Monday, February 18, 2008

Third in a series

I'll try to make this short, since I'm already up too late.

Today's topic is "Why are we so dissatisfied with everyday life that we feel the need to do special things as a nearly everyday thing". In reading my Dad's memoirs and remembering stories my Mom told of her growing up years, they had a whole lot of everyday life without the special stuff. When they did have special times, such as holidays or special trips, they were much simpler than we would make them. On holidays, they would have a nice meal. This consisted of a little more than what was served everyday with maybe a special dessert that was only made for that holiday. If it was an occasion where presents were given, they would have received only one or two gifts. Eating out was a picnic, a potluck, or a meal at another person's house. A meal in a restaurant was rare. Special foods that were savored, were ordinary foods that you only got when they were in season.

I find that I am tempted to try to make too many special things in my life. Some of it may come from our advertising culture that tries to make you think that you aren't satisfied with what you have. But, I think some of it is from my own inner child wanting to do the special stuff for my benefit. Christmas is a good example. How many family traditions did you have growing up? Didn't your spouse have some traditions they want to pass on to your family? Have you heard of family and friends doing things that sounded to you as a good idea? Before you know it you are drowning in an avalanche of special things to do for Christmas. After all, if every day is special, it doesn't really stand out against the experiences of every day life. I find myself doing something "for the kids" that is really all about me. They might enjoy it, but I can't keep doing special things all the time. I have to somehow get the message across that it is special and no we aren't going to do it every single day.

I have a recent example from my life. I have fond memories of baking special things at Christmas. So, in my mind, I would like to repeat this for my children. But, since I'm going to be doing something special, why not go all out and pick something new that I've never done before. I decided to do popcorn balls and a Gingerbread house. I should have known better. Christmas is my craziest time of year. I need a simple quiet time, not more activity. Well, this year was a little bit crazier than most and the popcorn balls and the gingerbread house didn't get done. Looking back I was quite disappointed about that. Then one day at the grocery store I noticed all of the Valentine's day candy showing up in the store. I had an idea! Who says a gingerbread house is only for Christmas time? We can do one for Valentine's Day!

It took about a week of interruptions and delays, but we finally completed the gingerbread house today

The girls did enjoy the process. They helped me do the gingerbread recipe. The Pillowfight Fairy helped me roll out and cut the dough. They watched me make the icing glue. They both helped me decorate it with candies. I'm very happy about how it turned out. I must say, anyone who has put one of these things together can be considered a wiser gingerbread architect than when they first started. As much as the kids liked doing this, it was still Mommy's project. I didn't want to let other people interfere with my vision. Although, I did ask advice from my husband since he had worked with a group of people to build a gingerbread castle once. I finally had my special Christmas baking experience that turned out to be a belated Valentine's Day experience when it was all said and done.

How does this tie in with where I started? Well, I was trying to graft on a tradition into my family so that we would have one more special thing to remember. Even though we don't really need anything more added to the other special things we were doing. There is nothing wrong with special things or events. I am even a little proud of the fact that I adapted this bit of confection to a different holiday than is traditional. However, I am newly keen to the idea that this takes a ridiculous amount of work. Nearly every special thing or event in our lives takes extra work. This was true for my parents in their family's growing up and it is true of my family today. They didn't have a lot of special things or events in their lives. There was a whole lot of sameness from day to day. I think that they tried to give my brothers and I more than they had growing up. In turn I am trying to do even more for my kids.

I hope my kids remember some of the special things that we do. I hope they remember that their Mom would try something new from time to time. But, I don't want them to think that a day without something special is a substandard day. I think I want to be picky about the special things that we do. I don't want to get too elaborate or we won't be able to afford the special things in time, effort or money. I don't want them to be too frequent or we might think that they are necessary to our lives and can't be done without. But, I don't want to go to the opposite extreme. I don't want to make our special family times ordinary.

I guess it all comes down to priorities. When celebrating a birthday, what do we want to remember as special? The event or the person? When celebrating Christmas do we emphasize gifts, the nativity, music, or family? What will be the special part for us? When we choose a field trip, do we plan carefully to match exactly what we are studying in school or do we take the opportunities as they arise? We probably need a little of both. It is possible that we can fill our lives with so much that none of it makes an impression anymore.

