Veteran Homeschool Notes

Unlike many parents in these covid-induced times, I did not homeschool my kids on the spur of the moment. I was not thrust into it involuntarily. I made a choice. I consulted with the principals of schools in my area, did a lot of research about various educational approaches, and talked with many people – both those in my same person-with-young-kids-now-facing-school-decisions boat and those with older children and vast personal experience. Then, one year at a time for the next fifteen years, I homeschooled my four, then five kids. I have a perspective that is not theoretical. We did this thing that suddenly millions must do.

I homeschooled before the cell phone era, when it was a fringe thing to do, when our PC ran DOS, when I was a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-making young mom in Vermont. My kids wore I Love Homeschool buttons when we went out to public places during the day so that (maybe) other people would not look askance at them because they weren’t in school. Back then, my fellow homeschoolers and I were sure beyond any doubt that we would always be in the tiniest minority, that no way would homeschooling ever eclipse public education. My neighbors probably asked themselves: What’s up with those kids who don’t get on the bus?

I love homeschool button jpg

During the homeschool years I had high goals beyond academics. I was okay with our being renegades, mavericks, nonconformists, oddballs or whatever we were called because I wanted our unconventionality to teach my children that charting your own path – within the bounds of reason, integrity and safety – begets an indomitable spirit that is not easily led astray, squashed down or made weak. At that time and in many respects, the world looked to me like a mess. I wanted my kids to be among those making it better. In a post about a year ago, I shared some reflections.

During the homeschool years we all learned a lot about the world and how it works, about each other and about ourselves. We not only got through it. We became stronger than we ever could have been otherwise. Homeschool for us meant figuring things out, making use of what’s at hand, choosing and doing the best we can, getting along, keeping balanced perspectives, aiming for excellence, allowing creativity its moments, finding and using our strengths, managing and mitigating our weaknesses, counting our blessings and keeping the joy – all of which we all use and need every day no matter what our “normal” days look like. In other words, homeschooling was quite the preparation for Real Life. In a nutshell, here’s what we did.

  1. We figured it out. With no map of the uncertain territory ahead, we made our own map. We invested time and energy, practiced common sense and took one step at a time. In real life, who gets a map? There are no guarantees. Every step of the way you do the best you can with what you have, and you can choose to do it in such a way that years later you will not be mired in regret. But you don’t have to figure it all out today. One day at a time is our allotment. Mistakes are allowed. Mistakes handled well engender confidence and teach in ways that success cannot. That thing (that style, that tact) didn’t work? Okay, not the end of the world. Let’s try this instead.
  2. We wore no masks. Ha! I don’t mean anti-virus masks. I mean the kind we know we wear when we transition from home to work and back again, the mask that tells others we’re serious about this project or this case, the mask that sets aside one world while we focus on another. Homeschooling forces a kind of juggling. Learning is integrated with meals and playtime and downtime and be-quiet-because-mommy’s-on-a-call time. The day is not neatly segmented. You don’t get to walk out of your bedroom wearing your happy-face mask and say Okay, kids, time for school! You can’t hide your grumpy face, your tired face, your frustrated face. You are with each other all the time and there is no hiding (or very little, or a lot less than maybe there used to be). You had better learn how to get along.
  3. We aimed both deep and wide. Homeschooling is different than School at Home. A speaker at one seminar I attended back in the day suggested that there are three main camps when it comes to home education: Unschooling (doing no formal education until the child asks for it, John Holt having been a huge proponent of this approach), School at Home (trying to replicate a classroom at home using desks in a row, timed sessions, lots of seatwork and other props better suited to teaching 20-30 kids) and Homeschool (the integrated, personalized development of your children’s lifelong education). Realign your expectations. Look at both the trees and the forest. Show your children that learning is not about fragmented bits of knowledge or random knowhow, nor chopped up into discrete subjects. Rather, the subjects weave together, supporting and making sense of each other. Help your kids connect the dots and better see the big picture. Make sure they know that you are learning too. In fact, let them teach you. This kind of homeschool enables a richer, deeper, broader experience and leads to how to think, how to solve problems. And isn’t life full of problems to solve!?
  4. We found the tools. In the days before the internet, we tapped into the knowledge bank of the world at large using tangible materials like (lots of) hard copy books, as well as the experiential and intellectual expertise of our local community. I often think, oh, if we had had the internet! But hey, I wasn’t trying to deal with social distancing – every era has its challenges! The thing is: If we found the tools, parents today surely can. The tools are out there. The experts are out there. Good people are out there. The resources you need – if you add reasonable time, thought, energy and organization to this equation – are out there. They don’t come knocking though. You have to go look for them. Gems don’t jump out from a rocky hillside. Most anything worth having requires a little digging.
  5. We practiced Dependent Independence. When you admire the accomplishments of a brilliant person who came before you, when you investigate or build upon their work, when you actively demonstrate and celebrate the interconnections you have with others – even if they have a different perspective or lived in a different time or faced a different set of problems – you affirm the value of community that binds and supports us throughout our lives. When you balance a recognition of your dependence on others with responsibly taking things into your own hands, you become your children’s primary model of this critical life skill. You show them you aren’t perfect either, that it’s okay to be competent at some things and clueless at others. We stand strong, do what we can and take responsibility for our own decisions and actions, but we need each other and always have something new to learn.
  6. We flowed. Here we are, a set of people walking a given path together, all with our own quirks, rhythms, ideas and interests. We allowed for some days being more productive than others, for Idea A to spark Idea B, for the unexpected tidbits of everyday life to feed and supplement the plan we started with. We let life teach. We tried to be good students – sensibly aiming for desired outcomes, but trying to not fix the results to match the hypothesis. Life is full of surprises and they are not all bad.
  7. We marveled. Look carefully at the underside of a mushroom, the veins of a leaf, the uniqueness of your fingerprint. Smile at the random blink of a firefly, the delicate softness of flower petals, the perfect shape of an egg. Gaze in awe at nature videos: a mother whale protecting her calf, a snow leopard marking territory, an eagle soaring in the high mountains, a lizard basking in the warm sun. Note well the simple beauties of nature or the fascinatingly complex interweavings of systems. Teach your children that when they (or you) are feeling an extreme – either full of themselves or totally in the dumps – they (or you) can let the wonder and magic of the natural world feed their soul. Sometimes that works.
  8. We made it fun. Being a Vermonter steeped in Ben & Jerry’s old If it’s not fun, why do it? slogan had its effect on me. I wanted our days to be as fun as possible, as meaningful as possible, because I never wanted my kids to associate homeschool with drudgery or boredom or annoyance. I also never wanted them to think that learning is confined to classes or that it stops when school is over. I wanted them to be lifelong learners, to “keep the joy,” to never stop being curious or amazed or intrigued, to never stop asking questions and looking for answers. I wanted them to know that despite whatever hardships, challenges, dips, tragedies or pain comes along, life is full of good.

