Friday, October 24, 2014

Right Now

(This isn't actually right now. It's from four weeks ago at my youngest sister's wedding, but I'm just now getting around to sharing it with you! And to noticing that a certain someone's white dress shirt isn't quite tucked in! Can we just focus on the fact that he's wearing a tie??)

I am thinking … about The Hiding Place, a classic I finished this week. Have you read it? I was hesitant going in, as I'm very reluctant to read about the Holocaust. Not because I want to pretend it didn't exist, but because I can accept that human cruelty exists without having to voluntarily delve into it and end up with nightmares. But I'd forgotten how very uplifting this beautiful book actually is. So much wisdom about hiding in the will of God, about the grace He sends to meet the right need at the right moment (and never until then), and about thanking Him in everything. I'm not suffering in a flea-ridden concentration camp right now, thanks be to God, but I've had a couple situations lately that have a grip on my heart. In a world of Ebola and ISIS and so many other terrible threats, my concerns may seem petty -- but they are real to me, right here and now. They loom large. Thanking Him for these things, whenever the sadness or anxiety nags, is a spiritual muscle that requires exercise. 

I am hearing … minds in bloom. Probably because of the same book, which Ian and his classmates also just finished, I walked by a room yesterday during a co-op we attend with a small group of families and heard him and two friends having an intense, sober discussion. I later found out they were debating whether it's ever morally permissible for a Christian to lie. I love that these discussions are happening at this age, with or without adult participation. I love that they're thinking big, complex thoughts and seeking to understand more of the nature of God. I love that they're challenging each other, iron sharpening iron. 

I am loving … all the time my children are spending outdoors now that the weather's become decent. We got a trampoline a few weeks ago, and I wondered whether we'd get our money's worth from such a purchase (it meant shelving a couple other household items in the budget for a while) or whether they'd quickly lose interest. And the verdict? They're on it all. the. time. First thing in the morning. Late at night, in their pajamas, looking up at the stars. Grabbing quick study breaks. Playing silly games with each other and with their friends. And meanwhile, the patio door stands open and the breezes waft in. Fall here smells like summer in the house where I grew up, because that's when the windows stay open! 

(Who doesn't want to lie in a cardboard box while reading?)

I am makingthis recipe for Baked Ziti, tomorrow night when we host a whole crowd of teenaged kids for our church youth group meeting. No idea exactly how many are coming. No idea whether we'll have enough chairs, tables, or ziti. But I do have an idea of why God gave us this house, and that's to fill it with people whenever we can and trust Him for the details. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reading Aloud at Our House

 So who's listening to the Read-Aloud Revival podcast these days? I suspect some people in my life might be weary of hearing me mention it, but what can I say? When I find a good thing, I like to share it. Because sharing is caring, right?

Anyway, Sarah is the perfect host for this podcast, because she's warm and effervescent and asks intelligent questions instead of getting completely tongue-tied as I would if I were in her shoes … uh, headphones. Recently, she interviewed the similarly bubbly and articulate author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, and after hearing the interview, I immediately put the book on hold at the library. In a nutshell: this father read aloud to his daughter (the book's author) for nine years, without missing a single night, until she went off to college. It absolutely changed their lives.

Do you read aloud in your household (assuming you have children, or anyone with ears)? If you're a parent, who does most of the reading? I'll be honest with you: reading aloud has always been one of the things I feel I can actually do as a parent. Ever since Ian was a newborn and I sat in the rocking chair with him and reflected on how little I knew what I was doing with this bundle of needs joy, and then picked up Barnyard Dance! (Boynton on Board) for the sixty-third time, I've felt, I can do this. I may not be the best [fill in the blank here] but in the lifelong campaign -- battle, even! -- for my children's hearts, this is a tool I can wield with enthusiasm.

Here's how it works in our house.

At breakfast, I read with the children. Bit by bit, we are working our way through the following right now:
George Washington's World (SUCH a fun way to learn history together!)
DK Illustrated Family Bible
A Heart Strangely Warmed
We also read and memorize poetry and a Scripture passage. Our guideposts for our morning time: truth, goodness, beauty.

Some time during the afternoon, I usually read a novel to the girls. Right now: Calico Captive. Before that: The Wheel on the School. I found it easier to be very consistent about the timing of this while we lived in England and were almost invariably home around 4:00, a.k.a. tea-time. (Our schedule was pretty simple when we had to be indoors and boiling the water by 4:00 or risk cycling home in the dark during wintertime!)

Every single night at bedtime, Tim reads to all three of them. First, a chapter from the Bible. Then, their current novel. He tends to pick different things than I would -- usually with some element of fantasy (him) versus historical or classic fiction (me). They recently finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and have moved on to the 100 Cupboards) series.

