Friday, March 31, 2017

All You Taught Me

Michigan, Sept 2016

A couple of years ago I went to visit my grandma. We had so many good conversations in her little room at my aunt and uncle's house in Walla Walla. In this one, she told me, "One day my heart is going to give out and I'll be gone just like that. And you will be fine."  And while at other times she was more anxious and afraid she would have a long painful death, this ended up being prophetic. And I keep reminding myself that all is well with my soul. I am fine. But I will miss her so.

My Grandma Bigger was not a playing grandma. My cousins and I can't remember her playing a game, and certainly not dolls. She had apparently been quite the athlete in her youth, playing basketball among other things, but by the time we came on the scene, she preferred reading, crocheting, embroidery, and watching television. She loved the quiet. She was an avid sports fan, climbing the stands to watch the Seahawks in her 90s, following the Seattle Mariners.

Mackinac Island Ferry, Sept 2016
She didn't force anything on anyone. So you had to ask her questions about her life, you had to ask her what she thought. And oh, then the gems that she produced.

When I called to her just a month ago, she thanked me so much for calling. I told her it always made me feel better to talk with her, that she helped me with life. She sounded like she had a catch in her throat. "It DOES?" She was incredulous. And it did. Every time. She gave me courage and perspective.

When I was feeling overwhelmed by potty-training my child, I shared that it was not going well. She encouraged me by saying she wished she hadn't been so hard on one of her children. Oh, she had so many regrets about how she had pushed him. "But I had to break the ice in the creek to wash his diapers," she added. Wow! That changed my perspective ENTIRELY. I also haven't complained about laundry ever since.

Mackinac Island with my dad, Sept 2016
She took the time to counsel me to "punish" less, telling me she wished she hadn't been so hard on her kids. She saw in me the need to have "control" and told me when she looked back, she didn't think she would have done any harm if she had punished less, and just loved them. (She wasn't at all opposed to discipline in the right frame of mind and for the right reasons.)

Once when I was hating my life in a gray, rainy, depressing climate and complained about it, she told me she had lived there too. And hated it just as much. It was there the Red Cross came to her door and told her they thought my grandpa was dying. She was a young mother and he was on a military base, in training to go fight World War II and had contracted pneumonia. She remembered they told her to find a neighbor to watch her child so she could go say "good-bye." My grandpa pulled through. I decided that my life was really NOT that bad. It was just weather.

I asked her about what it was like to live through the Depression and she told me how her family spent one winter of the Depression living in a tent in the snow in Yakima, Washington. She only remembered eating the wild plums that grew at the edge of the field and said she didn't like plums to that day. That story helped me appreciate what I have never had to do without.

Once when I was preparing for a trip to Los Cabos, Mexico, I called her and asked her if she had been there. I knew she had been to Mexico, having seen pictures of boating trips off Mazatlan. She chuckled when I asked. "Oh yes, I was there twice." And then, what she would say to me often, "I really have had such an amazing life." And she did. And so do I. Getting to see the world, and even better, seeing it with someone you love, is amazing.
Cruising through the Panama Canal

As she grew older, I became more and more aware of her anxious nature and the courage it took for her to do many things. Every trip she took over the last ten years, she wasn't sure she could go on.  She was worried about so many things and yet, she bravely got on planes to Washington D.C., to Michigan, to Ireland. Over and over, she kept going. Even at the end, she got in the car and left "safe" to see something new. As my battles with anxiety escalated over the last few years, I have claimed her spirit time and time again. I have set foot on the plane, stood in the line, and boarded the train. When my nerves kick in, I have often had to remind myself, "If your 90-something grandmother can do this, you certainly can."

But the most important thing Grandma taught me was LOVE. When you married into the Bigger family, you became a Bigger. In-laws weren't outsiders; they were loved and cherished as beloved children, and grandchildren. All of their in-laws called them "Mom" and "Dad" and it wasn't forced. They were loved. 

She was a strong wife to my grandfather. She gave him structure and strength; he made her life fun and adventurous. She loved rules; he loved to bend those rules. But they loved and respected each other and created a legacy together. They modeled and promoted what they believed it. So no, they didn't push me on the swings or go down the slide. But I will never forget the time they took me to ice cream after observing me do something unselfish for others. I won't forget that they came to my baptism, my graduations, and applauded my hard work. I treasure a letter my grandmother penned to me on September 11, as soon as she learned I was far from my Virginia home and safe. And just a few weeks ago, she dialed my number to say thank you for her birthday flowers. It was our last call. She was grateful then. I will be grateful forever.

