If you asked me in any given year, I would say April is a pretty uneventful month for the Alley family. There aren’t any birthdays, big occasions like the first or last day of school, or weather-related events like sledding or swimming. It’s just a month of days where we go to school or work, do our chores around the house, and live life in ordinary days.
But now that we are at the beginning of May, I took the opportunity to look back at the camera roll on my phone, and it turns out this April has been pretty eventful in a variety of ways.
- The kids and I hiked to the top of Stone Mountain, the full 4.5 mile loop. This is a big one for us because even though we live so close to this wonderful state park, we haven’t hiked that trail together. It was so beautiful up on top, and the kids appreciated the time just sitting, taking in the view, more than I imagined they would.
- We all experienced our first Merlefest, which turned out to be even better than I expected. It didn’t hurt that an old friend from college was playing at the event this year, and it was pretty cool to see Jeni & Billy perform, and then get pictures afterwards!
- Carter and I got to visit SciWorks for the first time, and quickly became huge fans of this science museum in Winston-Salem.
- Caroline proved she is well on her way to growing up by becoming a server rather than a spectator at the library’s annual Storybook Character Breakfast, as well as trying out instruments and making the decision to be in band in middle school next year.
- Carter got the chance to go on his first real fishing trip, heading over to Kerr Scott Dam with his father and grandfather for a boys’ day out on the lake.
All the fun activities in April afforded plenty of family time. But I’m also thankful for the opportunity to try new things and partake in new experiences. Spring is a time for new beginnings. We see it every year as the leaves bud out on the trees, baby calves frolic in the pastures and little birds hatch out of fragile eggs. But it doesn’t always correlate to new things for me. Spring can be just another season, months full of days consisting of work, cleaning the house, working in the yard, and keeping up with the kids and their school work and activities.
This month reminded me how important it is to try new things. Whether that’s blowing into a trumpet even if your heart is set on playing the xylophone or learning how to put a minnow on a fish hook, we learn from all of our experiences, both big and small.
I’m thankful for all the big and small things I got to experience with and through my kids this month, and look forward to many more months full of days of fun adventures!
In my many years editing for Carolina Gardener and reading various gardening publications, I became very familiar with the extension agents’ favorite saying: “Right Plant, Right Place.” Basically this means you want to understand the environmental needs of a plant before you put it in the ground. You don’t take a sun-loving zinnia and plant it in the woods, just like you wouldn’t put the shade-loving heuchera out in an open garden with full sun.
So when my grandmother gave me a bunch of Lenten rose babies, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I dutifully planted these shade garden plants in the shade. I dug up a nice little area in the wooded spot of our backyard, right by the bench Bill had bought as a birthday present for me years ago, the beloved bench that has been in three different backyards and is still going strong. I planted them the same fall we moved into this house, in 2008.
For years, I watched those plants, pulling weeds around them, watering them when necessary, and nothing happened. Nothing. It has now been eight years, and while those plants are still there, nothing has changed. They still only have two leaves each. They’ve never bloomed, and they haven’t even grown. I read all I could about Lenten roses, and asked a couple of people who were writing for Carolina Gardener at the time who were experts, and the reason for their struggle remained a mystery.
After my grandmother passed away, I was helping my parents clean out her garden, and there were multitudes of Lenten roses. The plants kept re-seeding, and no one had been there to keep the population under control. My mom offered for me to take some, and at first I said no. I felt like a failure, because I hadn’t been able to do well with the first ones Grandma gave me. But in the end, I couldn’t resist. I love these flowers, the greenish-white harbingers of spring, and I’ve always wanted them in my garden. So I tried again.
This time, I really wasn’t worried about whether they survived or not. After all, I knew where I could get more. So I recklessly planted them in front of our house beside a couple of rose bushes. A non-shady, mostly sunny area right out in the open. Totally against everything I’d known about the perfect spot for Lenten roses. But I needed something for that space. And you know what? These two plants have grown like gangbusters! After two years, I now have big, healthy plants, and this spring I was blessed with a full spray of blooms.
