Archive for the 'parenting' Category

Growing Up In the Garden

Sharon February 5th, 2009

The Jewish Holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees (yup, Jews have a special holiday for trees – it is their birthday!) is coming up, and in homeschool this week, we read  _Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai_.  It tells the story of Maathai’s Green Belt movement, and its role in reclaim land from desertification in Kenya. 

When we finished the story, Isaiah said, “I don’t want us to cut down too many trees for our stoves, because then the soil would wash away like it did in Kenya.”  I assured him that we have enough firewood without taking down healthy trees, and that protecting our forest is very important to us. But I was secretly pleased that he grasped the reality of the role of trees not just in “the world” but was able to understand how it affected *his* world. 

In _Depletion and Abundance_ I wrote about the acute need to get our children into relationship with nature – but not nature out somewhere in the distance, but the complex, sometimes damaged and grubby but very real nature that they are embedded in:

“…we have to preserve nature in our man-made landscapes.  We must, in some literal and metaphorical way open up the boundaries of the enclosures and let our children out into their own world.  We cannot expect our children to be attached to a nature that is majestic, transcendent, and “over there somewhere.”  If they are to be invested in the preservation of their future, they must grasp that nature is them – it is their world, their lawn, their garden, their park, their food, their soulds.  And they must get to know it in concrete, direct and real ways – both knowing about it and knowing it with hands and mouth and nose and body.”

For most of us, particularly those who don’t live as I do in rural settings, getting our kids out into our gardens may be one of the most urgent projects we can do.  Gene Logsdon wrote about gardening in _The Contrary Farmer_ that the garden is the “proving ground” for the farm.  He meant that gardeners try out many techniques that can be adapted to farm scale.  But it is also the proving ground for the new generation of farmers – if we are to scale up from 2% of the population involved in food production to the 10 or 20 or 30 percent we will need in the future, those farmers will come first from the garden.  Maybe even your garden.  And if we are to produce a world full of people concerned with a sustainable ecology, they will come from the garden ecology. 

I want my children to live in the garden – and that means welcoming them into it, making it accessible to them, setting them to work in it, helping them play there beside us while we dig or hoe.  I want them to dream in the garden, and of the garden, so even though it is twice as much work to plant with Asher’s help, we want him to help plant.  Last year when he was two, it was his job to take care of all the “baby” earthworms we uncovered – he would cover them up with a little bit of soil very carefully when the dirt turned them up. 

A child accessible garden starts at the dreaming stage, in winter.  Some books I really like about making children’s gardens and children’s playspaces are these:

_Great Gardens for Kids_ by Chris Matthews – A beautiful book with tons of great ideas for incorporating kids activities into the garden.  My older boys were immediately taken by the idea of a carnivorous bog garden, a daffodil maze, and the catmint cat basket. 

Sharon Lovejoy’s two books _Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots_ and _Sunflower Houses_ are terrific, filled with kid friendly ideas for gardening.  My kids loved the year we made a Pizza patch – a circular garden in the shape of a pie, with pizza topping plantings (including calendulas and marigolds for “cheese” along with the tomatoes, basil, eggplant and peppers).  My friend Alexandra has made a playhouse for her children out of sunflowers with morning glories trained across for the roof.  And this year, we’re planning a butterfly flower garden in the shape of a butterfly.

What about books for kids about gardens?  This time of year, storytime often features garden stories.  Here are some of our favorites:

_Weslandia_ by Paul Fleischman.  Wesley doesn’t fit into his mainstream culture, but he does pay attention at school and one summer, he decides that his summer project will be “to grow his own staple food crop – and found his own civilization.”  And believe it or not, he does – the strange weeds that show up in his garden plot turn out to have a myriad of uses.  This is just a flat out great book!

_A Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages_ by Lesley Tierra is one of my own favorite herb books, and a big hit with my kids.  While I admit, the stories are a little boring (12 variations on “finding the magic herb”), the book is generally very good.

_Eddie’s Garden and How to Make Things Grow_ by Sarah Garland is cute – my kids think the little sister who eats worms is hysterical.  Very good garden book.

_How Groundhog’s Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry is perhaps my single favorite children’s gardening book – lovely, lovely illustrations, and a great book.  Every kid could use this!

_A Gardener’s Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian – wonderful woodcut illustrations covering real things like “prune” and “arbor.”

_Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden_ by George Levenson.  Lovely, rhyming slightly mysterious introduction to the lifecycle of a pumpkin, that uber-kid plant. 