As best as you can in the covid world: Find and celebrate the good. Surround yourself — however you can — with upstanding, intelligent, caring people. Play to your strengths but allow for mistakes. Tap into the experts but use common sense. Aim for excellence but don’t make a federal project out of it. Breathe. You can do it. One day at a time.

My First Use of “an Un-boring Path”

I realize “anunboringpath” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Let me explain.

Boring = uninteresting. Therefore unboring = interesting. Right?

My life’s path has been figuratively all over the map: this, that, up, down, conventional, unconventional, never a dull moment. Throw in some great trips, some outstanding people, some unexpected challenges. Definitely unboring. Therefore an – un – boring – path.

One unconventional thing we did was homeschool. Yesterday Samuel was telling me about an article he read; apparently the number of people using the educational approach that for us was also a lifestyle has been rising steadily. It got me thinking about those years. We started before home computers were a thing, before cell phones were a thing, before house phones (at least ours) were even “cordless.” We were not pioneers in the movement, but certainly we rode the earlier wave.

Drew, Marie, Bradley, Lincoln and Samuel rode it with me and a cream-of-the-crop co-op group for fifteen wonderful years. Here is one photo from when our group performed Charlotte’s Web with an open barn door as the stage and homemade paper mache marionette puppets as some of the animals (thank you, Beth Masters, for the photo!).

Charlottes Web.jpg

If ever a path was unboring, ours surely was. In 2005, when the three oldest were in college, I decided to write a bit about our experience, using “Un-boring” in my title (I had never seen it in use and assumed the hyphen). I sent my article to Maurice Gibbons, an eminent Canadian educator whose website is all about self-directed learning. He not only posted it, he also encouraged me in my writing more than he will ever know. (Thank you again, Maurice.) Below is the article, slightly edited from the original, and now you’ll know where my blog name comes from.

Unexpected Consequences of an Un-boring Path

The adventure we called homeschool began with the element of intrigue. What’s it about? Why would you choose it? Could it be better? Could it be fun? How do you know what to do? Who can you ask? And hmmm, did I have the guts?  Back then, I decided that if I didn’t at least open the door to an unconventional education for my children, I would regret it, so I had to try. “It’s only kindergarten,” I said to myself that first year. “How can you mess up kindergarten?” One day at a time, and one year at a time, I did the best I could for my children. Funny thing happened through the years though: they aren’t the only ones who learned a lot.

I didn’t set out to review the scope of world history (several times), skin a raccoon, study soil types, write a play, walk battlefields, debate whole language vs. phonics, start a hydro farm, or read some of the best literature in the world – let alone reshape my own views on the process of personal and intellectual growth. All I wanted was for my kids to have an education that was well above mediocre, and for them to have fun in the process. I wanted them to know what they needed to know, to be able to think, and to love learning, to hunger for it, to be forever un-bored. How hard could that be?