I’m not saying you should ignore cultural requirements and plant with reckless abandon in your garden. I can’t explain why the plants did better in one spot than another. All I can say is, I’ve learned that it pays to experiment a little. These little flowers that bloomed so beautifully in a place where they shouldn’t have grown well showed me that stepping outside your comfort zone just might be a good thing once in a while. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from these beat-the-odds Lenten roses.
When I was in the 8th grade, my class trip to Raleigh included a stop at Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro. I will never forget overhearing one boy exclaim in excitement about his first ride on an escalator. Having lived in Atlanta as a child, and traveled with my parents to other cities, escalators were no big deal to me.
Now I am a parent, raising my children in a small town. We moved here because we like the sense of community a small town affords, the absence of big-city problems like traffic and crime (well, there is crime here, but not in the same volume) and the opportunity to hike in our own woods and fish in our own creek, among other things. But I am fully aware that there are disadvantages too, like the fact that our community is pretty homogenous, and opportunities to experience the arts are few and far between. I don’t want my kids to be the ones who go on a field trip and have never ridden an escalator. A few years ago one of my friends reassured me that wouldn’t happen, because as a parent I would make sure to expose them to a variety of things.
And she was right. At least I hope so.
One of those opportunities came last weekend. Bill and I took our kids to the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Peter and the Wolf, part of the Discovery Concert Series for Kids. It was a great event. They had activities before the concert that included an “Instrument Petting Zoo” where Carter and Caroline each got to try their hand at playing the violin, the cello, the flute, and the clarinet. And we got to experience the world premiere of The Wild Woods, a piece commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony written by a young and very talented composer, Viet Cuong. That was a very modern piece, with lots of atonal music and interesting rhythms. I can’t say the kids appreciated it as much as I did, but between that and Sergei Prokofiev’s family friendly music, they got a good introduction to the symphony in a concert that was appropriately kid-length.
On the way home, I talked about how much fun we had, getting out and doing all those neat things today. And Carter piped up from the backseat, “Yeah, I got to ride an escalator four different times.”
I know that Valentine’s Day is over. Time to move on to St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, as we trundle through our calendar. But bear with me, because I have a Valentine’s Day post that I couldn’t put up before the actual day without ruining a nice surprise for many of my family members.
If you watch TV at all, or happen to walk into a store, the marketing gurus and consumer products manufacturers would have you thinking that Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating romantic love. They want you to buy wine, roses, jewelry, chocolate and sexy lingerie, and they try to sell it all by making you think that you need a fabricated, romantic holiday to make use of all that stuff.
But let’s face it, other than young lovers and newlyweds, Valentine’s Day isn’t that big of a deal, on the romance side. (It is DEFINITELY a big deal for preschool and elementary children, but that’s a different topic.) I loved last week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat, where the neighbors volunteered to keep the kids on Valentine’s Day so Louis and Jessica could have a romantic evening out, and instead of going out for dinner and dancing they did their taxes. Pretty good look at typical married life! And if you’re not in a relationship, it’s just a day to hate because you feel bad that you’re not in a relationship.
Instead of romantic love, I believe Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to let loved ones in your life know you care about them. My daughter is one who has taught me that. A few years ago, when writing her name on cards for kids in her class, she decided she wanted to go a step further and send Valentines to people in our family. And that tradition stuck with her. This year she spent most of the Sunday afternoon the week before Valentine’s Day cutting out construction paper and putting stickers and glitter on 15 Valentines.
As I addressed the envelopes and got those big, somewhat cumbersome Valentines ready to mail, I couldn’t help but be proud of her for all the thought she put into them. One person was new on the list this year, and when asked why she was added, Caroline said, “Because she’s sad, and I want to help her feel better.”
These Valentines aren’t the most beautiful pieces of artwork. They weren’t purchased for vast amounts of money. And because I didn’t want to go back out to the store, they were stuffed in letter-sized envelopes, so they probably arrived at their destination somewhat folded and worn looking. But I hope that each person who received one knows that they were made with love. And that for a few hours that day, Caroline spent some time thinking about each one of those people, what they mean in her life, and sending a little love their way.
