Jack had the day off from work. What would prevent another sugar-fueled adventure?


All went quite well, with Jack baking the cake and whipping up the frosting while Caroline and Ellie crafted little fondant ornaments, until it was time to look the central dilemma squarely in the eyes: How were we going to transport this cake across town on our bicycles to Nonnie and Opa's apartment?

There was a hasty meeting in the Situation Room, a.k.a. the neighbors' front entryway. Ellie's parents joined in. We discussed. We strategized. We fired on all cylinders.


  • The cake is too tall to fit in any available lidded tin or container. How will it be protected?
  • It just barely fits into my basket, supported from beneath by towels. Should I switch bikes with Ellie, who has a more capacious basket? 
  • Could we carry the decorations separately from the cake? 
  • Could I stretch tinfoil (and here we pause to compare the British and American pronunciations of the word "aluminum" and then decide to stick with "tinfoil") across the top of my basket to keep the whole thing from flying out when I go over a bump? 
  • Could Jack cycle over there with us, placing the cake in a shopping bag and holding the handles of the bag with one hand as he goes? 


We stopped just short of "Could I cycle with the cake balanced on my head?" before it was decided that Steve, Ellie and Jack would put Caroline, the cake, and her little pink bicycle into their camper van (normally used only for overnight trips) and drive the whole lot across town. Steve would stay with the van (too large for street parking) while Ellie and Jack escorted Caroline and the cake to her grandparents' apartment. Ian, Eliza and I would jump on our bikes and pedal like crazy to meet them there. Steve would hand over the bike and we'd lock it up with ours.

And that's what we did.
It was easy as pie.
I mean, cake.


And our dear neighbors can now file the whole incident under "Things We Probably Won't Have To Worry About After July 1."


Thursday, June 12, 2014

One Hundred Books!


They did it! As a team, the three Diller kids reached their goal of reading one hundred books. They started in November and finished last week. Now we get to celebrate!


Their first choice for said celebratory outing fell through as the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, outside London, was booked through June, but they were just as happy to plan a visit to "Byron's Proper Hamburgers," here in town -- the kind of culinary experience we haven't had in nearly a year -- followed by a trip to the bookstore to pick out a book each.  


This cooperative venture worked so well that I think we'll start all over again once we get back to Texas.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Holiday in Devon, Darling

As part of our wrap-up month in England (oh my, the time is just slipping away!), we spent a few days last week with the Professor's parents, known as Nonnie and Opa, in Devon, a particularly scenic area of southwestern England. (Fun fact for fellow Jane Austen fans: Sense and Sensibility was set in this county.) This is a region sustained mainly by agriculture and tourism -- and by "tourism," I mean "British people on holiday by the sea."  I'm going to try to let the following photo dump tell the highlights of the story, in which seven wannabe-Brits went on holiday by the sea and enjoyed themselves very much indeed.

Driving in Devon, and indeed in much of the UK, evolves as follows. One leaves the motorway (a.k.a. "dual carriageway," a.k.a. a divided highway), which may look like this:


Then it gets charming.


Then it gets downright alarming.


Believe it or not, that's a two-way road, people. If someone comes from the opposite direction, one of the parties must courteously back up. Kudos to the Professor for maneuvering a 7-passenger minivan through it!

Countryside walking is a very English thing to do, and we enthusiastically did our part. How could you not, with a view like this?





Another favorite was a visit to Saltram, a National Trust property where, incidentally, the movie version of Sense and Sensibility with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson was filmed. Anyone recognize the house?


Or the 700-year-old oak tree?


Or -- unrelated to the movie -- this people?



Part of the family also visited an aquarium in Plymouth, at the request of Ian, who never met an aquarium he didn't like:


(Just like your own kids, mine practice this harmonious camaraderie all the time! Really! ;-))

And finally, and I love that I get to type this sentence, we also had the good fortunate of visiting a lovely donkey sanctuary. It was built by a woman who clearly had a passion for donkeys, and has written several books about them, much to our enjoyment. Really, it was lovely.




And hilarious.



You're welcome. 




Thursday, May 29, 2014

Homeschooling Abroad: What Worked and What Didn't

The library at Wimpole Estate. Can you imagine this as a homeschool room???

I've been thinking lately about the academic year in retrospect, mulling over what's gone well for us and what … well, hasn't been quite as successful. 

First, the bad news. 

- Classical Conversations Memory Work. We started the year with great intentions of keeping up with the Cycle 2 memory work alongside our community back home. I downloaded the songs, and put the practice on the kids' daily lists. But without the momentum and accountability of our weekly meetings, and without the daily car rides that made absorption of the material by listening and repetition so convenient, we pretty much fell off the apple cart. Let's just say that no one came close to mastery this year. 

- Science. None of the kids studied science in any rigor, and I had hoped that especially Ian would. But to be honest, aside from nature walks, reading together, and, uh, digging in the dirt, this is a subject I tend to outsource. And I didn't find that opportunity here.