This is just a small selection of children’s garden books – there are many others and on my long to-do list is a full list of them. 

Ok, onto strategies for bringing kids into the garden.

 1. Start ‘em early.  I was running a CSA when the kids were babies, so we *had* to spend time out there – a lot of it.  They could play on the grass or in the playpen or in the dirt, but they had to get used to being out in the garden with us.  Just like you have to go to work, or do the dishes, the garden should be treated as fun, but essential from as early as possible.

 2. Make it kid friendly – this can be a pile of dirt and a spoon, or it can be elaborate play structures for their entertainment.  But think about how to make it friendly – can you draw hopscotch or foursquare on the sidewalk next to your garden beds?  Can you give them a garden of their own, or a section of yours?  What about a little fountain to give them water to play in?

3. Get them involved from the beginning – my kids love to look at seed catalogs with me, and have strong opinions about what flowers and herbs we should be growing.  We plan kid projects – we’ve done our pizza garden, an alphabet garden (a plant for every letter) and a three sisters garden, as well as other projects.

4. Assign garden chores.  Yes, I know some people will say “I came to hate the garden because my Mom made me hoe.”  So what?  I hated doing dishes when my Mom made me do them, but since they need doing, I went on to do dishes without whining.  Chores are a fact of life, and if you are getting your family’s food from the garden, they should be helping.  Little kids will love helping, while bigger kids may whine, they can still do their share.  Treating the garden as optional trivializes it.

5. Be out there together.  Make your garden space, however big or small, a place you live in.  That way, when the hummingbird comes to the feeder for the first time, or you see the first monarch, when the cherry tomatoes come ripe or the melons are ready for thumping, well, you’ll be together. 

6. Let them eat – encourage your kids to scavenge, plant lots of snackable things – this is what everbearing and alpine strawberries and cherry tomatoes are for.  But don’t underestimate your kids – when they are in the garden, they’ll try things they’d never touch on a plate.  So plant greens, edible flowers, anything and everything.  And when the peas all get devoured by the kids shrug and accept that it is a good thing.


Making a Future for the Disabled: Facing Hard Times With Special Needs Kids

Sharon December 10th, 2008

Yesterday morning, Eli put on snowpants and boots before he went outside.  This was a big accomplishment for him – for years we’ve been struggling to balance his need to be outside in all sorts of weather with the fact that he really doesn’t like socks, shoes or shirts that much.  In June, this is no problem, but as the world gets colder, each year we have to struggle with the “Eli, you have to be dressed before you go out, and yes, you actually have to keep the clothes on.” 

But this year he really got it – we had some snow last weekend, and Eli got that the snowpants helped keep him dry, so when he wanted to go out to play in the fenced yard,  he put on snowpants, all by himself.  Now the little hitch in this story is that the snowpants were his three year old brother, Asher’s, and he could only get part way into them. Eli, at 4’8 is a strapping young man, and you can just imagine how the toddler pants fit.   And then the boots that he found were his Dad’s.  Oh, and he only found one of them.  So Eric found him outside on the front porch, hopping as best he could in a 3 year old’s snowpants and one giant boot.  And the snow had mostly melted.  But still.

Now we laughed (because we knew he would forgive us) but silly as it looked, this was a huge accomplishment for Eli, and while we were finding appropriate weather gear and helping him get it on, we told him how terrifically proud of him we were – and we were.

If you had to describe me, the words “wordy” “overeducated” and “overthinker” probably wouldn’t be wildly inappropriate.  I think some part of me assumed that my kids would live in language, as I do, like fish in water.  Instead, I got a little boy for whom language is a mystery, who fits into words about as well as he fit into those boots and snowpants.  He’s healthy, happy, funny and athletic – but words are not his thing, and probably never will be.  The odds are good that he’ll always need his parents or some other family member to help him navigate the world, at least some of the time.  Having an autistic kid is rather like going to the shelter to adopt an puppy, and coming home with a kitten.  It isn’t that kittens are bad – they are terrific – but if you go around thinking that you are going to get it to walk on a leash and bark for you, you are in for a rough time.