In this age of texts and emails, we’ve lost the personal touch that a heartfelt letter brings. It took making construction-paper cards on Valentine’s Day to have a few heartfelt pieces of mail be sent out to the family. It’s always good to have an excuse to reach out, and maybe we need to get better at reaching out without an excuse of a holiday. So as commercial and fabricated as this holiday may seem, there was some good that came from it after all.
There’s something in the air that has me seeking out conversation. Maybe it’s my more intense than usual interest in the presidential primaries, maybe it’s a little bit of early spring fever (since we did have a big snow storm and now sort of a thaw here in the foothills of North Carolina), or maybe it’s just that time of year in my work cycle, where I’m home more days, and longer periods during the day, than during that busy time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever it is, I find I’ve been reaching out to people, scheduling lunches with friends and other work-at-home editors, just to have some face to face talk time.
I might score as an introvert on the Myers Briggs personality test, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love to talk. One on one, or in small groups, I can talk for hours. And I like good conversation, not polite small talk. I am the one who learns all about a mom’s worry about her daughter’s future and subsequent acceptance to the North Carolina School of the Arts from a complete stranger at a Halloween party, while others come away knowing nothing more about the people in attendance than what they came as and why.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to me to hear that the art of conversation is dying in our country, thanks to the prolific use of smartphones and other devices. A Google search with the words “conversation dying art” immediately brings up pages worth of articles on this very topic. But there’s nothing better for the soul than a great conversation with someone, one where you share ideas, debate different points and end up walking away feeling inspired. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, uses conversation as her organizing principle because so much of what we value in humanity is threatened when replaced with electronic devices. She states that it’s only through face to face conversation that you feel truly connected to people and gain empathy.
This is all something that is very important to me as a person who works from home. Gone are the days of having conversations with co-workers about Trump’s second place finish in Iowa or the best way to cook a pot roast. I admit I have found myself leaning on Facebook for “interactions” with other people during the long, silent work days. But I realize that is not enough, and it isn’t enough for anyone, no matter how much of an introvert you consider yourself.
So here are the ways I make sure I still have conversation in my life, tips that I think are important for most people who work at home.
Make time to talk with your spouse.
If you happen to work at home you are married, you have built-in conversation as soon as your spouse comes home. I remember reading a long time ago in a John Rosemond article that it sends a good signal to your kids that you value your marriage if you take a few minutes right after work each day to talk to each other, the two of you adults, before turning your focus to your kids. So for us in the work-at-home crowd, it’s a win/win. You get a positive for your marriage and some much-needed adult conversation.
Foster friendships in your community.
For me, I live in a small town, and there aren’t a lot of other people who do what I do. But there are plenty of people who have flexible schedules and can get together during the day. Whether it’s people I’ve met at church or parents of my children’s friends, some socialization (with our without kids in tow) provides a great break from the mundane work day. And thankfully, my grandmother’s old rule that you don’t talk politics or religion in polite company doesn’t hold true with my friends. No subject is taboo, and I love the chance these outings give me to talk with others about books we’re reading, TV shows worth watching or even dive into the problems of our economy and the health of the people in our community.
Network with others in your profession.
This one can be harder if you’re isolated, but it’s so important. I make sure to keep up relationships with former colleagues, as well as joining professional groups and associations where I have the opportunity to meet others who do what I do. And then I make a point to get together, face to face, with these people. It might not be as often as I’d like, but those times are so rewarding. It’s a great opportunity to have conversations with others who care about things like the Oxford comma or struggle with figuring out their estimated taxes. We bounce ideas off each other, share information, and every time I come away with a confidence boost in my own work and inspired with new ideas.
The important thing is to get out and talk face to face. Email, texting and phone calls are great, and they’re the lifeblood of my communication in a work-at-home career. But Turkle is right, there is no substitute for interacting with another human being.
