Review: A Sacred Beginning

According to St Porphyrios, “What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home…They need to become saints in their relation to their children through their mildness, patience and love.” And as a parent, I feel an immediate doom dart, because of all words that do not describe me, “saint” tops the list. I rarely feel I have the time, energy, or strength required to grow that much spiritually, especially now that I’m a mom. But what if it’s becoming a mom, in itself, that is the both the catalyst and the means of that spiritual growth?

This is a review of the book “A Sacred Beginning: Nurturing Your Mind, Body, and Soul During Baby’s First Forty Days,” by Sarah Brangwynne and Sasha Rose Oxnard. As the authors note, many moms have mixed feelings in regard to the traditional 40 day absence from church after the birth of a new baby. But the book asks us, among other things, to look at the 40 days with this lens: as a special opportunity to grow spiritually, a boost toward becoming the saintly parents St Porphyrios talks about. They reframe the challenges and blessings of motherhood as the very elements that make us into the moms our children need.

This book was released within days of the birth of my fifth child, so I jumped at the chance to review it. But I began reading with deep curiosity. It’s daunting to add one more thing – like reading any book – during the first few weeks after birth, and frankly, anything I do add better be worth it. I’m stupid with sleep deprivation, I’m trying to integrate this new baby and new routine into an already a bustling family life (on a farm, no less!), and I’m recovering from birth. Throw in the postpartum hormonal roller coaster and finding time and inclination to read seems kind of laughable.

But as the authors emphasize, this is a critical period for self-care, and I’d urge the potential reader to include this book as an element of postpartum recovery. These 40 days are meant for just that purpose: we are temporarily excused from some of the rigors of church life, to recover and bond with our new baby, and to rebuild our strength. And it can even be a time of spiritual renewal.

The authors are a mental health counselor and a physician, and both are Orthodox Christians, so when they write about bolstering the health of mind, body, and soul, they know what they are talking about. The material and exercises in the they include are relevant and practical. The book is divided into forty short, daily chapters, which I was able to squeeze into even my busy life. There’s no extraneous material, but it’s written with warmth and empathy. Reading it is like having a coffee chat with a couple of experienced mom friends. Taking a moment, with my baby sleeping on my chest, to read and meditate, was a welcome pause in my day. There is also a companion podcast to supplement some of the exercises.

The book is also organized as a parallel of St John Climacus “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” specially tailored to moms. I loved the way the authors meditated on the unique ways moms can deal with the virtues and vices.  Yes – since becoming a mom, I experience avarice in a totally different way (I want to give my children the example of liberal giving, and at the same time I agonize over our budget and the new expenses that come with a family!). I have anxieties I never experienced as a single woman (did anyone else feel the pandemic crisis the way moms did? I doubt it). I also have grown to be able to love in a way I never knew was possible (with the birth of my first child I became unable to see anyone without thinking about how they were once someone’s baby, just like mine – that fundamentally changed how I respond to others). While attention to postpartum mental, emotional and physical recovery is a comfort, the added challenge of this focus helped me recovery my spiritual energy.

This book functioned as a postpartum recovery kit, a toolkit for spiritual growth, and a much-needed excuse to pause for self care in these weeks after my baby’s birth. It’ll be the first gift I think of for mom friends, whether first-timers or experienced mothers, and I look forward to re-reading it, myself. There’s enough comfort and challenge in this book to support me in my mom-life for a long time.

Glory Days, Scars, and Glorification

Note: this is an address I gave on the Sunday after the feast of Ascension, to our parish. If you’d rather check out the recording, go here:

Before I was a 40 something mom of five, I was an athlete.  I loved running more than anything. A lot of non-runners assume runners are just crazy and that’s probably reasonable. Are there any other runners here? Allow me to open a window on the insanity. Eric Liddell – do you remember him from the film “Chariots of Fire?” – said “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” God didn’t actually make me fast, but He did show me that  there is a kind of purity of purpose in running that is prayerful, and I loved that. I didn’t mind getting up early to run before work. At least once I cut my college classes to run. I ate, slept, and breathed running. I ran on roads and I ran on trails. I ran on beaches and in Hawaii I ran the whole volcanic rim of Mt Kilauea. I ran races, including marathons, and I was even in training for a triathlon when my head was turned by a dashing gentleman from the East coast who eventually became my husband and the father of my children.
We started having babies. I had an emergency cesarean with my first, which left me with a beautiful little girl and scarring that altered my core strength forever. Age began to get the better of me. Habits I’d had for years, like rolling out of bed in the morning and onto the road for an hour, had to end. I kept trying to hold onto them, but my joints began to crackle. Through months of nursing newborns, sleep deprivation ate at my ability to recover from training. Joint laxity from pregnancy affected the alignment of my hips (my hobble as I walked up here today is more than theatrics). When I could no longer run, I felt like I lost a part of myself. I was depressed, I cried, I tried to believe things might be different someday.