By the way, my parents revel in doing special things now. They enjoy tremendously giving their grandkids an overflowing generous measure of special treatment. They travel all over the country in an RV and enjoy doing things they never got to do earlier. I think they treasure those memories of special times when they were young, but they know that those simpler times were simple out of necessity. What will I treasure as I look back? What will my kids treasure? I don't know. I hope I will treasure some of the simple things as special along with some of the more elaborate things.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Second in a series

In my second post in this series, (which is in no particular order subject-wise) I thought that I would talk about work. This is because not only does my Dad's memoirs talk a lot about the work that people did when he was growing up, but because today our family went to the Sacramento Spinners and Weavers Guild Show. Between the two things, it got me thinking about how we do work.

The Show we went to today was filled with people demonstrating their craft and showing finished products. These people do what they do for the love of it. They are very good at it, but I don't know that many of them try to make a living by doing it. The various types of work my Dad recalls from his youth is more of the latter. In his growing up years they did do the basic work themselves and didn't have many choices. You either did it yourself, hired it done, or did without. Besides farming crops and caring for animals, my Dad mentions people in his life doing bee-keeping, running mills to process food, building log houses, building stone chimneys, digging wells, and repairing fences. I remember my grandmother made most of her own clothes from bought fabric. I remember my mom talking about churning butter. Mostly, the people in their lives did these things because they had to. Some of them, like my grandfather, loved it, too.

How do I see these things in my life? I tend to be in the first category. I love to make things. I like to create useful and beautiful things, which I can point to and say, "I made that." I don't have to do it, but it allows me to put something of me into my surroundings. The people among whom my parents were around as children worked hard providing many basic items for themselves. These days, we have a multitude of labor saving devices to make our lives easier and a huge marketplace to shop for everything else. But are we better off? Materially, yes. But, we have lost something in the process. We saved our labor so that we could do lots of other things that our forebears never did or perhaps never wanted to do. We are just as busy, but don't really have that much more to show for it. Most of us have no idea how to make the things we use in our everyday lives.

There is part of me that wants to turn the clock back in some ways. If only we could keep the best parts of both worlds. I don't have time to make most of my family's clothes. But if I didn't do a lot of other things, I could make a few special outfits. I don't have time or inclination to run a farm, but if I didn't do a lot of other things, I could have a decent kitchen garden to supply us with fresh produce. I don't want to make all of my foods from scratch, but I have the equipment and inclination to make homemade bread on occasion. I could even grind the flour myself, since I have a modern electric powered grain mill. I would love to embrace so many different areas of "Do It Yourself" that I wouldn't have time for the rest of my life. Today at the show, I fell in love with the idea of spinning threads and weaving cloth. There were many beautiful examples of people's work that I would like to do too.

I remember briefly wanting to be a fashion designer when I was in High School. I like clothing with a difference. But, I haven't worn much in years that has that bit of quirky something that I love. I don't find that kind of thing in the stores much. If I sewed my own clothing, I would still be using patterns and fabric bought at the store (meaning many of the same styles found in the stores ready made). But, seeing the handmade fabrics and clothing made from them was like opening a window to new possibilities. The last clothing I made that had the quirkiness I like, was a vest that I made from quilting scraps. I copied a vest that I already had, but made it with a quilted front in a design of my own. Whenever I wear it I get comments from people. Unfortunately, I made it when I was twenty pounds lighter. Since It has gotten harder to button, I don't wear it nearly so often. But, I still got the feeling, today, that I could be that designer I wanted to be and wear my own designs. I could enjoy the creative process and satisfaction that comes from making things well.

Unfortunately, these things are not very compatible with young kids. I can't picture myself doing much of anything lately except basic food, chores, homeschooling, and keeping track of some very active kids for the next six months. Did I mention that the happy boy learned to walk and is on the verge of running? I remember this age with his sisters. It was near chaos every day until they got to be about 18 months old. I'm more experienced now, so I am able to get dinner on the table a little more predictably. But, a new hobby isn't going to happen any time soon. But I would still love to find the peace and satisfaction my ancestors had in doing their daily work, telling stories and doing craft work in the evenings and slowing down life a lot. We don't really need to be chasing after all the things we try to do. I love the ideal of simplifying. It is just a lot of hard work to achieve.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

For your reading pleasure

I have been tagged for a meme by Wendy who's blog is here. The rules are to pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more, find page 123, find the fifth sentence, post the next three sentences, and then tag five people. There seems to be a dispute about whether this means sentences 5-7 or sentences 6-8. But since the book I am taking a selection from has really long sentences and sentence five is near the bottom of the page, I will assume 5-7.