It’s the first month of a new year. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions? I’m not usually a big resolution setter. Really, I have plans and goals, especially when it comes to work, but I don’t necessarily use January 1 as a date to set those. They’re more ongoing. But once in a while I will come up with a New Year’s resolution. For about 10 years, my resolution was to make a will. It’s something Bill and I kept putting off, and I can proudly say we finally did that last year. Better late than never.
Last year I also made a resolution to write more. Granted, I write almost every day for work, but that’s writing that’s assigned to me. Articles about LED lighting in merchandising cases, news about the latest innovations in fish food, interviews with psychologists about how to have meaningful conversations with your kids when you’re divorced and they’re at the other parents’ house, and many other topics. They’re all interesting and I love the opportunity to meet new people and learn new things, but I wanted more.
I’ve always had a dream of writing a romance novel. And I began to think, I’ll never get a romance novel written if I don’t start doing some sort of creative writing. So for 2015 I set a goal to write creatively at least three days a week for an hour each morning. And I did it, thanks to writing prompts, for two whole weeks, one in January, and another week in September. I didn’t really meet my initial goals, and decided it was worthwhile enough to make it a resolution for 2016.
Only this time, I’m taking a different spin on it. After talking with my friend Carin Siegfried about my writing, and her hearing me say over and over how I wanted to do it, but then never having anything to show for it, she said maybe I should just forget about personal writing goals. And I did think about it, but realized I don’t want to cross it off my list.
The problem is, writing creatively is hard. Coming up with stories and characters after years of writing articles full of facts and quotes is something very foreign to me. So Carin suggested I keep my goal of personal writing time, but change what I’m writing. Write what’s familiar. Non-fiction, essays, and articles. And you know what? Her advice has been great! I’ve spent some time writing an essay about my experiences with post-partum pre-eclampsia, and I’ve really enjoyed figuring out a way to get my thoughts and feelings in writing that’s hopefully interesting for other people to read.
Another thing that’s helped with my writing goal is giving myself a deadline. I guess after 15 years in the publishing business, I’m more deadline oriented that I thought. The vague goal of “writing for myself” really didn’t give me anything to work for. So I searched out a writing contest that accepts non-fiction, and used that entry date as a deadline for my essay.
This Friday is the deadline for a relatively new but national and noteworthy writing contest, the Women’s National Book Assocation Writing Contest. They accept poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. And I am excited to be submitting my first “personal” writing. We’re only 15 days into the new year, and I already feel a sense of accomplishment for working on my New Year’s resolution!
Remember that excitement you used to feel when you were a kid every year when December rolled around? The lights, the decorations, the cookies, the music, the holiday specials on TV, and maybe most exciting of all — a break from school!
If you have young children, you remember that excitement well. You live it, vividly, through them, each and every day.
As a parent, I have come to realize that my kids, who are generally well behaved, turn into whirling dervishes every year around Thanksgiving, and that hyperactivity lasts right up until Christmas day. While their excitement is sometimes catching, and fun to be around, at other times I have to admit, it drives me crazy. And I am fully aware of the reasons why. As an adult, this time of year isn’t always as exciting for us as it is for the kids. It means added stress from trying to get all of the holiday baking and shopping done while attending parties and family gatherings, all on top of the regular routine of work, homework, laundry, cleaning house and making dinner.
All of that stress can make me very cranky, and I find myself yelling at the kids to be quiet or telling them to get out of the room while I’m baking rather than letting them help like I should.
Over the years I have come to realize that it’s a given that my kids will be excited, chaotic and hyper from Thanksgiving until Christmas. (Sometimes it’s even Halloween to Christmas.) And I don’t want to let that drive me crazy. Instead, I want that excitement to flow over to me, and bring back some of the magic of the season. Here are two things I try to do that have helped give me time to be excited with my kids, rather than fighting against them.