So when I read in the psalms about running and not growing weary and flying like an eagle, I was comforted. Somehow, to me this translated into a fantasy that in the Kingdom of Heaven, running would be restored to me. My injuries would be gone and I too could run endlessly. Maybe God would give me the endurance of Paula Radcliffe and the speed of Usain Bolt!

But then something caught my attention. Something you might have noticed in the gospel accounts of the resurrection and ascension. Jesus both rises and ascends with his scars. Does that surprise anyone else, like it does me? In my mind a glorified body would be both healed and perfected, but it looks like Jesus body isn’t. 
When Jesus ascended into heaven, He took his scars with Him. His glorified body…still had scars. “Glorified” did not mean, apparently, completely repaired and devoid of what we’d consider physical imperfections.

Now, I have a lot of physical scars. Some are from silly things I’ve done, like overestimating my rollerblading skills and wiping out on a steep hill when I was 19. Others are professional battle scars from my life as a veterinary technician, which often put me on the wrong end of animal teeth and claws. One is the emergency c-section scar that reminds me of the birth of my oldest child. 

Many of us regard our scars as unsightly. There are therapies and pharmaceuticals designed to rid us of them, if we are really bothered by them. Some of our scars are truly debilitating, like the injuries that largely took my running away from me. And many people have more severe scars than mine – missing limbs, missing organs, missing loved ones.

Emotional losses like bereavement are definitely scars. The older I get, the more populated the cemeteries become with people I thought I couldn’t live without. This year alone, we here in our community have lost some really significant people from our lives. Sometimes I feel more slowed down and afflicted by those losses than by any physical injury or scar I’ve ever had. 

 At the council of Nicea in 325, out of 318 church fathers present, only 11 had not been significantly maimed through torture by heretics. When the king entered the place where the council was being held, he venerated the scars of the fathers by kissing them, because they were the marks of their participation in the suffering of Christ.

CS Lewis famously compared God to a sculptor. He said that events in our lives that hurt us are the blows of God’s chisel, shaping us into His mature creations. The pain and scars, physical or emotional, actually are God making us who we are. We are souls and bodies, so scars both physical and spiritual are part of us. They can’t be reversed or removed without changing who we are.

So why did Christ ascend with his scars – wounds in his hands and feet, his side, punctures from a crown of thorns, wounds from being scourged? When we see the martyrs in heaven, will their glorified bodies still be physically maimed? What about us? Will my shoulder still audibly crackle when I move it? How about the scars on my arms from medicating fractious feral cats – will they still be there? Will I ever run again or compete in my triathlon?

Did the wounds and injuries and scars and bereavements change us? Were they God’s chisel, shaping us into saints? Then I don’t see how He can remove them without undoing the good He has done through them. What’s more, He tells us in Revelation, “I make all things new.” In our glorified bodies, perhaps it isn’t the scars that will disappear, but our understanding of them will be made new. We won’t see them as unsightly or debilitating, but we will see how they have remade us into the new creations God intended.  My scars gave me the most significant gift of my life when they made me a mom. Losing running hurt – a lot – but I wouldn’t trade it. The pain was part of His perfect plan all along. In the end it wasn’t pointless suffering at all. As Jesus described the apostles’ suffering in the gospel, it’s the pain of a woman in childbirth, which is forgotten when she feels the joy of holding her baby. The scars – Christ’s and ours – are the evidence of God’s love for us, which could never leave us in Hades. The scars are, in fact, an integral part of our glorification, as they were for Christ.