Very early on, one of the first pieces of advice I got was an old, familiar proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.  A well-prepared piece of fish satisfies hunger much the same way as interesting content satisfies curiosity, and it’s important to know about the world. Did you know that the son of President Calvin Coolidge died from a simple infection because they didn’t have penicillin in the 1920s, that March winds stir up lake waters to bring needed oxygen to drowsy underwater creatures, that dungeon walls were three feet thick so as to block the screams of the prisoners, and that staring at constellations has had a highly useful purpose?

But what if we got so engrossed in studying the Cherokee that we never got to the Sioux?  How much should we work at learning about the various -stans of eastern Europe and Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan…) when we actually find the mountainous regions of South America endlessly fascinating? What if we really (no matter how hard we try) do not see the purpose of diagramming sentences? Here’s a thought: Why not just focus on the fun stuff and ignore the rest? Who cares if they have their times tables down pat or can write a cohesive paragraph?

Ultimately, they care. Ultimately, little by little, each of them, individually, came to “own” their education, to fit most of the pieces together, to juggle the goals and the time constraints, to truly self-direct – and that’s when the real fun begins. The research, the questions, the people we meet, the places we explore, the discoveries we make – all these things work together and become transformative. Isolated bits of information find connections to other bits. Process kicks in and finds rhythm. Questions beget questions, learning begets more learning, the tools get sharper, and real thinking ensues. We don’t just enjoy the story – we understand the reason some books never go out of print. We don’t just know the times tables – we see them as a witness to structure and order in the natural world, indeed, as a thing of beauty.

How to fish envelops the notion of how to think, how to figure out important things like Does it matter if we spent more time on the civil war than on the revolutionary war? What is the bigger picture here? Above and beyond all the exceedingly interesting facts, what did we learn about the way things work, the trends and behaviors that define us, the hooks to watch out for? What did I learn? Bottom line is, all this time, when I thought I was helping my children to ultimately own and direct their own learning, I was in fact figuring out some important things myself.

I learned that success comes in increments, that overall progress is far more important than the minutiae of content. Are we going from simple division to long division within a reasonable period of time? Do we wake up one day and find that the child who liked to stir the pudding is now seasoning the soup? Is the one who had to be coaxed into saying hello now volunteering to shovel snow off the neighbor’s walkway?

I learned that some people learn better by seeing, some by hearing, some by being actively engaged with said subject. If digging parallel trenches in the deep snow and simulating (with snowballs) the no-man’s-land of World War I impresses on a child even one detail of the reality of that conflict, I’m all for snow trenches. If drawing birds outside on beautiful spring days leads to a career in wildlife management, I say: Draw birds.

I learned that the people who are asking questions are the ones doing more of the thinking and the learning, and that children ask fabulous questions. I’ll never forget when Samuel asked, “Mom, why can’t the strings of your tennis racket just stay in whack?”

I learned that those who worry about the social competencies of people who are not in conventional school settings are worrying about the wrong thing. When you work closely with people on projects that are important to you, when you are with them all the time, you can’t wear masks. They see your points of enthusiasm and frustration, your organization and your chaos, your good and your not-so-good, and you see theirs, and everybody had better figure out how to get along.

I learned that people progress at their own rates. I have no idea how Lincoln learned to read; one day Marie was making a paper crown for him with the letter A on it, and the next thing I knew he was reading. He was four or five at the time. Bradley didn’t read until he was nine, try as I did (and by golly, I tried!) to help him see patterns in language. But in high school he aced honors English and has since earned a master’s degree.

I learned that some people have no idea how to direct their own learning. Years ago, we had a visiting foreign exchange student who came upon Drew at age 12 reading a hefty volume about World War II. She came to me utterly perplexed, almost speechless: Why was he doing this, she asked. Because he wants to, I said. She said she never read a book in her life unless somebody told her she had to. I thought: How much you miss!

I learned that Plato was right, at least on his point about dialogue. People more likely arrive at truth and meaning, and more likely cultivate wisdom, if they talk out an issue with open minds, if they challenge each other to think past what is already understood, if active discourse is esteemed and practiced. How much better it is when the format allows for various views on the bigger questions like:  What are some concrete ways that world poverty can be addressed? Why is it a violation to read someone else’s mail? Who should be allowed to own a high-powered rifle? When does life begin?

I learned for myself, the real (sometimes hard) way, that life includes surprises, that people both delight and disappoint you, and that you usually can do things you never would have thought you could. My own path has been circuitous and downright puzzling at times, but when you give, you get something back. Likewise, you think you are teaching, but it turns out you are learning.  As time went on and my own learning took root, I “owned” the whole enterprise more and more, directed with confidence (acquired over time) and embraced our unconventionality. The spine of John Holt’s Learning All the Time stared at me through the years and boldly reminded me what learning how to fish came to mean for us: pacing ourselves individually, engaging actively, pursuing excellence, valuing process, questing for meaning, wearing no masks, keeping the fun (so much fun!), and seizing the day.

