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Refresh Your Life

Month: May 2016

Is Contentment the Enemy of Adventure?

If we’re going to talk about work-life balance, I have to start out with the honest truth. I do not work outside the home. To some, that probably removes me from the conversation immediately. I am a stay-at-home mom who tries to do some writing on the side and holds down the fort here full time. That said I have two rambunctious little boys, aged 3 and 4, and my husband is a full-time tugboat captain which means he is often at sea. His current schedule has him gone Monday-Friday and we are grateful to spend the weekends together, but he leaves the house at 4:30AM on Mondays and doesn’t get home again until 7:00PM on Fridays. During the week it is just me and the kids, day in and day out. His previous schedule had him at sea roughly half the year; his current one is more variable. In any case, like all stay-at-home moms I am busy. I am not doing morning yoga and drinking smoothies on the couch. But, I also thought I was doing plenty for myself.

Some days after the kids are in bed, I will take a nice, long soak in a hot bath. Sometimes when they both nap in the afternoon, I will drink a cup of tea and watch a Gilmore Girls rerun. I’ve also helped myself by raising the boys to enjoy the same things that I do, so that we can all go on long walks through the woods or farm fields.

Sailing with Junior on the wooden boat that we owned before Little Bear was born.

Sailing with Junior on the wooden boat that we owned before Little Bear was born.

In my mind, these were the things keeping me sane. They brought a great deal of contentment to my everyday life. But, though they made me content, they didn’t bring me a ton of real joy. I had lost touch with the things that thrilled me, the things that made me throw my head back in hearty laughter, the experiences that left me so exhilarated that I could only grin and shake my head afterwards. There was no excitement.

We were content, but were we too content?

In many ways contentment is the enemy of adventure. It’s easy to find contentment in the everyday, mundane comforts of daily life. My morning coffee before the boys wake up, steaming hot and cloaked in the warmth of my boys quietly sleeping upstairs. Stealing an hour to exercise and shower, boys playing with their legos or watching an episode of Wild Kratts in the next room. Taking the dog for a long walk on a rainy day. Drinking tea while snow falls gently on our skylight. Spending a day at home without accomplishing much of anything. It’s so simple. It’s so easy. We are so content.

But with the purchase of our new boat, we’ve plunged headlong into a different kind of joy. It’s the sheerness of being on the edge of our dreams. It’s the excitement of working towards something, dreaming about it and taking the first big concrete step towards reality. It’s the fear of knowing you’re financially invested and that you’ll only get one shot. It’s the fear of unknown challenges ahead and the adrenaline rush of running towards them instead of away.

Our boat, formerly named Deja Vu, launches.

Our boat, formerly named Deja Vu, launches.

We launched the boat last week and took delivery of it this weekend. It was in many ways the opposite of how I’d imagined it. The weather was cold, damp and windy. We hadn’t bent the sails on yet, so we couldn’t sail but instead motored into a bumpy seaway, me on the helm and the Captain wrestling canvas into place up forward. We shivered in the cockpit as the wind nipped our ears. Though it had been almost 90 degrees the day before, I layered on three fleeces and a raincoat and the wind still got through. Down below, the boys were nestled into bunks, bundled in sleeping bags, napping to the rhythmic hum of our engine.

Little Bear asleep in his bunk.

Little Bear asleep in his bunk.

Junior asleep in his bunk.

Junior asleep in his bunk.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally underway on our new boat!

Finally underway on our new boat!

When we arrived at our mooring just a few hours later, it suddenly became just as I had imagined. The Captain got into the dinghy to attach the mooring pennants and I motored the boat around, standing by for him to wave me closer. For just a few minutes, it was just me at the helm and the boys down below sleeping. It brought me such joy to have that moment, where I was doing something that I used to do routinely that brings me such pure happiness, and I was doing it by myself with my children sleeping quietly in their bunks. A wave of relief washed over me. I’ve still got it, I was thinking as a grin plastered itself across my face and I pulled our boat up to the mooring. As I shut the engine off, the boys woke. Junior asked what was next and when we told him we’d go ashore, retrieve our cars and pick up dinner on the way home, he cried. “I want to stay here.” His eyes brimmed with tears. When we told him again that we needed to go get the cars, he pleaded, “Can we come back in the morning? Can we have breakfast here?”

You know it's sheer joy when I start snapping selfies.

You know it’s sheer joy when I start snapping selfies.

Sheer joy swelled in me. I was afraid the boys wouldn’t be able to nap onboard. When they did, i was afraid they’d wake seasick or grumpy or cold. I was afraid they would hate it. But they napped soundly and woke begging for more. They love the boat possibly as much as their parents do. They want more.