- Latin and/or Foreign Language. Um. We went to Spain and France? 

- Support for Me. On the one hand, I have enjoyed the simpler pace we've kept here, and that includes the relief from the mostly self-imposed pressure brought on my comparisons with others. At home, I sometimes struggle against the feeling that other families are accomplishing so much more, are so much more efficient with their days than we are, etc. Not so here. Folks tend to be more relaxed, which is nice. On the other hand, home educating families with an academic bent, and especially those who subscribe to a classical Christian philosophy of education, have not been easy for me to find here.  I've had no one to really bat challenging ideas around with, and my brain sometimes gets lonely. 

Now, the good news!


- Literature. It's no secret that this has always been our forté. But our read-aloud habit had been slipping at home, and this year we made it a daily priority. Every afternoon the girls and I sit down, often with a cup of tea and a bowl of popcorn, for a chapter or two of something. Off the top of my head, we've read: 

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Iron Man
Winter Holiday
The Phantom Tollbooth
Hinds' Feet on High Places
The Silver Sword
The Wind in the Willows (currently)

We've also listened to a few audiobooks, including The Door in the Wall, Kensuke's Kingdom, Why the Whales Came, Swallows and Amazons, The Best of Our Island Story, and Stories from Shakespeare. And we've held a few parent/child book discussion meetings, which went quite well. 

- History. All three of my kids have enjoyed and cheerfully kept up with their self-paced course in Medieval and Renaissance History from Veritas Press.  It's fun to hear them make connections to things we see in real life -- and when we went to Paris, Eliza was quite eager to see Notre Dame Cathedral because she'd learned about it in her course. 

- Experiential Learning. Obviously, there have been great field trips. This was one of the things we were most looking forward to about our year here, and this island has not disappointed. (Nor has its neighboring continent. :-)) And the train delivers us into central London, with its seemingly inexhaustible opportunities, in 50 minutes. But just living here with the resources of a fairly generous, centuries-old university at our doorstep has been such a treasure. The kids attend monthly meetings of an Astronomy Club hosted by the Institute of Astronomy. There's a monthly Saturday morning hands-on maths group. The fall brings us the Festival of Ideas (two weeks of mostly-free humanities events hosted by the University all over town, some for children and some for adults, and the spring the Science Festival (same thing for science)). We have free museums that run educational workshops from time to time, or just offer a chance for a leisurely drop-in-and-browse. I find myself wondering why our University back home doesn't offer more of these resources to the public, but in the meantime, we're gratefully soaking it all up. 


- The local homeschooling community. It's smaller than the Austin homeschooling population, of course, but still quite vibrant, and because we tend to run into the same people at various activities, the kids quickly made friends. Activities like drama, yoga, multi-sports, nature conservation, social swimming, the Lego Group that Ian started, and the occasional hands-on history or science days were enriching in themselves, but also helped to cement relationships. I know we were a high-risk family to engage with, since we're leaving soon, so I feel so grateful to those families who were willing to invest their hearts in us. 


- Poetry. We kept up with memorization as part of our morning breakfast routine. Guess what an unsung benefit of poetry memorization is? When you're pedaling along on your bicycle, leaning into the wind with a tired eight year old behind you, poetry serves as an excellent distraction tool. 
       Me: I wandered lonely as a cloud!
      Caroline: That floats on high o'er vales and hills! (pant, pant)
      Me: When all at once I saw a crowd!
      Caroline: A host of golden daffodils! 

Thank you, Mr. William Wordsworth. 

Oh, and the girls' cello and violin lessons were a blessing as well, because of the truly lovely teachers we found -- and, let's not forget, the fun of cycling through Cambridge with instruments slung over my back. 

I was listening to a really wonderful Circe Institute podcast with Christopher Perrin, entitled "On Finishing the School Year Strong," and came away with two thoughts that can transport nicely, I think, across the Atlantic Ocean for next year. 

One is that curriculum is never meant to be our master, so that we measure our academic year's success by whether the kids finished the book or program, and feel rushed and behind if they aren't on track. It's simply a tool to help us teach and learn what we deem really important -- and true learning can't be rushed. It allows time for contemplation and reflection in an atmosphere of joy. (And around here, that means it allows time for turning pajamas into doll clothes, painting with watercolors, and building complex Lego structures as well.)

The other is the idea of "Multum non multa" -- much, not many. Instead of trying to cram a breadth of subjects into our days and weeks, we need to do less, but do it more deeply. Simplify. Pay attention to seasons of learning, rather than trying to cover everything (with one eye on what your friends are doing) in nine months and than arriving, exhausted, in May with kids (and parents!) who just want to zone out around the pool and not think about another math problem for the next three months. We need to teach, and model learning ourselves, from an atmosphere of rest, as Sarah puts it so wisely and beautifully in her series and new book


No matter where we live, I still have so far to go on this journey. Will you join me in it?