But that, at least for me, is the great gift of having a disabled child as well.  Because while having your puppy meow can be shocking and overwhelming, especially for parents who deal with much tougher permutations or deep health issues – it also does a lot to help you recognize what really matters – and that spills over into your worldview and tends to mellow it.  It is hard to spend a lot of time worrying that one kid might get into a second tier college, or might not make first string soccer, while you are getting really excited because your 11 year old finally walked himself to the bathroom with his crutches.  Disabled kids have their challenges, but they also get you right down to brass tacks – because of Eli I know that I’ll be thrilled if each of my boys is a good man, a mensch, does good work in the world and grows to fulfill their potential.  This is truly a gift – it is immensely freeing, and frankly, it saves a lot of time and energy.

But being freed from expectations doesn’t mean that facing a shifting world with kids with disabilities isn’t hard.  There are plenty of pleasures and compensations for most of us, but they can’t override the basic fear that a world already hard for our kids, is about to get less hospitable.

I’m grateful to a single mother who jump-started this post about what to do  by sending me part of a lovely piece she’d written on the subject of adapting with her two special-needs daughters, one with a potentially life-threatening condition.  This is what she wrote:

Like many parents of special needs children, I wonder – and worry – a lot about what effect this strange new world we are racing into will have on our sons and daughters. So many wonderful advances had been made in how we teach non-typically developing children and so many new technologies make life easier for people will all sorts of handicaps. What will happen when the battery powered wheelchairs can’t be recharged? When the school buses stop running? When the less common drugs are unprofitable to manufacture? When the time need for a theory routine is need for gardening for wood chopping?

Then, last night, I had an epiphany. It doesn’t answer any of my questions, but it gave me a bit of comfort that I’d like to share with others.

My older daughter was getting ready to babysit with her girl scout troop, and as she went through the toy closet, she pulled out a copy of Pizza Party, a game for young children where each player has a cardboard slice of pizza with holes in it, and fills it with circles representing different topping in order to complete a slice. A couple of years ago, she’d adapted it to play with a blind friend, cutting pieces of paper, cloth and sandpaper to represent three of the four topping and gluing them onto the pieces. Every time they played there were lots of jokes about eating sandpaper pizza.

I realized that families (and friends) of special needs children are all ready used to adapting, as are adults who themselves have special needs. We look at the bits and pieces of daily life – from socks to knives and forks to stair to backpacks to toilets to homework routines and lunch packing – and find different way of doing things that are better for us. And because children grow and change, we have to keep changing how we do things. This goes for all children, of course, but for some parents, making the transition from finger food to cutlery means proving a spoon at the right time, and for others, finding the spoon with just the correct angle between the bowl and the handle, or bending a spoon, drilling a hole in the handle and wedging a peg in to provide a better grip.

And we learn to adapt on the fly – in restaurants, at friends’ houses, school picnics – anywhere our child wants to do something and we need to make a change. And later, if we are lucky, our children start making suggestions and fixing things on their own.

We do this until it becomes second nature for us – and other members of our families. I didn’t have to tell my older daughter how to fix the game so her friend could play it. She didn’t even ask if she could, just got what she needed and set to.

It’s nice to think that this ability to see that we need a different way of doing things will help us in the days to come.

I’ve found what she has – that the practice of living in a world we didn’t expect, of shifting to a different worldview and dealing with crisis as a routine part of my life, has, I think helped me adapt. 

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to be worried about in raising a kid with disabilities in a changing world.  But I do think it is worth starting with the assets, the benefits and the gifts.  I say this for several reasons.  The first is that I think those of us who have special needs kids have already had a kind of boot camp in adapting to shifting realities.  Unlike a parent who always knows what is coming next – first they crawled, then they walked, then they ran – we’ve gotten used to not knowing. 

The other reason is that we live in a society that so deeply undervalues the disabled and overestimates their burdens (and this is not to underestimate them – I realize many parents have children who are much more demanding than I do).  I think this is best epitomized in our reproductive culture, where the risk of having a disabled child (discoverable by amniocentesis) is listed as equivalent to the risk of late miscarriage/early stillbirth caused by amniocentesis itself.  That is, pregnant women are told that losing their wanted pregnancy at 16-18 weeks is a worthwhile risk, because otherwise, are just as likely to have a disabled child.  That is, our reproductive culture says that having your baby die and be born with Down’s syndrome or spina bifida are equivalent losses.  This is just one example of the thousands of ways we learn that having a child with a disability is bad, wrong, to be avoided at all costs. 