Garnet Clarice McCoy Bigger, March 4, 1921-March 22, 2017

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Stepping Out

I love New Year's resolutions. Or at least, I use to. At some point, I hit that realization that I made the same resolutions every single year and I was still carrying extra weight, still impatient, and still couldn't seem to focus in prayer.

When I was younger I used to think that midlife crises were the result of people realizing they weren't "young" anymore, and despairing at extra weight, the loss of hair, or some physical attribute that reminded them that their bodies were in decline heading toward that surety-death.

And while my aching back and neck, and my declining eyesight certainly are not things I'm celebrating, I'm realizing that midlife despair is more about realizing that all the things we were going to change about ourselves, those pesky bad habits, our "sins of personality" are still with us. This process of sanctification is slow going; is it even happening at all?

Even worse, some of the things that were more contained when younger, are not so easily contained. Anxiety, for instance, that I've struggled with since I was a child, has only become more evident to the outside world as I have aged and witnessed more of life to be anxious about.

So I started the year of our Lord 2017 with a kind of discouragement that I was still short-tempered and impatient, and I was still prone to second helpings and a secret stash of chocolate and thus carrying extra pounds, and that I still can't seem to focus well when I need to pray.

Only self-defeat is not really helpful. I'm always ruminating on life, always have an internal conversation happening about my short-comings and the lamentable situation of the entire fallen world and what would make a difference if it changed. Oh, and my husband and my dearest friends know these musings often go external when given a chance. (Sorry!)

Now we are into February and I have realized a couple of happy things. One is that while I've always approached exercise as this thing I should do to be thin (and it has NEVER made me thin, even when I was disciplined), I recently realized (because I'm getting old) that the goal of exercise is to help me be strong, and to keep the instrument I live in, running. Sadly, it also makes me really sore now, and I wish I had realized this when I was younger when it didn't hurt so much, but it is something. So in the last year I have finally made regular exercise, part of my life.

But more importantly, I tackled a psychological hurdle I have faced for 20 years. I started walking, alone, in my neighborhood, again. Something so simple has given me joy and a breathing space, and the capacity to pray in a new way.

Twenty years ago I was living in a part of Portland with a sketchy reputation. My cousin had just been murdered and I was dealing with all kinds of grief and anxiety there. I have always loved walking and exploring and that hadn't changed. But one day I went for a walk in my neighborhood just as the police swooped in on a drug-ring in a nearby apartment complex. It was somehow too much for me, and as much as I tried walking over the next 20 years, I always imagined predators behind the curtains of houses and couldn't do it without a racing heart and a quickened pace. Eventually I quit trying to take walks.

Two summers ago, I borrowed my mom's bike a few times and went riding in my neighborhood. It was something. I also went out walking on summer evenings with Mike.

Consciously, I wasn't really thinking about this thing I didn't do, and the reasons for it. But it started coming back to me, that I had once loved to take a walk, and that it was healing balm for me in the stress of a normal day.

This last August, I set out one morning. I took a short walk on a route I had been taking with Mike in the evening. And I just kept going. Nearly every day, except when I tried to go out one morning when it was 28 degrees and decided to set a personal limit of 32 degrees as my threshold.

I have found walking helps me with my anxiety-prone thoughts. It helps me with prayer. It helps me physically, mentally, spiritually to face life with joy and confidence.

And finally, it is something I didn't let beat me down. I tackled my fear, and won. be continued...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye 2016

On board the USS Midway

The perfection of Jesus’s divinity was expressed in the perfection of his humanity, and vice versa. He was God because he was so sublimely a man, and Man because, in all his sayings and doings, in the grace of his person and words, in the love and compassion that shone out of him, he walked so closely with God. As Man alone, Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, he would not; Incarnate, he could and did. ~Malcolm Muggeridge 

Our Christmas cards went out in the mail already, but the year wouldn’t be complete without a letter. The week after Christmas is the perfect time to complete it. Or, rather, procrastinators feel compelled by the new year to act.

We mark our years by the places we visit and the people we see; 2016 was no different.

Mike’s year started off at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to watch the arguments in a First Amendment case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The organization he works for, the Mackinac Center, had performed a supporting role in the litigation. The Supreme Court only holds about 150 people at a time; even lawyers admitted to the court must queue up at 5 a.m. to be guaranteed a seat. Tip: when standing in line for four hours in January, bring comfortable shoes, handwarmers, energy bars and a newspaper to read.