And that brings me sheer joy. We have the whole summer ahead of us. Adventures line the horizon. We haven’t fallen victim to the comfort of contentment. We are just getting started.

Outward bound on the S/V Little Wing.

Outward bound on the S/V Little Wing.

Simplicity: How To Return To The Roots of Summer

Mama Bear, soaking up the summer of ’87.

When I was little, I was lucky enough to live on a dead end street that backed up to the old town cemetery. Since this was our daily norm, it never seemed creepy to me and we used it as an extended yard perfect for hide and go seek, flashlight tag, cutting across to neighbor’s houses and climbing in trees. I’m sure there are some who might consider this disrespectful, but I tend to think that if we could all choose, we’d actually prefer our final resting places be full of joy and playfulness rather than solemnity and grief. Besides, the cemetery hadn’t been used in centuries so at least it was getting some visitors this way.

In any case, we would head out in the morning, sometimes with a backpack full of supplies and other times with only the clothes on our back, and we’d return when we got hungry. We had an imaginary treehouse in the cemetery where we lived in our own magical world. We’d pretend we were living in colonial times or that we were runaways living off the land. We blazed a trail beyond one end of the stonewall that came out at a pond where we hung a rope swing and spent hours throwing rocks into the water. We walked to the gas station to buy candy, sold lemonade along the bike path, and read books on a towel in the backyard. I don’t remember anything extravagant and I don’t remember tons of activities. Sure there were a few sessions of swim lessons and a week of soccer camp scattered here and there, but most of the summer was completely wide open.

The taste of summer!

The taste of summer!

My kids are still too young to spend hours free ranging through our neighborhood but someday they will be old enough and that’s exactly how I see them spending their summers. They will swim off the bridge at the town landing. They’ll go fishing in the river. There will be penny candy and bikes and skinned knees and an impatient wait in line at the hotdog stand. It’s a long way off still but that doesn’t mean that it’s not time to lay the groundwork.

There’s a lot of chatter lately about simplifying our lives, simplifying childhood, purging excess and returning to our roots. But how do we do it? How do we make it happen when everything else continues to move so quickly? By instilling the values of simplicity and patience now, I am hoping to raise boys who return to simplicity as they get older.

Here’s what I’m doing this summer to simplify our lives.

Much better than anything on TV

Much better than anything on TV

First, we’re limiting screen time. This isn’t really specific to summer but it is easier to do when the weather is kind and the sun is up late. We are not a screen-free home (but power to you if you are; I am in awe of you!) but I limit screen-time strategically. Our kids usually get to watch 20 minutes after dinner while I’m putting away laundry and cleaning up. (Just for context here, remember that The Captain is more often than not away on the tugboat so it is just me and the kiddlywinks). Sometimes Little Bear will get to watch 20 minutes in the morning while Junior is at school and I exercise, but honestly he doesn’t have much patience for it and I try to actively encourage his disinterest when he wanders in halfway through his show and announces he’s all done. I find most of my success in limiting screen-time comes from setting concrete limits in advance, explaining them to the kids so that they know what to expect and then sticking to the limits come hell or high water.

Go for it, buddy. Let me know what you find.

Go for it, buddy. Let me know what you find.

Another way I’m simplifying is by becoming a more distant observer. Like I said, my kids are too young to totally free range, but I’m preparing them for it by keeping my distance. I try to let them explore our neighborhood on their own. When they play in our backyard, I supervise from the kitchen and only step in if someone is crying or hurt. When they are exploring further afield, I hang back and let them lead the way. I keep an eye out for safety risks but mostly I let them do their thing without feeling like I’m breathing down their necks. It’s simpler for them and it’s easier for me. It takes a lot of work to be a helicopter mom! Some might call it the Lazy Mom approach to parenting but we didn’t come across it by way of sheer laziness. There’s some forethought involved, I promise.

We will plant ourselves on this beach and move when the sun begins to set.

We will plant ourselves on this beach and move when the sun begins to set.

Summer is also the time to go outside for extended periods, sometimes all day long. I plan to take advantage of the long days and warm weather while we’ve got them. Remember my tips for getting out the door for a beach day in 20 minutes or less? I go the same route with our daypack. I keep it stocked with a quick-drying change of clothes for each kid, a few ready-to-eat snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a basic first aid kit. I also keep one of my larger sarongs in there to use as a picnic blanket or to string in trees for shade. We can be ready for a day out of the house as quickly as it takes me to fill our water bottles and throw some sandwiches together. It’s easy to become very rooted to the house and your neighborhood, but don’t be afraid to head out for the entire day. Go to the woods or the lake or the river or the beach. If your clan gets bored of one, head to another. Make it special with a stop at the ice cream store or the burger shack. Heck, my kids think it’s special just to run into a gas station to buy a ten-cent lollipop.