Cut Back on the “Have Tos.” One thing we feel, as parents, is the need to make Christmas a magical time for our kids. But I have learned, mostly from my early stepmom years, that a magical Christmas doesn’t mean making five batches of cookies, watching every single Christmas special together and going to every community event. What’s really important is doing things together and having fun doing it, but not overdoing it. When Craig was little there were a few Christmases when I tried to make sure that on the one weekend he was with us between Thanksgiving and Christmas we decorated the tree, made buckeyes, made and iced sugar cookies, and watched a couple of Christmas shows. But we just ended up feeling stressed out and tired. Finally I asked him to choose two of the traditions that were most important to him, and that’s what we did, letting the rest slide. That was a great lesson I’ve continued with my younger children, even though we do have more Christmas weekends together. We focus on the few traditions that are important to us: making a couple of batches of cookies, making buckeyes with their dad, decorating the tree, going to the Elkin Christmas parade and watching Elf. And then whatever else happens, happens.
Embrace the Imperfections. I used to pride myself on my sugar cookies. I made batches each year to give away to neighbors and co-workers, all perfectly shaped and decorated. For a few years while my kids were young, I felt like I should include them on the baking but got frustrated when things didn’t turn out “perfect.” Then I realized, the point of baking cookies at Christmas, or making gifts, or decorating the house, whatever it is that you used to excel at on your own, isn’t really the end result. The point is it’s an activity that allows us to spend time together as a family. And those Christmas cookies with an inch-high layer of sprinkles taste just as good as the ones I used to make. Well, maybe they taste a little funny with all those sprinkles, but at least the kids will remember the fun of making them and not getting yelled at for using up all the sprinkles.
I do have to admit, I still might feel a little stressed and get frustrated with the kids once in a while. But these two things have definitely helped me not only survive the Christmas season, but enjoy it, something I want to make sure I do now more than ever. With Caroline 11 and Carter 8 this year, I know our Christmases with the kids are numbered, at least the way they stand now, and I want to soak up every minute of it.
It might just be because we are more aware of things with the advent of Facebook and social media, or it might be my age, but it seems like many of my friends have been dealing with the loss of a grandparent. Often, it is the last living grandparent, and one they are very close to. I experienced this myself a couple of years ago, when my Grandma Milholland suffered a stroke and passed away shortly before Christmas that year. It is hard to lose someone who was such a big part of my life, but I know I am lucky to have known her, and she lived a very full 93 years.
Seeing my friends post about their own special relationships with their grandparents has me thinking about my own kids, and how grateful I am that they have four grandparents playing a very active role in their lives. So here at Thanksgiving, when so many people take the opportunity to spout off about things they are thankful for, I’m going to join in with a list of why I’m thankful for grandparents.
They help out in times of need. And this goes for all four! Granted, my parents live closer, only 45 minutes away as opposed to 7 hours for Bill’s, but all of them are willing to lend a helping hand when needed. My parents are there to watch the kids if Bill and I both have to be somewhere for work, and Bill’s parents have even taken the kids out of the house for me to have some quiet time to work when they’re around. With both Bill and I having busy careers, and mine one where I work from home, I depend on this safety net quite often. Not to mention the many times my mom has kept the “grand-dogs” while we’ve gone out of town!
They teach the kids valuable things. Sewing, playing gin rummy, fishing and answering theological questions are just a few of the things the grandparents have done with my kids that I am not well-equipped to do myself. Not only are they learning something, but they are spending time together while doing these activities. I will always remember sitting with my mom’s mother and doing puzzles on a Saturday morning, or helping Grandma Milholland pull weeds in her garden. I might have learned that it’s important to pull out the edge pieces of the puzzle first, or how to tell the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil, but I also got to hear stories of their childhood and learn other interesting facts.
They bring a different perspective to life. I’m a huge fan of exposing kids to many different generations. My dad might not know who Taylor Swift is, but his experience in dealing with many different personalities through his careers as both a CPA and later a Presbyterian minister help him bring a sense of calm to some of the interpersonal dealings within in our family, something my kids, as well as myself, would be advised to learn from. All four of my kids’ grandparents have a wealth of knowledge to pass on, and I’m glad my kids are getting the opportunity to learn from them.