Then we were all off to sunny southern California for a mid-winter vacation. We saw the USS Midway in San Diego, Lego Land, SeaWorld, Disney Land and the Reagan Library. More importantly, we played at the beach in January. Rachelle’s parents joined us and we visited Rachelle’s brother Mark in Bakersfield (our first time visiting him since he moved to California 10 years ago). A brutal (by local standards) snow storm of ½ inch nearly kept us from getting to the airport for our departure.

In March, we trekked to Walla Walla, Washington, for Grandma Bigger’s 95th birthday and saw many aunts, uncles and cousins.

In May, we drove to Boston for two days of sightseeing and then over to New Hampshire for what was, perhaps, The Happiest Wedding Ever, featuring Rachelle’s last roommate Lindsay Jones and Ben Hansen. At the end of the month Mike and Rachelle’s dad, Rick, met Mark in Indianapolis for the bucket-list experience of attending the Indy 500. Later in June Lindsay’s parents Phil and Bev Jones stopped by during a post-wedding road trip. We were still exulting on the Happiest Wedding Ever.
Amy, Janet, Rachelle in Connemara

July found Rachelle joining soul friends Amy and Janet for a seven-day visit to Ireland. Amy lives in Olympia, WA, and Janet lives in Melbourne, Australia. So, Rachelle had the easiest trip, and still managed to get a travel virus and spend three days feeling miserable. She perked up in the invigorating sea air on a ferry ride to Inis Oirr, an island off the Galway Coast. It was cold, rainy, and gusty with some big waves. Her Viking stomach returned as she watched her fellow passengers not feeling quite as well. Despite a chilly, rainy, summer in Ireland and not feeling great, it was a great trip with good friends. Highlights: Slieve League in Donegal Co., Marble Arch Caves (in N. Ireland immediately after Brexit—interesting stuff!), the Guinness Factory Tour, music and Irish dancing in Galway, and the Cliffs of Moher—breathtaking!

Cesky Krumlov

Then in August Mike took a work/study trip to the Czech Republic, spending most of a week in Prague. The people there are courageous, having thrown off Nazi and Communist occupations in the space of forty years.

Grandma Bigger & Dad Bigger on Mackinac Isl.
In September Rachelle’s Uncle Darold and Aunt Barbara traveled with Grandma Bigger to see our adopted home of Michigan. We rented a house up north, hiked, ate, golfed and rode around Mackinac Island. (Some of us on bikes, others on motorized wheelchairs.) 

Aunt Barbara, Grandma, Uncle Darold
Parents sometimes need time away from kids, which is what we did with Mike’s brother Matt and his wife Vanessa in October for a weekend trip to New York City – our first time there together in more than 10 years. We walked (a lot), visited museums (MoMA and the Guggenheim), watched a play (Something Rotten) and took in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

This holiday season we were able to spend time with both sides of our immediate families, with a Reitz gathering in West Virginia and a Bigger gathering back in Michigan.

Ben (12) has taken up fencing. He continues to write adventure stories and has acquired a respectable Nerf arsenal. Kyrie (10) is our Irish dancer and Party Planner-in-Chief. Evie (7) is our gymnast and humorist.

Looking back over the year, we are deeply grateful for the gifts of friendship and prayer. Merry Christmas and a blessed new year!

Mike, Rachelle, Ben, Kyrie and Evie

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Make Your Last Words Count

This is the last page of my most memorable college graduation card. I graduated 20 years ago in May and received this card from my cousin. I couldn't have known that these were her last words to me. But less a month later, she was dead, murdered by a stranger in her home at 25.

I've come to expect to be a little morose in June. It is a tough month for me and for my family. Some years I seem a little lighter; this year, I was hit with grief like brick during the Gospel reading about the resurrection of the Widow of Nain's son. I often feel twinges here and there. I can't see this picture of my cousins and me without a reminder one of us is missing. But this was all-out weeping, embarrassing-myself-in-a-public-place grief. I could not stop it.

I have realized anew with forceful strength this year that untimely death is not something you experience once. This kind of loss it is a continual loss. I lose her again at every family reunion, any time I read about violence in the news, anytime I need someone to pray with me for a family member or laugh or cry with me. I see a Yorkshire Terrier (she owned one) and I feel that loss, needlepoint and Disney characters (especially Goofy and I don't why) and I feel her loss. Sometimes I go days, even weeks, or months without feeling it, and then BAM! I'm leveled with a sense that she should be my age, living life on this planet somewhere, and this was NOT what was supposed to happen.

And with this month of sorrow, I found her card in a box of my things. I sat and cried for awhile and then I reflected a little. What a gift to give me, to tell me she was proud of me. There is all kinds of history behind those words, years of competition. She knew my hard work and struggle to get to that moment. And she acknowledged it.