I continue to learn that good comes where good has gone before, and that being in charge of your own learning rewards you monumentally. Bradley called me from college once to ask for a recipe and related his discovery about how much soup 2 ½ pounds of beef and a full pound of barley will make. “But I only used seven carrots!” he said.  If you think I was smiling at that, just imagine how I felt when I asked him how things were going, and he said, “I’m totally unprepared for this course I’m taking, but I know where to find what I need and how to figure out the parts I don’t know. I don’t think I’d know how to do that if we hadn’t learned how. Thanks, Mom.”  He really said that.


My Racoon Skin

(For my followers, this is today’s post. The one you received half an hour ago had a problem — half of one of the paragraphs was missing.)

Recently while scrounging around in the basement for felt, stuffing and anything that might be useful for making fake fruit, I came across the racoon skin from our homeschooling days. The ringed tail came off long ago, but for years I used it on the flat surface of my hutch and put pretty things on it, like a glass bowl or a decorative candle. Unadorned, it looks like this. You have to imagine the tail.

racoon skin.jpg

I realize that not many people would have and/or use a racoon skin. I just like it.  I found it as soft and luxurious as it was thirty years ago, though it was not originally intended to be part of the décor. Originally it was part of a lesson about Daniel Boone, pioneer days and self-sufficiency.

We didn’t kill the racoon. The kids were young then, early elementary, and we don’t kill things anyway. But we were reading about and talking about what people had to do back in the day when you were immersed in the natural world around you and relied on it to provide for a good portion of your needs, back when you cut down the trees to make a path through the woods, when you built a house with those logs, when you killed the predators that were killing your livestock, when you milked your own cow and churned your own butter. If Daniel Boone needed a hat, he couldn’t just go buy one because he was out there in the wilderness somewhere and there were no stores with hats.

I was never one for only reading and talking about a thing – I want to do it. (I know this is a surprise to some of you, but really it’s true!) Coincidentally, we left home one day to go who knows where and what did we see along the side of the road? Roadkill, that’s what. A road-killed racoon. And what does any self-respecting homeschool mom who is trying to make a point about Daniel Boone’s self-sufficiency do with that? She stops, checks to see if it’s: a. freshly killed – no smelly or decomposing carcasses for me, thank you, b. undamaged, other than being dead of course, and c. (seemingly at least) unclaimed – I would not want to take someone else’s roadkill.

I grant that for some people the idea of skinning a racoon is off-putting to say the least. We are all a product of our experience to a point though, and my experience included three years of being the anatomy lab assistant at Douglass College (Rutgers U.). In anatomy lab you study anatomy, hands-on. I mean hands on the real thing, not looking at pictures or plastic models of the muscles, tendons and bones. Sure, you can talk about how the transversus  abdominus of a cat inserts into the linea alba, and you can read about how the masseter is covered by a tough, shining fascia lying ventral to the zygomatic arch, but there is nothing like taking a sharp blade in your hand and carefully dissecting the animal.

There is no room for squeamishness in this process. I became familiar with it, comfortable. So the road kill racoon didn’t faze me. We brought it home and pretended to be Daniel Boone. I’m not saying it was a pleasant experience, but the real world is messy sometimes. It is complex and hard and utterly fascinating. I think I can safely say that the inside of a racoon is unlike anything you have ever seen.

In the end we didn’t make a hat though. Once the fur is off the rest of the racoon (and the inner part discarded somehow, I forget how), the job is not done. You don’t go from dead animal to useful, clean skin that easily. The fur is soft (and would surely be warm) but other side of it (the hide) is wet, one might even say gooky. The next step is tanning, which involves trimming and scraping the hide, placing it in the shade on a flat, cool surface such as a large rock and covering it with salt.

Where Daniel Boone got salt out in the wilderness is beyond me, and we take our self-sufficiency lessons only so far. A friend of mine, who was far more self-sufficient than I, had at about the same time gotten mad at the racoons that were getting into her garden and had taken a shotgun and killed them. She was having those skins professionally tanned. I jumped on that option. A few weeks later I went to her house to pick up our beautiful racoon skin.

I think we didn’t make a hat because by the time it was ready, we had moved onto other exciting lessons – though it is hard to top skinning a roadkill racoon. Besides, and more importantly, the fur was just too beautiful to cut into. On whatever surface I put it, it served as a reminder that we had once, in a very small way, walked in Daniel Boone’s shoes. We had done a messy thing and ended up with a beautiful thing. We had done a thing ourselves that most people would have had someone else do.