Many parents who choose to bear or adopt a child they know will be disabled are strongly discouraged – they are told over and over again that such a child will be an unbearable burden, that the burden will be a one-sided destructive force.  When parents discover an unsuspected disability, often the assumption is that the child is a total loss to the family, a disaster they have to bear up under.  My claim is not that the blessings of such children always compensate for the losses – what I’m trying to get at is that our society so heavily overestimates the suffering caused by a disabled child that I think it is urgent to recognize that such children do not exist solely as a drag on their families.  The assumption that such children will inevitably cost their siblings goes along with the idea that disabled children are a burden – and there’s some truth – they do cost their siblings something sometimes.  And they return something to them.

When Simon was small, he was terrified of the dark.  From very early on, he and Eli slept together – at first I couldn’t keep Eli from climbing in his crib, and by the time Simon was old enough to sleep in a bed, the two were inseperable at night.  My fearful, non-disabled younger son relied on the stability, warmth and comfort of his not-at-all fearful older brother.  When Simon awoke in the night, if Eli’s body was not nearby, he would cry out “I need E-li!!!!”  At no point in any of my children’s lives has the relationship ever worked one way, one child giving, the other taking – reciprocity is not always even, but it is always present, and has been present in the lives of most families of disabled children I know. 

This is important because as our society becomes less wealthy, and as certain kinds of reproductive healthcare become less part of many people’s lives, more of us will have disabled children – the idea of choosing whether to give birth to a child with a disability will probably not disappear entirely, but there is a very good chance that those options will be the territory of an increasingly small number of wealthy people.  And if times get hard enough, we will probably see more children who are damaged by drugs and alcohol, and more children who have disabilities that might have been minimized or repaired by costly medical treatment, but who now have no access to such treatment. 

One of the things we can and I think must do – for our own sakes and for the parents who come after us, is do what we can to change the assumption that disabled children a disaster, so huge a disaster that anything would be worse than having them.  This belief burdens parents, children, siblings, and it subtly shapes the culture in destructive ways – not just for disabled children, but for anyone who becomes disabled by illness or age. 

Ok, beyond appreciating what you can appreciate (and I know I have this one easy – my child is physically healthy and responsive to me – for many people the bright side can be harder to find, and I truly understand that), what kind of preparations for the future should we be making for our disabled kids?  What new challenges might we face, and how might we deal with them?

1. I would expect to see services decline and be disrupted in many cases.  To the extent that’s possible, most of us should have contingency plans and the ability to keep some of our kids’ programs going ourselves, or with help.

- To some degree, services for disabled children will likely be among the last things to go in school systems, because in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates special needs services.  In the early stages, parents may have to act as advocates for their kids.  But in places where there are no funds, and without a rapid federal response, services will be cut eventually. Even suing won’t make money magically appear.   Moreover, increasing numbers of climate change related natural disasters may close schools.  This means the huge and overwhelming burden of helping your kids learn to function in the world may fall on parents and extended family members.  That means learning now how to meet as many of their needs as possible – attend parent trainings, watch your child’s therapists, talk to them about dealing with disruptions.  Consider recruiting help – grandparents, college students, teenagers, neighbors – anyone good with disabled kids might be able to learn to provide some support, and take the burden off of parents.   I realize none of this is easy, especially for families facing more, not less economic pressure.  And being your kid’s therapist is not a delight.  But we do have to face the reality that we may have to do some of this work – or find ways to get others to do it.

2.  Financial planning for your child’s future is not sufficient – the money may not be there when your child needs it.  Make backup plans for kids’ longterm future that rely on people rather than funds.  Start preparing family members, including kids, for this reality early.

- We can see this now – the money we’ve been saving for our kids is disappearing rapidly. That means that instead of expecting our kids to live in an apartment with paid help after we’re gone, our kids may need to rely on an aunt or a sibling.  We need to talk about this, and make plans.  And our other children, or nieces and nephews need to understand – gently, lovingly, age appropriately – that we parents will bear the responsibility of our children as long and as fully as we can, but that someday, their sister or brother or cousin may need their help.  In our society, we tend to see this as unfair – and it is, a little.  But the truth is having responsibility for others is not only a burden.  We can and should teach our non-disabled kids to view it this way – while also keeping too-heavy responsibilities off their shoulders as long as we can.  It is a balancing act – but an important one.