("I think we have enough bookshelves." Said no homeschooler ever.)

If you have any recommendations for reading aloud from your own family, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

After the Adventure

Friends, I've gotten a nudge or two lately about the silence of this space. You're sweet to ask.

Mostly, I'm busy and haven't been able to carve out a new routine that involves regular writing time, especially when my brain is fresh and functional.

But the bald truth is, I'm afraid that if I start writing, as I tried to a week or two ago, it will be like unleashing a torrent of rather glum and circuitous words. But perhaps I'll labor over just this one, and then move on.

It's an adventure to be married to me these days, as I'm sure the Professor could verify. He's just sitting there scheduling a mortgage payment on his laptop or doing any number of other innocent activities when BLAM! I'll ask whether he thinks we should move back to England for a longer period of time "next time." I believe the expression "deer in the headlights" may have been coined just for such a facial expression as his at times like these.

So it's too much to go into in any great depth. Suffice it to say that in the last two years, I have experienced following the God of Abraham by faith through selling a house with no destination in mind and ending up thousands of miles away. Then I enjoyed the blessings of the God of Isaac, learning and growing and soaking in the beauties of a new city, new friendships, new opportunities for service. Now? The God of Jacob, the God who transforms wrestlers into those who lean on staffs to bless others, is digging deep. My grasping, desperate spiritual fingers are finding purchase on the steep rock face of His promise to that same Jacob: To be with him, and not to leave him until His work of a lifetime is completed.

One thing I'm learning is that the God of Jacob hides Himself behind other people and things. Dear friends disappoint(as I myself surely must). Experiences fall short. Things fail to deliver on their shiny promise. Sometimes, those things happen in a series --  a bitter cascade of disappointments large and small. And when none of it makes sense, when you can't explain any of it with reasons that satisfy your sore heart, you come face to face with the God who wants you to lean on Him alone. The only explanation for this is God. 

Is it that He wants to detach us from the pleasures and comforts of our American life so that we're willing to live elsewhere, whenever and wherever He chooses? Or just that He loves us enough to save us from any and all of our broken cisterns, period? I don't know. I don't particularly enjoy what He's doing at the moment, but I do know that I and my family are in the most loving and trustworthy of wise hands.

Meanwhile: little glimmers. I see the way our time away has forged the strongest of bonds among my children. I marvel at the change in perspective a year can bring, especially for the child who was most resistant to spending a year abroad and now can't wait to visit, reflecting on the time as the best of his life. I notice how our reduction of possessions there governs my view of our true wants and needs, even though we can now own much more. I feel a bit embarrassed at the things I actually cared about when I couldn't have them (like easy access to Costco, Target and Banana Republic) but care much less about now that they're all within ten minutes of our door. I appreciate those who have reached out to us with their presence, listening ears, and offers of help (here) and their correspondence (there).

And why not, I ask myself, pray the prayer that bubbled up so often during our time in Cambridge: "Bless us, and make us a blessing!"? I prayed it more urgently there because the time felt finite. But really, isn't all of our time finite? Can't life turn on its head, or vanish like a vapor, at any moment?

May He bless you today.
May He make you a blessing, wherever you may be.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Big Rocks First. Right?

You know that famous illustration of the rocks and the jar? Stephen Covey describes it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. As with rocks in a jar, so with any of the finite resources we're given to manage wisely. Time. Money. Energy. Attention. Fit the big stuff in first, and let the gravel and sand fill in around the edges.

And as with so many other neat illustrations, when the metaphorical rubber hits the road and actual decision making is involved -- choosing among many good things that cannot all possibly fit into the jar -- that road can feel pretty bumpy.

We're in major transition right now, in one sense fitting neatly back into a life that looks much like the one we left -- our Classical Conversations group started back up again, for example, and I'm teaching the same lovely class I had the last year we were here.  In another sense we feel like everything has changed in the past several weeks. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we open the boxes and paint and arrange furniture and rediscover old treasures (or wonder what on earth we were thinking when we gave good box space to that un-beautiful, unnecessary item!). Slowly the new house starts to become a home, and the neighborhood to look familiar. It may take longer than I'd like, though, and the process isn't helped by the constant sense of my heart being on two continents at once.

So, back to the rocks in jar.  I've been praying quite a bit, not only about how to fit the big ones in, but also about which rocks ARE the big ones. Truly, I think we modern folk, especially we Americans, are just swamped with too many choices. (Seriously: do we need shelves upon shelves in the grocery store devoted to varieties of canned tomatoes??)