I got to thinking about all this because of Oscar Wilde. In the book I just read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, there is a story about a little girl whose cat died. She was inconsolable until a stranger came along and told her that cats have nine lives and that her cat was enjoying his next life in France. The stranger then left, but what followed were letters to the little girl from France describing the new life of this cat, how happy he was, etc. The letters turned out to have been written by Oscar Wilde himself who had visited the island briefly and then gone on to France.

Whether all this truly happened or not, I don’t know, but it made me look him up. In doing so, I discovered his involvement in the 19th century aestheticism movement, about which I had known absolutely nothing specifically. I did, however, have the vague idea that surely someone before me must have also determined that things don’t have to have a purpose other than being beautiful. “Art for art’s sake” was their bottom line, and maybe my racoon skin fits that category.

The process of skinning the racoon hopefully taught my children a thing or two about anatomy, about the realities of pioneer life, about using what nature gives you to keep yourself warm. It was time well spent in their early education. But the skin itself, once it came back from the tanner, didn’t have a purpose for me other than being nice to look at and nice to touch. That was enough. Sometimes I would just stroke the fur. I enjoyed it for many years and will probably never throw it away.

I think we all have some things like that – things that we just plain like. They are not necessary things, not useful in a functionally useful way. But we get a good feeling inside when we are near them, and that makes them very useful indeed. They make our hearts happy and help to balance out the ugly, messy, uncomfortable parts of life.

Yesterday’s fake felt fruit is not necessary either, though it will be useful for Ellie in her picnic play.

fake felt fruit.jpg

Making funky ladders for chickens is not necessary either.

cool ladder.jpg

Nor is a peony bush in the bed with the lettuce and carrots.

carrots in May.jpg

Or letting Coco lay on the sheets I’ve just pulled off a bed. I could just put them right away in a basket and take them away. But I don’t. I put them on the floor because this very predictable animal will come along and plop down and look at me like What? Something wrong?

Coco on sheets.jpg

All of these things, and many more of course, make me smile. A long time ago someone told me there’s enough craziness and heartache in this world. You should do what you can to tip the scales to the other side, even in small ways, even if it’s only to make your own heart smile. You should make or do something beautiful, something fun, something that brings cheer as much as you can. Chances are good that you are not the only one who ends up smiling and feeling better.

Habits of Good

My cousins Matt and Austin grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey incessantly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Every time I visited, one or both of them had to be at practice at 5 in the morning or some other crazy time, and the next day the same thing. I wondered if they were training for the Olympics. But no. When I asked my aunt about all the practices, she simply said, “If they are busy doing something fun, and it makes them tired, they won’t have time or energy for getting into trouble.”

This reminds me of CJ, the washroom attendant I admire so, who occupied his time so fully with doing his job and so consistently with being the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, that he didn’t have time to complain.

The holiday season that’s fast approaching will, as usual, cause people fill their time with lots of fun activities and lots of good works, and on the surface this seems above reproach. We will not only be buying presents for our loved ones and going to special parties and dinners, we will also be singing carols at nursing homes, giving turkeys to the needy, deciding what to do about the Salvation Army Santas collecting on the street corners — pass them by altogether, give a few dollars to each one, tell the next one you gave to the last one?

When we were homeschooling for all those years, we were not the homestead-on-the-mountaintop sort. It was important to me that my kids develop a sense of community. Besides attending local theater, watching local crafters in their studios do their glassblowing or basketweaving or woodworking, and being part of Little League and other sports, we  made it our business to serve and interact with people in other situations.  Together we prepared and delivered meals for the emergency shelter, attended events that included a wide swath of culture and characters, and visited the elderly. I didn’t want my children to think that everyone lived the same way and I didn’t want them to get the idea that the world revolved around them.

One year in November I called a local nursing home to set up a time for our little coop group of kids to come in December to visit the residents and maybe sing some Christmas songs. The woman who answered the phone made me think about the frenzied few weeks of the holidays — and giving in general — in a different light.

She graciously said, “Your offer to come is much appreciated, but frankly we are inundated at this time of year. When January comes, the residents can feel like everyone did their good deeds and can now forget about them for another year. Really, the better thing for you to do is come at random times when they don’t expect anyone to be thinking about them. That’s what really makes them smile.”

Spread out the good, she was saying, and it will do more good than if a lot of good is crammed in all together. Too much good all at once can be counterproductive, and maintaining a balance is healthier for many reasons. My aunt didn’t send her boys to a hockey camp for a week or two and then leave them to their own devices for the rest of the year. CJ doesn’t speak kindly some of the time. Both of them developed what could be called Habits of Good

When I see the word “habit,” I think of nuns. What they wear is called a habit. They wear it every day. The woman on the phone at the nursing home was suggesting the same for us — that visiting the residents would be not a sometimes-thing, but instead, a habit, sure and steady. For us, her suggestion turned into a relationship with one individual who ended up spending his last days on earth at our home. We became his family.