3. Work as hard as you can now to help your child achieve their full, functional potential.  We need to make sure that our kids can do everything they are able to for themselves, and return as much as they can for others.  In some ways, the coming shifts may not be bad for some kids – those with intellectual limitations may find that they do better in a society that emphasizes practical skills more than this one.  Kids need to be taught the value of hard work and discipline (this is easier said than done with some kids, I know), and be taught to participate in their world.  Start early on whatever practical skills your child can manage.  The difference between a burden and a responsibility is a child who learns to contribute to the extent of their abilities.  Children should be taught a trade when possible, certainly to participate in household and family activities.  Children who are going to receive must also learn to give.

4. For children who depend on high-cost health care, begin now making contingency plans to keep that coming.  My hope is that we get some form of universal health care out of Obama’s “let’s hurl money at the problem” plan.  If not, all of us are going to have to be advocates who get to know the resources available very well – many of us already are, but as resources get more limited, making sure our kids get their basic needs met becomes more and more essential. Now is the time to talk to your doctor about ways to get an extra reserve of medications, to your utility about making sure you don’t shut off electricty to a child who depends on it. Now is the time to talk to your hospital and your community about ensuring health care for the most vulnerable.

5. Forgive yourself for your limitations as a parent.  This has been something of a challenge for us – early on we decided that we would not be the kind of parents of an autistic child who devote their whole existance to that child, to “overcoming” autism.  We explicitly decided that after Eli’s many hours of therapy and training, he should come home to playtime and family time, and to being a participant in our family, rather than the center of our world.  I still believe this, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes wonder whether we made the wrong choice, if Eli would be more functional if we worked with him constantly and shifted our focus.  As times get more difficult, parents are likely to have to try and take the place of more professionals – and, frankly, we’re likely to fail sometimes.  What we don’t won’t be as good as the army of speech therapists and physical therapists.  It won’t be perfect.  Our kids may not go as far as they could have in a richer world where everything was better.  Or they may go further in different directions.  But the truth is that if we’ve done what we can, we’ve done what we can, and beating ourselves up for our imperfections is a waste of time.

6. Don’t isolate your child from the community.  I know a mother of a recently-diagnosed autistic preschooler who tells me “we never go anywhere, we can’t take him anywhere, he does weird things, he has trantrums…”  This is the wrong approach, no matter how hard, how embarassing, how uncomfortable it is, your child needs her community desperately – we don’t know what the future is going to bring, but all of us are going to need community.  So as difficult as it is to load up the wheelchair, as uncomfortable as it is to take out a child who has tantrums, as hard as it is to ask for help or to ask the neighbor kids to include your child – we have to.  We have to find ways for our children to participate in our society, so that when our communities come together, it will be as natural to include them as it can be.  The same is true with extended families, biological and chosen – your kids will need their family, and the people who love them.

7. If you are preparing, invest in adaptive strategies that will make your life easier.  The best money we ever spent in our lives was the inheritance from my husband’s grandparents we spent on fencing our front yard – now I can be gardening without looking up in panic and wondering where Eli has wandered to.  To the extent you can, make your own life and your child’s life easier – make the barn wheelchair accessible, get the assistive devices or dog.  And don’t let what you hope will be blind you to the reality that you may have to deal with things as they are now – no matter how much you hope your child will toilet train before the apocalypse, get some large-sized cloth diapers.  Be prepared to go forward from where you are.

8. Despite my focus on the benefits, I don’t want to include too much sentimental bullshit here – the idea that G-d never gives you more than you can handle is, to my mind, so much crap – plenty of people, including me, are regularly over their limits.  Yes, you need to love your kids and appreciate them for what they are.  But remember, you also get to complain.  So does your spouse and so do their siblings.  You don’t have to be constantly happy and feel blessed – I’m a Jew, and in my faith, whining is a sacrament.  It is ok to be angry, be sad (and for those who may actually lose children in this, I can’t imagine walking in your shoes, and you don’t need my permission), to be pissed at G-d or the universe or fate, to be overwhelmed, to screw up.  This is hard stuff sometimes. Even when it is mostly good, sometimes it sucks – and the best way to drive yourself crazy is to deny.  Every parent of a disabled kid needs some good friends with shoulders to cry on, some people who will help out when you can’t take it any more, a certain measure of self-forgiveness, an outlet to distract yourself when you can’t take it anymore, and the ability to make a good Margarita or three.

I’m sure other parents in other circumstances have additional suggestions.  I hope this helps someone, I really do. 



Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard Times

Sharon October 7th, 2008

During a three month period, between September 29th and December 29th, we have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the deadline for the edited manuscript of _A Nation of Farmers_, Sukkot, Simchas Torah, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, my synagogues Environmental event, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, the due date for my new book _Independence Days_, Isaiah’s birthday and eight nights of Chanukah.  Besides my looking at the next couple of months with total panic ;-) , I’m definitely getting into holiday mode here – and since I was crazy enough to have 3 kids between Halloween and Chanukah, about gifts.

Now on the one hand, I think most of us realize that the traditional Western holidays and birthdays are kind of ridiculous.  Less is good for our kids, good for adults, good for our personal economies. 

 On the other hand, I also think gifts are important – they play an important role in our culture, and in difficult times, they may provide the only luxury items in our lives.  The idea of scrimping and saving to be able to afford one thing that our partner or grandkid or friend wants and needs, to offer a little beauty when really there has only been enough for necessities – these are good things, they have value.  That gift giving has been perverse and excessive is bad, but it doesn’t erase the value of all gifts.

And on a purely practical level, it is important to think about gift-giving well ahead (ideally well before now, but all is not lost, if you are just getting to it) if you are going to give handmade, trash picked, yard saled or homegrown (I could have just said “cheap” here ;-) )  gifts.  I discovered this during the year we went without buying anything new – let’s just say that the term “IOU” appeared more than a couple of times at our family gift exchange.  

So I encourage people to think now about gifts, and about their role in your family. Do you exchange gifts?  What kind?  Is this something you are happy with, or unhappy about?  Is there a way to shift your family’s gift giving to a kind that feels enriching and positive?  How?  What, exactly, can you give?  If budgets are tight, how can you overcome economic constraints?

On a practical level, my kids usually get one gift each for their birthdays from us, and one group gift (toy) along with a couple of books I want them to have each for Chanukah.  I buy the books over the course of the year, along with books for my nieces and for our friend’s kids, birthday party gifts, etc… Being a book person, that’s my favorite gift, and I spend a lot of time hunting for appropriate choices.  Perfect condition children’s books are pretty easy to find used, or new but at wildly discounted prices.  Plenty of wonderful adult books appear that way.  Books are so undervalued in our society – even if the books are clearly used, the value of good reading material is in no way undercut.  If money is tight – or even if it isn’t – used books make terrific presents.

It helps if you begin thinking long in advance – and occasionally really long.  No one tell Simon and Isaiah, but for several years, I have been picking up inexpensive superhero comic books at local library sales.  Some of them probably have collector value, but that’s not why I want them – I want my kids to enjoy them. Right now, at not-quite 7 and 5, they are a bit too young not to wreck them and a bit too young for this sort of comics.  But in a couple of years, they will receive them as a Chanukah gift.  I don’t think they’ll be less appreciated because Mom paid 10 cents apiece for them.

I don’t run across as many trash-picking opportunities out where I live, but my family that lives in suburbia often finds wonderful trash pick gifts.  My kids have long loved a wooden, rideable airplane, an absolutely beautiful toy that my sister trash picked for my oldest son when he was two.  My nieces play in a trash picked toy kitchen my step-mom rescued, and my son rides a bike his aunt and uncle saved from the dump and restored.  Check your dump, freecycle, garbage bins, etc…  If you have prejudices against trash picked articles, get over them – the kitchen pretend cooks just as well as a new one, the airplane rides beautifully and the bike is the best one ever, according to Simon, particularly since my son’s uncle spray painted it purple.

Ebay, Craigslist, Freecycle, barter networks, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Thrift Shops - these are good places to get used and high quality toys, clothes and linens.  I also have seen good tools there, at reasonable prices.  My Goodwill routinely has brand new clothing of extremely high quality for very little money.  My own professional wardrobe comes from there, and I have bought gifts for kids and adults through them.

Homemade gifts are terrific – jams, jellies, baked goods, homemade treats of all kinds including liqueurs, candies, and dairy products are wonderful gifts.  Then there are hand knitted and crocheted, handsewn and homebuilt projects of all sorts.  Remember, they don’t have to be made from new or expensive materials.  Consider unravelling woolen thrift shop sweaters for yarn, or making mittens out of felted wool sweaters (cut out a mitten shape, sew the ends together and flip it inside out).  Build with scrap wood, repair broken goods, make quilts from old fabric.

Or give the gift of service – help your Mom clean out her attic.  Give your son a month of daily baseball practice with you.  Give your children a “get out of chores free” card.  Babysit for the new Mom, make dinner for the busy family, do some chore for your wife or husband, or fulfill a favorite fantasy.