What about self-care? As a mama with a family to run, I know this is a big rock. I need to exercise, and I need time to nurture creativity. In England, I'd get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, spend time in the Word, and then sit down to blog, journal, or work on a digital scrapbook. This gentle morning ritual lured me out of bed in the morning, and I knew I'd get plenty of exercise riding my bike around town later in the day. Now, we have a dog to walk -- which gets me the bare minimum of exercise (so! many! bushes! to sniff!). How do I fit walking the dog, creative time, AND exercise into the day? And how weird is it that in the world we live in now, we have to think about how we're going to shoehorn exercise into our sedentary days that still tire us so?

Then there's the week. Which activities should my children do? Intriguing options deluge our local homeschooling email list at a ridiculous pace. What will help them grow and discover their interests and passions without burning our time/money/energy candle at both ends and accidentally cultivating a sense of entitlement? After all, time to sit and read, or play outside, or build with Legos, is important. So is our read-aloud time, even if it's just too hot here to savor a mug of afternoon tea along with it. So is saving money for travel. And once we determine, say, that cello lessons are important, where to fit them into the schedule, and which teacher should we choose? Oh: and now they need ways to get exercise too.

A couple friends and I are reading The Odyssey on a schedule, but what about other reading? When do I read other people's blogs? Is that important? When do we open our home and our table to folks who need feeding and tending? Isn't that the whole reason we HAVE a home and a table?

The questions of how to re-craft a life that maintains some of the margin and simplicity of our year abroad without fighting our current circumstances coming, like popcorn in a hot pan. Of course, the mere fact that I have choices for myself and my children, that we're not just hoping to survive the next day's onslaught of persecution, war or famine, fills me with gratitude. This is minor stress. It is not suffering.

In the meantime, I saw a card in the post office a couple days ago with this written on it:

Perhaps next time I'll buy it and post it on my refrigerator. Right next to the lovely card our awesome neighbors gave us when we left Cambridge. Because that's not ironic at all, is it?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Life in Pictures: Re-Entry

Well, hello there. Is this thing still on? (tap, tap)

Yes, we're still alive. Just caught up in the vortex of readjustment to normal life -- no, not normal life at all. We spent two weeks house-sitting for some dear friends who live in a great location in central Austin, then took a quick holiday with Tim's family, and are now back out in the country staying with his parents. All of our stuff is in boxes, suitcases, and small piles. Any semblance of organization seems to be eluding us. I spend more time than I'd care to admit trying to find things. Success is decidedly mixed.

In many ways, fitting back in to our life here has been rich and sweet. In other ways, it's complex and overwhelming, and I've found the re-entry to be bumpier than the adjustment to life in England was (perhaps because this adjustment comes with the added awareness that instead of the grand adventure just beginning, it is over). When I feel myself wobbling (daily), I escape in my imagination to my cycle route along the River Cam, and to the relative smallness and simplicity of life over there.

Then I have to pray the same anchoring prayer that sort of became my mantra all year, ever since I became torn in two: Lord, thank You that I am right here, right now. Grant me today's supply of grace. 

Meanwhile, a few little glimpses of what's been happening:

Ian and his cousin Ashley turned 14. Fourteen! That's solid teenager-hood right there.

On his birthday, we took Ian on his looooong-awaited pilgrimage to the Lego store. He has become a passionate Lego builder in the past year, and has developed a whole community of online Flickr friends who share his interest and creativity. It's been very, very cool to see that develop, and to wonder what that might lead to in his future.

My friend Megan threw a "Mess-Fest" for her nine-year-old's birthday. She's the kind of person who can pull off truly insane fun like this without ever raising her voice or seeming flustered. Amazing. And here's something for your mental Rolodex: When your children have whipped cream in their hair, even after it's rinsed off, riding in the car with them will you have sniffing for sour milk.

(It's sad the way that fourteen year old of mine has no idea how to enjoy himself. Clearly unsocialized. Please send help.)

Our future brother-in-law, Alex, came to dinner and we had a gourmet cheese-fest. There's a long story behind that, but the central thought here is that Alex has been a friend of our family for a couple years, and while we were abroad (read: independently of any possible maneuvering we could have done), he met my youngest sister … and now they're getting married!

Our niece has been spending lots of time with us. She and my girls get along like a house on fire, and I'd say they've been making up for the year spent apart. What a blessing.

The girls and I spent a week of mornings prepping and serving snacks at Truth School, which is something our church runs for the teenagers -- lots of Bible study with some recreational activities woven in. I love doing this kind of service. Seriously, I really like just rolling up my sleeves and doing something that puts smiles on lots of faces and -- this is key -- doesn't involve much decision-making on my part.

Other than that, I've been trying to prepare for the school year (as set by our co-op schedule) and although that feels quite complicated in our current situation, two things that have been helping me get my head, if not my physical organization, in the general direction of the right place are the Scholé Sisters site (love it!) and Sarah's lovely book and audio companion, Teaching from a State of Rest. Highly, highly recommended.

And that's it for now!

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?