There will be ice cream and it will be messy!

There will be ice cream and it will be messy!

Which brings me to my next goal: simplify our eating. I am generally very engaged in healthy eating and I spend a lot of time in our kitchen cooking three meals a day. But come summer? I’m out. All it takes is some marinated chicken to have a quick, healthy dinner on the table in under half an hour. Grill it up, serve with some corn on the cob, add a salad and you’re done. My kids are usually great eaters, but they do love their carbs. The other night I was having an internal debate over what to serve alongside their chicken and corn. Noodles? Rice? Rice pilaf? Roasted potatoes? Ugh, all would require dishes and time and cooking. And then I had my epiphany moment, why all the stress about what carbs my kids are going to eat tonight? They love toast with butter, so why would I go through the motions of making a box of rice pilaf when that’s really not much different than toast with butter in the first place and there’s a loaf of bread sitting right there on the counter? Simple meals are the name of our game this summer. Yogurt and granola for breakfast? Check. Sandwiches or bagels with cream cheese on the go at lunchtime? Got it. Something quick on the grill with some fresh veggies alongside? All done. Less time cooking means more time for playing and getting outside.

A relaxed schedule means more memories like this one: last year's town bonfire after dark with friends.

A relaxed schedule means more memories like this one: last year’s town bonfire after dark with friends.

And finally, this summer we are reaching a milestone. I’m letting go of our schedule. Ok, not totally. Phew. But for the first time in four years, neither kid requires a nap. Sure, they may be more pleasant after a nice long rest, but this summer I’m relaxing our schedule and going with the flow more. We can skip naps. We can stay up late or go to bed early. We can make a schedule that works for us and when it stops working, we’ll make a new one. Last summer I clung to our schedule by necessity. Without afternoon naps, the boys would crumble. Up past his bedtime, Little Bear would dissolve into tears. But more recently, the boys have been more adaptable. We have more freedom and this summer, we’re going to take advantage of it.

Our stripped down summer.

Our stripped down summer.

By simplifying our summer, we strip it down to its roots. How do I want to remember our summer? How do I want the kids to remember it? To us, summer is about freedom, adventure and yes, the occasional indulgence. We’ll spend long days at the beach and on the boat. We’ll eat sweets and watch the stars come out. We’ll hunt lightning bugs. We’ll build an obstacle course in the backyard. We’ll let the saltwater dry in our hair.

How do you want to remember your summer?

 

Adventure’s Fine Line: Balancing Safety and Freedom Outdoors

The boys run wild with a friend. This may look chaotic to some but in reality it's a carefully considered balance.

The boys run wild with a friend. This may look chaotic to some but in reality it’s a carefully considered balance.

What does free play look like in a natural setting? Is it really and truly free? How do we keep kids safe while letting them push the limits and immerse themselves in their own world?

Junior scaling an apple tree while Little Bear practices his leaps below.

Junior scaling an apple tree while Little Bear practices his leaps below.

Junior is perched on a tree branch, leaning from side to side as he hums the sound of a buzzing propellor plane. He dodges imaginary projectiles, adding sound affects. On the ground not far away Little Bear, knees muddy and face smeared, is stacking logs and chattering away in a crackly deep voice, enacting both sides of a conversation between himself and “Worker Man.” With much fanfare, Junior tumbles to the soft dirt below, then rolls down a slope dramatically, his hair gathering hay as he goes. Little Bear glances up, then joins him in the dizzying descent. They are rolling, rolling, rolling down a gently sloping field of hay and dandelions. Soon they are laughing loudly in a heap of marsh grass and mud, hair matted and hands caked.

To the kids, this feels completely and utterly free. To the bystander, it looks like complete chaos. To me, it is the perfect balance and all within the bounds of carefully developed rules that we play by when we’re exploring outside.

Setting kids loose in nature can be intimidating, especially if it’s something that you’re not used to. But free play isn’t entirely free. By setting reasonable limits and creating logical rules, kids can explore freely and have a positive experience without feeling restricted or bound by arbitrary limits. Because our rules are based in logic that is easily explained to them, the kids rarely question them. They aren’t just rules governed by adults; they are rules governed by nature.

Here are eight rules we play by when we’re free playing outdoors.

  1. We are guests here. When we explore the forest or the beach or the park or a meadow, we are exploring a living habitat. All sorts of creatures big and small make their homes in these places and when we’re here, we’re guests. We don’t have to leave everything exactly as we found it, but if we don’t, we should leave it a little better than before. We might gather fallen leaves and sticks to build a fairy house for others to discover. We might simply pick up some trash and pack it out to the parking lot dumpster with us when we go. Sometimes we clear fallen brush off a walking path. Other times we delicately leave everything exactly as we found it. However we change the environment we’re in, it should somehow be for the benefit of others.