 Charitable gifts are especially important now that safety nets are being overwhelmed by increased need.  My children give an animal to the heifer fund each year, and one year, everyone in my family got something poultry related plus a donation to Heifer.  We also give to relief groups, food pantries and Doctors without Borders as holiday and birthday gifts.

There are tons of options out there – no matter how poor we are, there’s almost always something to give.  I know there are people out there who really can’t have anything under the tree or on a birthday, but most of us, given a little time and thought, could find a gift that was appreciated and free, or very nearly so.

If you are going to buy something new, buy something with real longevity.  Spend your money carefully on things that will last, that have permanent value.  Choose nice clothing that will last your lifetime, tools that you will pass on to your children, toys your grandkids can play with.  And remember, you don’t have to fit it in a box – if you are saving for a piece of land, needed health treatments, some other piece of security – that’s a gift too.  Give your children the chance to give the whole family a gift (small children probably won’t get this – a certain amount of abstract reasoning is required) – that is, to put the resources you would have spent on Christmas towards paying off the house, getting your land, making sure Grandma is healthy for the holiday. Even children are more moral and generous than they are often asked to be. 

If you are facing birthdays or the holidays in despair, wondering how you will pay for it all, stop.  It will be ok.  Instead of seeing a well into which you must plunge your remaining financial security, start looking for ways to make holidays and birthdays inexpensive, comforting, and simple.


The Pocketknife

Sharon March 17th, 2008

Today is Eli’s 8th birthday - yesterday we had a day full of kids, balloons, sugary junk the kids aren’t normally allowed and other special Eli pleasures.  Today is quieter, but just as happy – or at least, as long as I ignore the financial crisis unfolding. 

Now for my own 8th birthday, I received my first pocketknife, a prize that stunned me – because it had never occurred to me that I was old enough to have something as adult as my own knife.  I wish I could say that I still own it, but it disappeared into the world of lost things that is childhood long ago.  I do still have the scar on my right hand from where I ignored my father’s command to always cut away from yourself when whittling – and a strong memory of the flash of recognition I felt when I suddenly realized that grownups actually have reasons for some of the things they say ;-) .  But most of all, I kept the memory of how suddenly taller and older I felt because of the confidence my parents had in me.  I think that was the first time I suddenly really grasped that someday, I too would be an adult, and that I was on a journey in that direction.

As Eli approached 8, I somehow realized that some secret part of me believed that my sons would also receive pocketknives at the same age.  But, of course, for Eli, this is unrealistic – he’s autistic, and while he progresses steadily, he doesn’t yet have the ability to use a knife safely (of course, the above mentioned scar suggests neither did I, but he’s running even a bit further behind).  Every child is different, of course, and what one child can handle at six, another can’t until 10. 

Still, my husband needed a replacement for a lost pocketknife, and as long as I was ordering them, I lingered over knives suitable for children.  I hesitated a while, and then I ordered – not one, but four pocketknives suitable for young boys.  And I put them away in a corner to wait for the day when my sons are each of them ready – or perhaps, as I was, almost ready – to take that step towards adulthood. 

With Eli, there’s a part of this that is gesture of faith.  I hope and trust that the day will come that he is ready for this.  It doesn’t matter that much when it comes – I’m not in a hurry, just that it does.  But, of course, anytime we invest in our children’s future, we are investing our hope and trust that they will grow up safe and secure and become good and honorable people.   For me, this small investment in my children’s future competence – a competence that will be, I think growingly important in a depleted world – ensures me that when the day comes that each boy is ready, he will get that moment of feeling 10 feet tall, because his parents think he is grown enough to have a knife.

They come to us as babies or small children, and we look and try to find the men and the women they will be.  And bit by bit, we see them appear, we enable them to appear.  We push them back, we pull them forward, we risk our precious kids for the sake of the grown people we trust they will become, people we do not yet know, but must imagine.  This thing I do not know but must believe – that my children have a future, both rich and strange to me.  

I bought the pocket knives because I don’t know where the dollar is going and I don’t know where my husband’s job will be in a year or two.  I bought them because even if money is tight, this gift I want to give.  I bought them because I do believe that one day, I will see my oldest son take out his pocket knife is the pursuit of some ordinary bit of farm competence.  I bought them because no matter what the future is, my children will be men in it, and our children, men and women alike, will need good tools.  I bought them because I trust that even if I do not know where I am going, the journey into the future has promise and reason for hope.

 Happy Birthday, Eli!


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