Will we still feel pain from our scars? The book of Revelation also tells us “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” We will still, apparently, have our scars – physical, emotional, spiritual – but the pain will be gone. The pain has done its job if it has contributed to our wisdom, our strength, our virtue. Pain is, perhaps, a necessary evil: like any good parent, God doesn’t wish pointless pain on His children. But as we hear in the liturgy of St Basil, He will “make the evil to be good by [His] goodness.”
So there’s still hope for me. In the Kingdom of Heaven I’ll either run and not grow weary, or He will have made my perspective new. With time He has done so already. I would certainly never trade what I have now for the privilege of running a marathon. Parenting is the most extreme sport there is! I wonder how He will change our perspective on our other scars?

July: Mikaela’s Birth

Note: the following story of our home birth is not intended to contain any criticism of any other type of birth. I’ve had an emergency cesarean, two medicated hospital vbacs and one unmedicated hospital vbac in addition to this birth at home. Every one of those experiences was positive in its own ways, and I am grateful for the five different and healthy deliveries I’ve had. In addition, I’ve done my best to omit graphic descriptions of birth here, because we are all grownups and know what’s involved, so just fill in the details as your narrative sensibilities prefer. – The Author

Our gardening and chickens and dairy goats and homeschooling probably give people the impression we are somewhat crunchy. Somewhat, I agree. There are limits. I’m a reluctant fan of disposable diapers at this point because I just can’t do it all and I’m a staunch believer in ibuprofen. I love the co-op market but my budget loves Aldi. I want my kids to eat whole, home raised food, but what’s a childhood without mac & cheese from a box (and what supermom is never so tired as to be compelled to serve it?)?

Believe me when I say that having an unmedicated birth wasn’t ever part of this plan. I love Ina May Gaskin as much as the next latter day hippie,  but with a sort of respectfully distant admiration. My bright, naïve desire for a “natural” birth fizzled when the words “brow presentation,” “transverse arrest” and “cesarean” were pronounced at the transition stage of my first labor. I got that epidural and never looked back. I recommended epidurals to all my friends. Even guy friends. Because even though the price of an epidural outside labor and delivery is usually an amputation, I don’t think it’s too high. They’re that good. Really.

Then I had my fourth child and my nightmare came true. My active labor was thirty minutes long, and after an excruciating eternity the anesthesiologist walked in – as my baby came out.

Imagine my surprise when I held my baby and realized the “excruciating eternity” lasted only 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong – anyone who suggests dilating from 4 to 10 in 30 minutes is easy deserves to be beaten til they need an epidural. It’s all the pain in a fraction of the time – without exaggeration, I thought I might be dying. (Look up precipitous labor – I’m not alone in my assessment.)  I am a former marathoner – I think my pain threshold is high – and labor pain was through the roof. But…I had missed my epidural, and survived.

With my fifth pregnancy a different fear replaced my worries about unmedicated birth. After that last short, short labor, now I was afraid we’d have a baby on the way to the hospital. Our hospital was 40 minutes distant and that labor had lasted 30 minutes. I disliked the math.

I presented my fears to my obstetrician, a doctor I love with all my heart and have deep respect for. The same doctor who walked in ten minutes too late to catch my fourth baby, so he really understood why I was anxious we’d have a roadside delivery.

“I can offer you an induction at 39 weeks,” he said, convincing neither of us. Baby 4 had arrived two days before 39 weeks. That was not a solution.

Both of my sisters had births outside the hospital – one in a birth center and one in her own home. In crunchy crunchy Portland, Oregon, my hometown, I knew more people who had birthed at home than in the hospital. Some had even chosen to birth unassisted.

I had dismissed any extra-hospital birth as an option when I had my c- section. I knew my risk of complications was low after three successful vbacs, but the malpresentation of my first baby was an object lesson in the risks of childbirth. Ultimately I realized, however, that because of my fast labors, perhaps I was not choosing between a home birth and a hospital birth, but a home birth and an unassisted roadside delivery. Crunchitude did not figure into the equation: this was sheer practicality.

Soon after I started seeing my midwife (with the blessing of my OB, who agreed to be our backup plan in the event of a hospital transfer), my fears began to melt. I intend to make a separate post about the virtues of midwifery care, but in a nutshell: I’ve never had more thorough and expert care in pregnancy, delivery or postpartum. I’m not about to suggest home birth is for everyone, but if hospital L&D departments were to adopt some of the midwives’ approach, every mom and baby would have an improved experience.