Time is short. We all know that. We all know that something could happen later today that utterly changes our world. Therefore it’s a good question: In the time we have each day, do we wisely allocate time for ourselves, time for others, time for good? Might we want to rethink how we divvy up our days, perhaps shift our energy to something that matters more, consider developing some habits of good? 

Potato and onion

Tonight my airbnb guest delighted me. She surprised and delighted me. I am surprised at myself for being so delighted. And then I’m not. It’s perfectly reasonable that I should be delighted, I say to myself. It isn’t every day — in fact it has never happened before — that a guest asks for potato and onion.

That’s right. She asked for potato and onion. They were out to dinner. I got a text. “Keswick Hall is beautiful,” Erika wrote. “Thanks for the recommendation … one question, do you happen to have a potato and onion? Or is there a little grocery store nearby that will be open after dinner?” I had sent them to Keswick Hall because you can bring your dog to dinner there (in the part of the hotel they call Villa Crawford), and these guests have a little dog. They seemed quite attached to their dog, Chuleta is her name, plus the Villa has amazing parmesan truffle fries, and it is worth the trip just for that. I was watching a movie when the text came in, and I did not look at it right away. It was a good movie. Then I had to get up anyway, so I paused the movie and looked at the message. Do you happen to have a potato and onion?

Perhaps I should explain two things.

One: Assuming I have chickens (which I didn’t for a while last summer, so this is not to be taken for granted), there will always be eggs waiting in the fridge for my guests. I have also taken to leaving a stick of butter because an egg fried in butter with a little salt and pepper is pretty close to perfection in food as far as I’m concerned, though I know some people prefer olive oil, and to each his own. This is available as well, standing where a bottle of olive oil should stand, just behind one of the gas burners, ready should you need it.

When these guests arrived this afternoon, I explained about the wifi and the stairs and the eggs in the fridge. In response to my eggs statement, Alex said, “Is there oil?” I smiled, feeling my heart soften (he’s planning breakfast, I said to myself, I like these people). Why, you may ask, is it significant that they are planning breakfast? Why does that matter? What does it say about them? It says they cook. Not everyone does. Many cannot. Or don’t have time. Or cannot be bothered. These people would take time to make their own breakfast.

Alex kept going. “I’m excited about your eggs. I guess they are really fresh.” Oh, such welcome words. “You can’t find fresher,” I say. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” Then I said the rest of what I ordinarily say about letting me know if you forgot anything or if you need anything and to have a nice night and enjoy yourselves. And off they went to dinner.

Two: It is a rare day under the sun that there are no potatoes or onions in my pantry. Anyone who knows me will verify this truth. I keep them in baskets so they can get air. I use them frequently. I love them. I cook them in numerous ways, but most often I slice up an onion, saute it in olive oil, and add thinly sliced potatoes (skins on) and salt and pepper. The onion gets soft and sweet and a little brown as the flame does its work, and the potato crisps up just a bit as it, too, softens to peak doneness. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this works for me. Simple and delicious.

Now you see why I am delighted. This man is not only going to cook eggs for breakfast, he is going to fry up potatoes and onion as well. Who does this?

When guests come, when you first meet them, you don’t know what’s coming. You can get an inkling, and you may or may not be right. I had a good feeling about Alex and Erika and Valerie when Alex asked about the oil. Now I will never forget them.

I know it’s not usual for someone to get excited about potatoes and onion. I know I am unusual in that way, and perhaps I will talk about my unusualness another time. Tonight I’m just smiling. Oil. Potato. Onion. And more.

Truly it’s a magical night. In the distance, I hear fireworks – must be a wedding at Keswick Hall. All by itself, that would add to the potatoes and onion delight. But as I write tonight, I am facing the new windows Bradley put in for me a month or so ago. It’s May, one year since another very special guest left me a note saying he had woken to a ballet of fireflies, and he had never seen real fireflies before. I wrote about this in my ‘People love surprises’ post. A year ago, I had questioned and then dismissed whether or not those were really fireflies, as I myself had been used to seeing them in August but not in May. But if he says he saw fireflies, he saw fireflies, and far be it from me to question that. Tonight, guess what is dancing on my windowpane. — fireflies

How can it be? In one night: Oil. Potato. Onion. Fireworks. Fireflies! 

Some thoughts on airbnb

The popularity of airbnb should surprise no one. The last fifty years have seen conventionality thrown to the wind: the women’s movement, homeschooling, the internet. There has to be another way — this era seems to shout from the rooftops — to do the same basic things humans have always needed to do: get along fairly, educate children, connect easily with others or get information …and of course, find a safe, welcoming, affordable place to sleep overnight. We all need to sleep. Every night. Somewhere.