I am not currently reading any books, but one of my favorite history books was within reach. It is How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Here is the selection from page 123:

This thirty-year span of Patrick's mission in the middle of the fifth century encompasses a period of change so rapid and extreme that Europe will never see its like again. By 461, the likely year of Patrick's death, the Roman Empire is careening in chaos, barely fifteen years away from the death of the last western emperor. The accelerated change is, at this point, so dramatic we should not be surprised that the eyes of historians have been riveted on it or that they have failed to notice a transformation just as dramatic--and even more abrupt--taking place at the empire's periphery.
I'm not sure if this selection will convince anyone to read the book, but it at least captures the idea that the book tries to communicate. Which is that something important was happening in Ireland during this time of history and that most people have completely ignored it because we have a tendency to concentrate more on the Roman Empire or other Important Empires rather than the barbaric edges of civilization.

Well, I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys reading history.

However I do not like passing along things like this. So this meme ends here. You may do it yourself if you like.

Friday, February 01, 2008

First in a series

I would like to take the time to start a series of posts about the ideas that started floating around in my head after reading my Dad's memoirs. I would like to encourage as many people as possible to write down in some fashion, memories of their life in a sort of autobiography. Both of my parents have been doing this and they have found it helpful to sort through memories and figure out where they've been on the journey of life as well as to decide what they think is important to pass on to others who are friends and family. Being the recipient of my Dad's writing, I've gotten to read it and I would like to share some thoughts that were triggered by it.

Every person has a different story to share about their life even if they are twins who have never lived apart. But, it is very common in our world for people living side by side to have vastly different stories. Things have changed so much from one generation to the next that children have a hard time relating to their parent's experiences and also the reverse. Parents have trouble relating to their children's experiences.

My Dad was born in rural Alabama during the depression. He grew up on a farm where they used horses and mules to plow their land instead of tractors. In the community where he grew up, they were surrounded by either family or neighbors on similar farms. There were no strangers in their community. Everyone was in one of those two categories: family or neighbor. I knew this before from visits we would make back there. But after reading his stories it struck me how intertwined life was with those families and neighbors. They depended on each other in times of trouble. They helped each other survive. You might have disagreements, but doing right by your family and neighbors took precedence over personal grudges.

They also worked together to make a living. All of the people farmed. But, one family might have a mill that they would hire out to others to gain the benefit. Another family might have special equipment to be used. Still another might slaughter an animal and sell the meat to the whole neighborhood. When someone fell ill during planting time, those near them would plant the crops for them. Sometimes children would stay home from school during harvest time to help bring in the crops. Everyone worked hard and worked together. My Dad's first paid job was as a field hand working alongside his father helping in another farmer's field for extra money when he was six years old.

I don't pretend that those were the good old days. They were hard times in many ways. But, there were some social benefits that our society today has almost completely lost. In our modern communities of many thousands of people, we live and move among strangers in complete anonymity. We have our co-workers, friends, family, and other social groups (such as church, clubs, etc.), but we move through vast numbers of people for whom we care very little to meet with the next little social oasis in our life. I rarely meet people I know when I go shopping. We don't often see familiar faces in the cars next to us as we drive down the road. We might get to know our next door neighbors, but many people leave that at an over the hedge "how are you? Doin' O.K." level of communication.

We have found that our social connections that are the strongest are those like church where we do things together and work to achieve similar goals. Family is strong for us when we are spending time with each other and relying on each other. Our friends are those we invite over to our house or visit at their houses (not something people do lightly when there are so many young kids running around). The neighbors we got to know the best were the ones we had to build fences with when a storm knocked down our mutual barrier.

Compared to the world my Dad grew up in we are solitary people floating in a mass of strangers, trying to fight and scrape for a living alone. My Dad's family fought and scraped for a living, but they did it among a community of interlocking relationships where everyone helped each other. How very different it is. My parents still have the tendency to build those relationships with others and develop a support system. I have had a harder time with it. I have always prided myself in my independence. I would reserve my times of dependence to be with my family. In recent years, now that my family is no longer nearby, I have had to learn to reach out and ask for help when I need it. It is so hard. But, as a result, I have built some good friendships with those people. I suppose my next step in my personal growth is seeing a need in someone else's life and filling it without waiting to be asked.