    Junior's sheer glee at watching a snake in the leaves.

    Junior’s sheer glee at watching a snake in the leaves.

  2. Know your neighbors. Because we are guests in these habitats, it’s our job to know who we’re visiting. Teach your children to identify any hazardous insects, snakes, or other animals likely to live here and make sure they know what to do if they encounter one. Similarly, teach them to avoid plants like poison ivy or stinging nettles. Kids who know the potential risks in their environment aren’t just more likely to avoid them; they’re also more confident in exploring their environment independently.
  3. The playful shrieks should be distinctly different from a scream indicating real trouble.

    The playful shrieks should be distinctly different from a scream indicating real trouble.

    Yelling and screaming means something is wrong or about to go wrong. This may sound overbearing when you want to let your kids go wild, but there is a difference between the sort of gleeful yipping that I often hear in the woods from my boys and the fierce shouting that signals a real problem. The only reason to really truly scream is if there is an emergency or we need to get someone’s attention urgently. Of course there are occasional exceptions to this rule, like when we take the boat under a bridge and shout to hear our voices echo or when we howl at a full moon. But generally, everyone in the group should be on the same page and understand that yelling signals something important. This way, if I hear screaming through the woods, I know to respond quickly. Likewise if the boys hear me shout, they know to pay attention as someone’s safety may depend on it.

    Junior sees some storm clouds approaching.

    Junior sees some storm clouds approaching.

  4. Keep an eye to the sky. Always know what kind of weather to expect for the day and plan accordingly. Even with the best laid plans, know that weather can change suddenly and teach your children to be aware of the subtle signs that storms could be brewing. Be aware of changes in wind strength and direction. In addition to feeling the wind, teach kids to watch for the wind in trees and across water. Identify different cloud types and know which signal approaching storms. General awareness of their surroundings will come more and more naturally for them the more they experience a changing environment.
  5. Three different approaches to scaling a rock.

    Three different approaches to scaling a rock.

    Climb it yourself, or don’t climb it at all. Want to climb? Great. I’m not helping. This one sounds a little harsh at first but it’s a good way to create self-enforcing boundaries. I’m not crazy about the idea of my kids scaling piles of logs or scurrying up slippery rock slopes and I know there will be times when they will fall. But rather than constantly scurrying around after them, trying to be there to catch them when they do, I make sure they aren’t too high to start with by only allowing them to climb things that they can climb on their own. Need a boost to get started up that tree? Nope, sorry. Want a hand shimmying up that boulder? You’re on your own. I’m happy to act as coach and I often do, but when it comes to offering a physical boost, they know I’m not there to help. If they can’t get up on their own, they’ll need to wait until they’re a little taller or a little stronger and try again.

  6. Stay close. Now that the boys are getting a little older, I’m not so worried about having my eyes on them every second while they explore, but I do need to know that they’re close. When we’re in the woods and they are wandering around on their own, we agree on physical boundaries before they set off. It could be the creek, the trail, or a ridge line. The same goes for when we are on the beach, though sometimes here it’s easiest to literally draw a line in the sand at the furthest acceptable point. If we are going to be in one place for several days as when we’re camping, I use fluorescent flagging tape on trees to mark limits. Just make sure to remove it before you go.

    The kids watched some older children building a lean-to and decided to build there own.

    The kids watched some older children building a lean-to and decided to build there own.

  7. Sticks are tools, not weapons, and as with all tools, they come with responsibilities. What is it with kids and sticks? My boys are drawn to them like pigs to mud. No even better, kids to mud. Long, short, fat, thin, green or rotting, they don’t discern. But we draw the line at using sticks as weapons. No sword fights. No light sabers. No jousting. Sticks are great tools for hiking and building. Sometimes the boys pretend they’re hammers and hit them mightily against tree stumps or rocks. Sometimes they use them for building shelters. But we never use them for fighting and we have to be smart with them. We don’t run with sticks, we don’t swing them near other people, and the only reason we lug around a stick bigger than our arm is to build with it.
  8. Know when to ask for help. Tell kids to trust their gut and if something feels wrong or scary, ask for help. Teach children to find their caregiver if they or someone else is hurt, sad or scared. Also teach them to tell a grownup if they see something that could hurt them, like broken glass or a hornets nest.
The core of childhood.

The core of childhood.

Free play outside has amazing benefits for kids of all ages. By creating logical boundaries to guide their play, we provide an added layer of security for them. Kids can play more independently and more confidently when they know how to watch out for themselves.

 

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