Never fail to say, write, text or Facebook words of support, encouragement, and love to the people in your life who mean the most. Someday those words will be your last. And you will go down in their hearts for what you said to them. When they are sad, they will reflect and yes, miss you. But they will be grateful that you were in their world. And you said what they needed to hear.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Curriculum Reviews -- 3rd Grade

My 3rd grader is a completely different kind of learner and requires a lot more trial and error. Mostly I have to work on my approach with her and let her have some control over when she does her work. This takes some negotiation. She is more of a visual and kinesthetic learner and I can't rely on auditory instruction. She is an excellent reader and most likely to do reading on her own. Here is what we did in 3rd grade:

Bible-God's Great Covenant New Testament  by Classical Academic Press. I continue to like this series a lot; it primarily stays out of the weeds of controversy and focuses on the story of God's redeeming work. This year's focus was the Gospels and it was understandable right down to my kindergartner without being juvenile.  The teacher's guide was really busy, with a lot of supplementary information. I did not have her do the worksheets and quizzes but she did work on the memory verse and listen to the Bible reading and lesson instruction. She also helps me read to reinforce her learning style. (5 days a week)

History-Story of the World V2 by Well-Trained Mind Press, continues to be our anchor curriculum for the humanities. Everyone is involved in this class which involves a lot of external reading (we check books out from the library on literature and history and read thru them during the week.) The Activity book makes this curriculum with art, craft, cooking, sewing and other activities that support the reading, along with geography and a coloring page. Kyrie finds it much easier to write out a summary and then read it rather than giving an impromptu verbal summary. She also helps me with the reading to keep her mind focused. (4-5 days a week)

Math - We used Horizons 3 this year. The first three grades are my favorites and I watched Kyrie make a big jump in math skills. Horizons is advanced and introduces long division earlier than other curriculums. This was really challenging and an educator friend reminded me that often little minds aren't ready for long division so soon. We took a deep breath and worked through it slowly, and she has it down now. She has added some flash card programs on the tablet that she uses to work on multiplication tables and I have fallen back on Khan Academy a time or two to help with instruction on difficult concepts. We also use some Adapted Mind Math.  (5 days a week)

Grammar - Every year I realize more how much I love First Language Lessons. I have now used other grammar curricula and know how very well Language Lessons covers the topic while avoiding busy work. We can complete a lesson in 10-15 minutes and Ben still remembers his work. Our deep sadness is that it only goes through 4th grade.  Kyrie loves Language Lessons and has a strong handle on parts of speech and is excellent at memory work. (3 days a week)

Spelling and Handwriting - We used Spelling Workout C and Zaner Bloser to cover these topics. There is no need for expensive teacher's manuals and Zaner Bloser offers free lined paper printouts (by grade level) on their web site, which makes having practice paper available easy. (2-3 days a week)

Writing & Rhetoric -  We started Classical Academic Press's Writing & Rhetoric: Fable program mid-way through the year. While this program is challenging for Kyrie, she loves the creativity of it and has really pushed herself and excelled. It is an excellent introduction to writing for a beginner. (2 days a week, but 3-4 is ideal)

Science  - She participated in our local nature center classes on various topics throughout the year and jumped in on experiments with Ben.

Spanish - Kyrie is very motivated to learn Spanish and put her all into a very rigorous program for a 3rd grader. We used Classical Academic Press's Spanish for Children Primer A. On the positive side, the teacher is funny, warm, and engaging (we see her on the DVD which offers occasional humorous puppet animation clips).  The website Headventureland offers valuable reinforcement activities. However, this program moves a little fast and is more difficult to assimilate than Latin for Children Primer A. I have had 2 years of college-level Spanish and the grammar is complex. Primer A pushes through it and should probably have been about 5 chapters shorter and been stronger on review and going slower. The teacher has anything but a natural accent, which often cracks me up. Regardless, Headventureland is such a valuable resource and Teacher Julia so wonderful, that Kyrie has loved this program. (Ben is begrudgingly learning Spanish and while not loving it, he seems to enjoy the curriculum.) This is probably a better curriculum for 5th or 6th grade, but motivation is everything. And she is learning. (4 days a week, but 5 would be better)

Art/Music - I gave up piano lessons for the year and we need to continue. We did some music appreciation and she is working on Little Annie's Art Book of Etiquette & Good Manners. The fonts and styling are outdated and this book is ideal for Kindergarten/1st grade but we have enjoyed learning some thoughtful things about relationships and friendships that have been relevant this year. It has less "art" instruction than other books by the same instructor and is more of a coloring book with tips. (1 day a week)