I committed my safety and my baby’s to God’s hands, the midwives’ care, and the prayers of Blessed Matushka Olga of Alaska. Approaching with eyes wide open, I knew things could go an unexpected direction, and we were 20 minutes from an ER (note: the nearest hospital without an explicit vbac ban is 40 minutes – I figured if necessary, emergency transfer that resulted in an additional c-section was not a worst-case scenario). I had opportunity to reflect on what generations of moms before me faced – birth with all its sensations, pains, liabilities and opportunities, unmediated by the medical profession.

To my surprise, those reflections came as a relief more than an anxiety. This is what those crazy hippies meant by “birth on our own terms.” I had fought the hospitals for my vbac births. I had rejected unnecessary tests and procedures not supported by evidence. I had had to shop for an obstetrician who respected my role as the one ultimately responsible for the health of my baby and myself. Now I was making the choice, based on evidence and also expert advice, that made me feel most confident.

So after two weeks of prodromal labor, of keeping my focus through painful contractions that fizzled nightly but left me sore and tired in the morning, when on our due date things finally got rolling, I was ready. I wasn’t afraid. My husband, Michael, was there (just in time, since someone has to milk goats no matter what!), supporting me. Mikaela’s labor was four times as long as Nicholas’s (almost two whole hours), she was born sunnyside up, and the pain was less by half. For the first time in five births I kept my focus and prayed throughout, and she was born in the comfort of our bedroom, under icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and Blessed Olga of Alaska. The midwives slipped in, kept us medically safe, caught her as she was born, and shared our joy like family. After I had recovered a little, her siblings and godmother met her immediately. All the expected medical boxes were checked, we were cared for expertly, but with a respect and peace hospitals struggle to provide.

I’m still reflecting on it, but my initial judgment is that this was my favorite birth so far, strictly speaking for the experience. There’s a lot to be said for consciously, and with acceptance, feeling every part of the birth process. At the risk of sounding like a half baked hippie, accepting productive pain and moving through it is a spiritual experience. I found myself in the same headspace I occupy when distance running: calm, present, accepting. Perhaps there are moms who can achieve that in the hospital, but so far I haven’t been one of them. More to come on that particular topic.

Meanwhile, welcome, Ms Mikaela Tamsen Dennee. She was born at 8:21 am on July 1, 2021, 7 lb 6 oz, 19 3/4″. She is named for her grandpa, Thomas Michael (Tamsen is a feminization of Thomas and Mikaela is a feminization of Michael), who passed away in 2020. We are all beyond overjoyed that she is safely here with us.


79 years ago today my grandmother, Katherine, was waiting. She was 43 years old, the year was 1942, and her pregnancy with her 10th child had taken her through one of the most difficult years in American history – the Pearl Harbor attack had occurred just six months ago, and her oldest sons were fighting age. But surely her baby, my mother, would arrive any day.

She arrived on June 18, 1942. 38 years later, in 1980, my mother was waiting for me, again in June. The Cold War was still in the news, her older children were teenagers having nightmares about it, and I was born on June 4.

Today is June 17, 2021, the day before my mother’s birthday (she died in 2007 and we found out about her terminal cancer diagnosis on December 7, 2006, our own personal day that lives in infamy). I’m 41, and waiting on my fifth child to arrive. A month or so ago, I cried while I looked at the new climate change map published by NOAA, and between pandemics and wars and climate change I wonder if there has been a more stressful time in history to bring children into the world. A little historical perspective sheds some light on that.

Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Like my mother and grandmother I will go forward in faith, and try to teach my children to be leaders in stewarding this planet God gave us. That is all.

Review: When You Pray

Have you ever struggled with prayer or felt like your prayer life lacked direction? Most of us know our life in Christ can’t grow without prayer and that attending church every week isn’t enough. Praying only when we see a need doesn’t seem right either – that would be like talking with a loved one only when we wanted to ask for something! What can we do to develop a life of prayer without feeling like we are just winging it, without burning out, and without guiltily relegating prayer to the “should do” list? 
Joseph Letendre has a concise and well ordered book of suggestions for us. The church draws on a tradition of prayer several thousand years old, reaching back to the worship practices of the Old Testament. He includes patristic advice on finding balance (even for when we are sure we are too busy or exhausted to pray!), fighting overwhelm, and facing apathy. There are many ways to pray, a variety that has nourished generations of God’s people on their spiritual pilgrimages. Let this hour-long audio recording guide you into a deeper and calmer life of prayer.