The four grandparents in my kids’ lives do all this and so much more. They love them unconditionally, they tell them stories about me and their dad that make them laugh and helps them learn about where we came from, they help pass on family traditions and they help create new ones.
This Thanksgiving, the kids are lucky they will get to spend time with all of their grandparents. They’re looking forward to Grandma Alley’s enchiladas the day after Thanksgiving and a trip to Grandma Sandra’s where no one polices the candy or the chocolate milk. And I’m looking forward to it to. For there’s one thing I’ve learned from being the person sandwiched between these two generations is I need to worry less about how much the kids are getting spoiled, and instead be grateful that they have grandparents here to spoil them.
Carter brought home his first field trip permission form of the year a couple of weeks ago. I love the fact that my kids get to go on quite a few field trips during the school year. It gives them a chance to get out of the classroom and experience learning in a new environment. But with each field trip, I have to answer that dreaded question, “Can you come mom?” Almost always, I’m torn on the inside. I want to go, but I don’t want to go. Here’s a little look at why.
- I enjoy the places we go almost as much (if not more) than the kids.
- Going on field trips provides a good way to get to know the other kids in my son’s and daughter’s class, and also get to know some of the parents.
- When I go they don’t have to ride the bus home, which means we can often supplement the trip with another fun activity, either staying at the place we went longer to really soak it all in, or stopping by somewhere else on the way home.
- I feel like I’m helping out by chaperoning on the event. Sometimes the teachers really need those extra sets of adult eyes.
Why Stay Home
- Sometimes it’s good for the kids to experience things without me there to influence them.
- While I enjoy the places we go, most of the time with field trips you’re pretty structured and even rushed trying to get through everything in time to make it back to school on time.
- Going on a field trip usually means I lose an entire day at home, including a few hours, if not more, of work time. This is a biggie. Being gone for a day means I have to rearrange my schedule, plan ahead for interviews, and reply to work emails on my phone.
While the reasons to go outweigh the reasons to stay home by a hair, losing work time makes it more even. Most of the time, I’m usually leaning towards not going. As a work-at-home mom, the time while the kids at school is precious, and when I miss an entire day I usually have to make up for it somewhere (nights and weekends). But when my kids ask, with that pleading look in their eyes, it’s hard to say no. After all, how much longer will they want me to go on field trips with them? I might as well enjoy it now, while I can. Work can wait, I have 20 second graders to go have fun with.
When September comes around, I want my garden to be filled with mums and asters. Bright yellows, fluffy purples, the colors of fall. But for some reason, it wasn’t until the end of August that some of my summer bloomers really started to get going. And then they took off during the month of September! My crape myrtles, which are magnificent when full of blooms, wait until most of the others in our area have faded before displaying their full glory. And my hollyhock, of all things, was just a towering green shrub for most of the summer. It has just been the last few weeks that these blooms popped out, and there have been about 10 blooms at a time for days on end. Finally!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that my flowers are blooming late. But it does bother me a little, when I see other people’s gardens full of blooms in July and August, and I have to wait until September for mine. The same thing happened with my irises this spring, they all bloomed two weeks later than the ones in people’s gardens around Elkin.
I have decided that the reason for my late-bloomers is because I live in a microclimate. Yes, I must be in a different USDA Zone, one that encompasses only the few acres surrounding my house. It definitely makes for fun times exploring the woods around us. Down by the creek on the other side of the road from our house, the plants in the woods are definitely Piedmont natives. But as you come over to the side of the road our house is on, you start seeing the running cedar and partridge berry that populate the mountain areas of our state.
I guess it’s only fitting that I have late-bloomers in my garden. I was a late bloomer myself. Scrawny and shy as a child, it really wasn’t until I went to college that I felt like I came into my own. There I was able to explore who I was, learn about so many new things, and grow my own self confidence in who I am.
Rather than looking at late bloomers as someone, or something, coming late to the game, I like to look at them as something that adds depth and interest. After all, it’s not many gardens that get to have fully blooming hollyhocks right beside the bright yellow mums!