Saturday morning I took a walk from Lyndale Farmstead Park, where I left the car, a mile and a half to the Lake Harriet bandstand. I'm taking a break from running, because of my hip, and wore no athletic gear; just a tank dress and sandals. The late-summer sun beckoned me to the lake. From the lakeside restaurant Bread & Pickle I bought ice water for $3 in a reusable stainless steel water bottle. The cold bottle sweated big drops of water. I took it to a table and rested my hip there for a while before walking back.
There was a 5K going on at the lake, a walk-and-run, and bluegrass-tinged rock music wafted from the bandstand. August in Minneapolis can be brutally humid, but it usually looks beautiful, with lots of sunny days and blue skies. There's something about August here that makes me wistful: the cool weather will be here soon, and fall is sometimes cut short, with the snow arriving before the trees have even lost their leaves.
It's hot now, but. You know that the bitter cold is coming.
I don't like to hide from the heat in August, at least not in the daytime, at least not all day. I want to stand in the sun and soak it up, like a house of adobe, and radiate it inwardly all winter long.
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As I wandered back with my empty metal bottle swinging by its lid-loop from my finger, I was passed by a woman and a tween boy walking quickly, a mother and son. She was dressed in sunglasses and running clothes, he in the ten-year-old-boy uniform of basketball shorts and a graphic tee and well-worn-in sneakers, and they were chatting easily. It sounded as if she were explaining something, and he was nodding with real interest. They walked faster than me and soon disappeared ahead, one parent, one child, being together, here at the lake.
I find I don't spend a lot of one-on-one time with any of my children. It's the kind of thing that you have to deliberately create, in a family of five children at home (practicing that terminology; it will feel soon enough before one of them has aged out). I do try to create it: take one with me to the grocery store, take another on a trip all by himself to buy shoes, drive my daughter to camp. A biteback effect of safety regulation on family life: no one younger than twelve is legally allowed to ride in the front seat with me, and who knows how many would-be conversations were thereby squelched before they came to be.
Maybe the mother and son on the walking path are like me, stealing time away from a large family on a Saturday afternoon. Or maybe the boy is the one child at home. I considered what it could have been like, me homeschooling a smaller family, one where I felt that I had enough time to get around to everybody. Things would be different for sure. I have a few homeschooling friends with one or two kids, or maybe just one or two left at home after the others have grown and gone, and it always seems as if they get to go very deep and run very far, and all together, not so much sending the middle-schooler with another family to see plays, not so much dropping the teenager off to go with the group to the museum exhibit that frowns on toddlers.
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Of course, I'll have a chance to find some of that out eventually, when the ones who are little now become big and there aren't more coming up behind them. We'll see if I do all the things I imagine I would do.
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Comparing yourself, inside and out, to what you can see of other people, that's a losing game. I know this. I also know that I wouldn't have it another way: the large family is exhiliarating and challenging (in a good way) and I'm so glad I have every one of the children, and am grateful that we were gifted with them, and aware of those who long for many children and haven't seen that longing become reality.
The most important thing to remember -- I don't know why it seems so hard sometimes -- is that whatever you are, whatever your family is, you too have strengths that others don't have. It's not a kind of "I'm better than they, so there" mentality, it's more -- let's restore some balance to our vision. Instead of constantly seeing "They can do things I can't -- she has advantages I don't -- he accomplishes what I don't -- they can give their kids something I can't --" see that you too have your specialties.
There's something to the Incredibles message "When everybody's super, then no one is." But there is another side of this, entirely true: the differences among us mean we can excel in different things, for real, not in a wishful way. We can be our own self better than anyone else.
Sometimes the things in which we are uniquely gifted are not things that are widely celebrated, and that's too bad, but we can work to appreciate those things in our own quiet way, when we see them in ourselves and in others.
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Last week I was talking to a friend of mine, a homeschooling parent of four, a part-time working professional musician herself married to a music professor. They're in almost the opposite academic position from Mark and me -- we are both engineers, one PhD between us, and Mark working full time. She fretted about finding good science teachers for her bright science student (who, by the way, is also a gifted musician himself -- none of those in our family!) while I commiserated in an analogous sort of way because I'm nearly hopeless in the arts and am not a gifted English or writing teacher. Both of our families have solved this problem by outsourcing the relevant subjects to someone better qualified, one way or another. It's a common thing for homeschooling families to do, urban ones anyway.
"Think of it this way," I said, "it's not that your kids are unusually handicapped in a subject you aren't expert in. You've had at least a high school education in everything, college classes in some of it, and you get to have the teacher's manual. Lots of public schools put first-year teachers into classes that they've never taught before and don't have particular expertise in. You meet the minimum standards in every subject, and you far exceed them in others. And you can find tutors where necessary."
The notion of being Adequate not seeming to be comforting, I went on ---
"If you have to compare your family's achievement to a school, then think of your family as a super-exclusive, super-specialized magnet school, or charter school. You run an arts magnet school. I run a STEM academy. And where we both are only so-so in the other sorts of things, we do make up for it with, you know, small class size and a lot of personalized attention.
"Also an extremely flexible schedule."
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We all have to be who we are. It's tempting to see that as only limiting. There have certainly been times in human history where the limiting aspect was emphasized even more than it is now, where people were chastised for dreaming too much of things that were closed to them for purely arbitrary reasons -- or for reasons that were thought incorrectly to be rational but really weren't. It turns out that we do well to eliminate the arbitrary limitations, but we can swing too far the other way in insisting that anyone can do and be anything or everything, and excel in it. The main problem with that is that inevitable difficulties are sometimes cast as "not working hard enough," "not wanting it bad enough," "not believing in yourself enough." There are certain realities that are not arbitrary, and except for the extraordinarily gifted and/or extraordinarily privileged, wanting is not enough to overcome them.
Buried within the truth that we all must be who we are, though, is that it isn't just a limitation but also an encouragement, an identity. If I must be who I am, then no one else can be it for me. I have unique gifts and I should exploit them, use them to every advantage. If they are the sort of thing that is not recognized as a strength, or even if they are the sort of thing that some call out as a liability, then I still have options: go where these qualities are rarer and valuable, or, well, surprise people.
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One precondition is logically necessary, and it cannot be taken for granted: the philosophical conviction that every human person has equal value, whatever his or her circumstances. It's a sad truth that not everyone agrees with that, and even fewer behave in accord with it. Some people see the good in everyone except themselves; such a reflex has a useful side, in that it maintains humility, but it has a dark side too, one that misses opportunities for gratitude and tempts to despair and apathy, and risks swallowing others in its wake. You have to practice finding it in yourself too, as an exercise in truth-seeking if nothing else.
Anyway, once you have this conviction, the conclusion boils down to: whoever you are, you have strengths. They aren't the same as mine. You can exploit them to your advantage, to your family's advantage. Go forth and win at your own game.