Whether to family, friends, or friends of friends, I always loved being a host. I can honestly say I have changed the sheets in a guest bedroom uncountable times. My job as the director of quality and communication at a Forbes five-star resort has given my passion for hospitality room to fly on a daily basis. But it wasn’t until I posted my little cottage on airbnb and began having frequent guests that I saw some universal truths playing out before my eyes, and now I want to share some of them. For example:

  • People hate surprises — they want to know what they are getting into, so a photo of   the very unusual stairs in my cottage is displayed prominently.
  • People love surprises — they want a little mystery, so I do not post a picture of the view from the wall of windows. I would rather they walk in and say, “Wow, we weren’t expecting that!”
  • One size does not fit all, thus the endless variety of options available to overnight travelers. And thanks to vrbo and airbnb for making these options readily available.
  • Small acts of kindness go a long way…
  • You never know what’s around the next bend…

The engaging, heartening and amusing stories behind these truths and some more will shed one host’s perspective on this relatively new and somewhat controversial enterprise, and further and strengthen the conversations taking place. 

First I want to give a little background about my cottage, then talk about what I have learned from it.

How the Charming Cottage on Golden Hill Came to Be

In the spring of 2011, I purchased ten wooded acres in the lovely town in Virginia with a three(tiny)-bedroom, 40-year-old modular house on it. I called it my “little house in the big woods.” In front of the house was an open patch maybe 60 feet across where the sun could get through; besides that, there were trees and more trees. The driveway is long and flat, but the land slopes off both sides. On one side it’s a pretty dramatic hill. If you cut a swath through the trees and had a good snowfall and started at the top with skis on, you’d fly down that hill. Once you drive the 900’ or so driveway to the house, and then realize how the land drops off, it feels a bit like you are on a kind of peninsula, a teardrop-shaped ridge that makes you feel like king (or queen, as may be) of the hill.

The property had come on the market in February, meaning the leaves were down, meaning I could see from the open sunny patch northward to the whole range of the Southwest Mountains. My friend and realtor Stuart Stevens had grown up in this town and knew each bump of that range by name, and spoke each one with affection, as if it were a dear friend whom he knew well. I suspect he did.

My sons Bradley and Lincoln and I had had a kind of dream: Find a beautiful piece of land and build a place that the whole family could use, enjoy, come to, leave from, consider home. We had looked throughout the winter at many lovely sites, but none grabbed us until this Keswick property came on the market for the first time in nearly forty years. Within minutes of standing on that hill, I made up my mind to make an offer and had no doubt this was a good decision.By the first of May, we were in.

Many improvements were to come, but the first was a chicken coop designed after one very fine image in my memory. When my children were very young, I brought them one summer to the Eiband farm on a road called Kaisersmad in the picturesque town of Betzigau in the Allgau region of Germany. The Bauernhof has belonged to the Eiband family for generations, and I became connected to it when the eldest daughter and I had decided to be pen pals when we were each 12 years old; thus began a lifelong friendship. Claudia’s endearing father made a habit that summer of holding  Lincoln’s hand, then three and a half, and together walking to collect eggs from their coop. I was smart enough one day to take the photo that would one day serve as the image to duplicate.

Here’s Lincoln at age 3 1/2, walking with Claudia’s dad, Adolf Eiband, at their farm in Betzigau, Germany, in the summer of 1991.

Lincoln and Claudia's dad

If I ever have a chicken house, I had said to myself, it will look like theirs. Lincoln and Bradley were not overly pleased to have to construct the small gable that serves no purpose besides its resemblance to the Eiband version, but they figured it out. Using poplar (I think it was poplar) cut from the property and milled with Bradley’s Alaskan saw mill, they worked together to erect the chicken coop of my dreams. Its red metal roof was the icing on the cake. There could simply be no better chicken house for me. I look at it and smile, which is all you can ask of a chicken coop.

Rise at chicken coop.jpg

Here’s Rise, Lincoln and Julia’s daughter, age 2 1/2 in the spring of 2015, heading out to visit the red hens. I framed this picture and hung it in the cottage.

The cottage was next. This fell to Bradley and Beth because Lincoln and Julia got married, making things both harder and easier. Labor hours would necessarily increase for Brad and Beth, but control of the design, pace and construction allowed their creative energy great opportunity. And in the end the kudos for the cottage go to them. Let me repeat: The kudos go to Brad and Beth.

In any creative process, the project is not limited to the hours spent physically, overtly engaged in it. Rather, for a time you live and breathe it. Ideas come while driving, showering or drifting off to sleep. Sticky points gnaw at you for days or weeks and suddenly the solution appears. Friends and family members arrive to visit and each in some way gives a hand — some hold the other end while you lift a wall or settle a beam in place, some feed the bank of ideas that you will draw from on a given aspect of the design, some simply admire and thereby encourage. All contribute to the ultimate product. But Brad and Beth did the lion’s share. One recent guest said in his review:

The cottage matched the listing description. However, the listing could not tell the charm, the beauty, and warmth of this wonderful place. The cottage had huge windows which opened up to the green forest. This is a place to connect with nature.