The Sweetness of Grace

In my last post I mentioned that right now, a sloth with ADD has more reliable attention than I do. But I still want to try to cultivate my habit of spiritual reading, so an audio book can really help. Here’s a review of the book I enjoyed most recently: “The Sweetness of Grace,” by Constantina R. Palmer.

“The Scent of Holiness” is one of those books that just can’t be long enough: because I couldn’t bear for it to end, I’ve now read and listened to it six times. Yes, it’s that good. So when Constantina Palmer released her second book, “The Sweetness of Grace,” I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Except as a mom of four (soon to be five) I can really only “read” audiobooks, so wait I did, an intolerably long period until the audio version came out.

Some books can probably be read by anyone, but I’m glad Palmer reads her own works. The warmth of her telling brings the personalities she describes to life. More than this, however, her work shines because of the sense of spiritual wonder it reflects, and that is most easily seen through her eyes and in her own voice. It’s this sense of spiritual wonder and close observation coupled with keen reflection that makes both her works so unique and valuable. Readers will learn and be challenged spiritually, while also being comforted. I listened to this book during a time of spiritual dryness and fatigue, and while some kinds of spiritual reading can feel like an irritant or burdensome during such a time, this book managed to both uplift and give me some much needed rest and encouragement.
“The Sweetness of Grace” stands well on its own, but many characteristics of “The Scent of Holiness” are repeated to good effect as well. As she previously ordered anecdotes around the prayer rope, Palmer now orders the stories around the Beatitudes, giving the collection a purposeful and beautiful structure. I doubt the reader exists who will not take away some strengthening insight from this book.

The Faith that Moves Mountains of Laundry

Nine years ago I didn’t know if there was a husband out there for me. Eight years ago he showed up, seven years ago we got married, slightly more than six years ago Firstborn arrived. And we are now waiting on number five to do her appropriate developmental thing and jump out in July. And I am overjoyed.

Except when I’m not. This has been the worst pregnancy yet for morning sickness – medication and IV fluids required. With four children underfoot and the fifth literally draining away my life force every minute of the day I’m exhausted. I’m holding onto gratitude by a nail.

I’m wondering what happened to my spiritual life, which for about five minutes back in September felt like it was going kind of ok. Nothing to brag about, but not bad for me. Then we found out about #5. No energy or focus to pray, I send up Jesus prayers like emergency flares in the split second before I fall asleep at night. I’m trying for spiritual reading via audio books but I feel like a sloth with ADD. Also, spiritual exhortation kind of annoys me at the moment. Whatever energy I have is taken up by virtues like remembering to brush my teeth. Kneeling on a rock for 1000 days is a little out of reach.

Or sitting on a pillar, whatever is your thing. I guarantee, the minute I get comfortable on my pillar someone will need a diaper change or snack. I haven’t fasted “properly” since getting pregnant with #1, between pregnancy and nursing. Church services have been hit or miss, though with the pandemic we’ve been blessed with streaming services so I can pray while flat on the floor (is it a whole prostration or only half if you can’t get up again after going down?).

The Lives of the Saints aren’t currently my thing either. My husband likes the story of a saint farmer who was so bent on giving away everything, he even gave away the family cow. And I wonder why it wasn’t his wife who got canonized.

My favorite saint at the moment is St Maria Skobtsova, who turned a somewhat checkered life into a font of practical mercy. It’s said she smoked and drank beer (both off limits to me right now but I can try to emulate her other virtues). She’s quoted as saying “piety, piety, but where is the faith that moves mountains?” And I’m wondering if she might have agreed it takes a lot of faith to move mountains of laundry or to part seas of dirty dishes. That perhaps for a particular saint and place a pillar is just right, and from some of us is demanded the changing of dirty diapers and the feeding of hungry children.

I don’t want to be self-satisfied or complacent, and I don’t want to be searching through my days for proof I’ve “done enough.” But voices encouraging the asceticism of family life seem to be few, and I do think that should change. So, here’s my tired little voice from my obscure little blog. Domestic asceticism does have the advantage of being 99% unrecognized, so humility and secret virtue are almost a given. Carry on, exhausted ascetics.

The Dennee Five

I hate how long I’ve hesitated to announce we are expecting our fifth baby, but I didn’t feel like just throwing it out there like we did with the other four. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because I just don’t feel like finding out who among my acquaintances is ignorant, judgmental, and vocal (a distressing and depressing trifecta). Because even when we announced our fourth we got flak (and sorry guys, four kids just isn’t a big family, whatever Americans seem to think – our Amish neighbors have 15: that’s a big family).  As another mom put it, people treat that baby like it’s a choice, not like a person. And they don’t hesitate to tell you whether your choice was good or bad.

They don’t treat him or her like an immortal soul who God honored you with a role in creating. Not a member of the human race, the crown of creation who God made in His own image. Rather, as your family grows, Americans tend to treat each child like a number. “How on earth will you take care of five children?!” Well, they don’t think of themselves as five children. They know they are individuals and yes, so do we. Though according to the above graph we probably just shouldn’t even bother naming #5.

There are practical considerations. I was sort of grateful to find out this child is a girl because boy appetites are positively a trauma to parents and maybe having just two of those is a mercy. And with girls there’s such thing as hand me downs. My boys wear their clothes so hard they are single use only.

I felt like announcing this child warranted a whole blog post because during our fourth pregnancy I got so many questions, I fully expect to field the same inquisition again, and to save time I’ll just answer them ahead.

  1. Do you know what causes that? I have a working theory but four is a super small sample size, so the hypothesis warranted further testing.
  2. Do you own a tv?
    Incidentally, no, but I have had one in the past and if it’s a substitute for your marital intimacy can I help you find a therapist?
  3. How can you afford five children?
    We totally can’t. Email for my address – feel free to send checks. Also, thank God you thought of that. The first four didn’t financially destroy us but the fifth surely will.
  4. Aren’t you worried about population overgrowth? Paul Ehrlich has been widely debunked, Boomer (sorry, it’s your era that was so enamored with him and seems unable to get over it).
  5. How can you pay attention to that many children?
    Well, that many children pretty much keep each other super busy 80% of the time, and otherwise I’m a stay at home mom, so what am I doing besides eating bon bons and watching my stories?
  6. But seriously, don’t you guys know about birth control?
    About what now? Did you know the German word for birth control means “anti-baby pill?” Which, points for truth in advertising, but…are you anti-baby? What kind of person are you? OMG. What a monster.
  7. You’re a modern woman with a master’s degree – don’t you feel bad staying home and not using it?
    With a houseful of children there are few degrees more useful (perhaps a nursing degree?) than a degree in rhetoric.  Also, I’m hoping that my rhetoric will rub off on them, and they’ll one day be five rich lawyers. And I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

(Book Review) Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Fr Nicola Yanney

Three years ago my family and I moved from my native Oregon to NW Wisconsin. It’s not much of a move compared to Fr Nicola Yanney’s immigration from Syria to Nebraska, but in a small way I left everything I’d ever known, and when I heard about this book I really needed to read it. It told the story of another soul who not only left home and church and family, but who settled here in the American midwest.

I’m sure it’s a different place than when the Yanneys originally made their homestead, but in some ways we face similar obstacles. Out among the farms, Orthodox parishes are few and far between and usually small. A regular pastor might or might not be attached to a parish. The elements and the climate can be harsh and unforgiving. In rural America, people are still often monetarily poor.

“Apostle to the Plains” is the story of a man who, in the midst of all this rocky soil, not only sprouted, but in Christ bloomed and flourished. In a worldly sense he endured tremendous sorrow. As I listened, I found myself in tears approximately every forty pages, because of all the bereavement that was so common at the turn of the 20th century (which is a compliment I must pay the authors of this book – I don’t recall the last time a historical biography engaged me on such an emotional level).  Fr Nicola bore every cross. He sacrificed everything most of us consider most valuable: family, honest prosperity, a home. But in the words of the Apostle Paul, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil 3:8). Fr Nicola Yanney truly exchanged everything he had for the pearl of great price, and he continued to do so until he died.

On a wider historic level the book gives readers a glimpse into the foundations of Orthodoxy in America, and through Fr Nicola’s eyes, a very personal experience of the struggles the church suffered in becoming established here.  I am a convert to Orthodoxy, and without people like Fr Nicola to shepherd Orthodox immigrants through those years, I wonder if an American Orthodoxy would’ve survived for me to be baptized into. On behalf of myself, my husband and my four children  (who were all baptized just after their birth) I feel deep gratitude to Fr Nicola and those like him who sacrificed so much temporal treasure for the sake of eternal gain. IMG_20200507_100211_075

Educating at Home

How’s everyone doing out there with this weirdness going on? Every day it’s something new. Sort of. Us introverts are more or less carrying on as usual. Homeschool parents are feeling kind of validated. Which led to this post, because a few friends have asked my input recently. More explicitly, “you do this all the time – how do you do it?!”

My first thought is “I don’t!” Not “I don’t home school,” but “I am not doing what you are doing.” I had the privilege of homeschooling from the start, which means I’ve set up my life, to some extent, around schooling my kids. It’s part of every day and has been from the beginning, so we have a lot of advantages: routines, expectations, lots of time to think (since before my kids were born, in my case – that’s when I decided to homeschool), lots of time to study and learn how to teach my own kids, connections in a homeschool community. This is not to discourage you or say that without these advantages you can’t homeschool your children well. It’s a suggestion that we compare apples to apples. We are playing entirely different games.

To my mind, in this quarantine situation, parents who are temporarily schooling at home are more accurately substitute teachers. Well, guess what? I did that too. It was my first job after grad school, and it was harder than any job I did before or since. You are not only tasked with teaching, but with somehow picking up where a different teacher (with a different approach and style, because she is a different person) left off. You probably need to help your students keep up with a syllabus so that they aren’t behind and don’t forget what they’ve learned when regular schooling resumes. You might even be doing it while keeping up with your regular job. Friend, that’s a tall order.

So, while acknowledging that our situations are so different and possibly I don’t have much idea of the hurdles you face, I can offer the following suggestions. They are submitted in a spirit of solidarity, as parents who want our children to grow up with the best resources we can give them, whatever that might look like under normal circumstances.

1. Pray. Begin each day with prayer and begin each lesson with prayer. Not religious? I believe God honors whatever grasp of truth we possess, so do what your conscience prompts. Just take a minute to remember what our ultimate goal is: these children are gifts, and our efforts honor the gift.

2. Pace yourself. When you’re home with kids all day, giving the kind of attention required by formal education, it’s exhausting for all involved – if you don’t pace properly. Every moment does not need to be filled. You do not need to be together at every moment (constant togetherness is a recipe for disaster in any relationship). Here’s our schedule to give you an idea of what I mean. Bear in mind that we are in no way religious about this schedule. In fact, yesterday was sunny and warm, so we played outside and called it a field day.

5am: Wake.

5-6:30am: Chores, free play.

6:30am: Morning prayers.

7am: Breakfast.

8am: Outdoor play, weather permitting (inclement weather is any temperature below 0 – our time outside is sometimes short but it helps get the “ya-yas” out.

9am: “Morning basket.” This includes a prayer for God to help us with our mental efforts, a Bible reading, the life of a saint, discussion of a prayer by a saint (we choose one for the week to talk about), and a poem. Often they are sipping hot cocoa while this happens.

10am. Free play, often Legos or play doh or coloring. Sometimes we listen to an audiobook or music.

11am: Nap or rest, depending on the kid.

11am: Academic time with oldest kid – reading, writing, math.

12pm: Lunch.

1pm: Outdoor play.

2pm: Afternoon academics, including history, geography, literature, nature study, natural history, art appreciation, music appreciation, or hand crafts.

3pm: Free play. Sometimes a project with mom.

4pm: Dinner, usually while listening to the “Readings from Under the Grapevine” podcast.

4:45pm: Pyjamas, prayers, brush teeth, bedtime stories.

5-5:30pm: Bedtime.

Does it look like minimal academic time? My oldest is just about to turn 6 and we follow a Charlotte Mason philosophy, which means the academics are somewhat intense but the periods are very short. Quality over quantity, which I think is a good lesson for any educator – it just works with where kids are at developmentally. Lots of time left for movement and exercising other parts of the brain.

3. Don’t underestimate the learning value of all things that are not “school.” We waited until almost age 6 to begin formally educating our oldest, because of Charlotte Mason’s persuasive argument that until age 6, kids have more important work to do. They spend 6 years learning all about the world around them, developing a relationship with it, and developing personally. Only after that important “first-hand” work is complete, is it time to approach abstractions like letters and numbers.

Remember it’s a season, and education is a long process. Few things we do on a given day will make or break the long term results of our kids’ education. Our relationships with them, however, are slightly more sensitive. Emphasize relationship over school and both relationship and learning seem to benefit.

Get outside in nature, cook or bake together, get reacquainted with your pets or your hobbies. Tell stories you didn’t have time to tell before. Reconnect. This weird chapter in our lives could be made into a gift.