The whir of the planer and the buzz of the table saw in the workshop underneath my bedroom became commonplace for those two years or so, and I realized I am one of those people who feels like all is well with the world when the sound of power equipment is going in the background. Saturday morning meetings over coffee to catch up on the latest and the upcoming became commonplace too. I made some big breakfasts in those days, thinking that of course I had to provide sustenance to these hard working, wonderful and amazing people who just kept going on this project one piece at a time.

I took pictures to document the process — not as many as I now wish I had, but enough to make an overview. In the cottage is a looseleaf binder with photos showing the construction; here are a few:


laying the foundation (note chickens behind Brad — all that dirt was dug out by hand as well)

H-12.17 (4)

raising the first wall – that’s Beth’s dad Tim Peery helping on the left (thank you, Tim!)

zcottage 11.14 (11).JPG

resting a moment (yes, that is a chicken hat, isn’t she cute?)

One set of photos I unfortunately cannot find shows the cherry French door when it was still laid out in pieces on the basement floor. I know that photo is somewhere (probably buried in a phone that no longer works), but in the end the door speaks for itself. Bradley made the door — designed it, chose the wood, planed the lengths, trimmed, mitered, joined, finished.

People look at it and see a door. What I see — beyond the research on how to build a french door, beyond the trip to the guy he found (on craigslist, no doubt) who had the best quality wood at the best price, beyond the image of planks of wood subsequently hanging out the back of their white Civic (named Sensei), beyond the pieces carefully positioned at the pre-assembly stage on the basement floor — is the intelligence behind it all. I’m allowed to say that because he’s my son, and besides, he’s the one who didn’t read until he was nine. He doesn’t get extra credit for that delay, but it is kind of remarkable. That’s a whole nother story though, which I will get to one of these days.

Tzcherry door Brad made.JPG

here’s that cherry door before it had a deck in front of it

W10aOct 5 (8).JPG

and getting near the end, stonework all around the foundation

I do remember when the guy came from the glass company to measure for the cottage windows, including the trapezoid-shaped ones, and when they came, the trapezoids were all wrong and had to be recut (at their expense, not mine). Bradley said, “Mom, it’s basic geometry.” Perhaps. But the door — the door is not basic. The door is a peek at a young man who doesn’t let the fact that he has never done a thing stand in the way of doing it. He just figures things out. He is first a thinker and then a doer. He invested in great equipment (all somehow at good prices) and the best and most highly recommended books on carpentry so that he might tap into the expertise of those who have already figured some other things out. It was a joy to watch him.

Beth is his perfect counterpart, God bless her. She worked her day job all day at her computer, somehow shutting out whatever Brad was doing nearby. She walked their dog Zadie, and took me along, almost every day when I got home at 5ish. Oh, how I enjoyed those walks! Beth is truly one of the world’s best listeners. She is sweet, balanced, and confident and a perfect match for Bradley’s intelligence and gumption. And she somehow made me feel like she actually enjoyed my company, which she deserves a great deal of credit for. Understand that after working all day, after a mile and a half walk with me and then a bit of supper, she started with whatever needed to be sanded or primed or relocated or organized or painted or planted. That’s right, I haven’t even begun to talk about the massive garden they planted too!

They worked and they worked. Joyfully. Skillfully. Steadily. The accomplishments of these two are truly mind-boggling, and their attitude is inspiring. I am forever grateful not only for this gift that they left me, but also that I can share it with others who enjoy it so much. I especially love it when cottage guests give them a shout out. Here are some more comments that have come from my guests:

We both agree, the Cottage at Golden Hill takes the cake as the most unique, comfortable, peaceful & relaxing AirBnB we have ever been lucky enough to stay at!

Her son Bradley did such a phenomenal job with all the construction of this beautiful house.

The views, wood burner and floor to ceiling windows were my favorite features of the cabin.

The pictures do not do it justice…the space and view are beautiful.

Charming is an understatement, this cozy cottage (built by her talented son) is full of character.

The cottage is beautiful – looks just like the pictures – amazing craftsmanship!

The cottage is incredibly charming and cozy.

The cabin itself was amazing! Her son and his wife built it themselves and its beautiful.

The cottage was even more beautiful than we had hoped. The craftsmanship was exquisite!

Easy to find and yet tucked away in the woods, this cabin is elegantly cozy and gorgeous…completely designed and hand-built by her son, who is indeed a master craftsman. He and his girlfriend labored over every beautiful detail for 3 years. As an architect and interior designer, I really appreciated the quality craftsmanship and design…the way you can see forest views out of EVERY window and the little touches like the beautifully finished flooring, cherry shelving and kitchen island. (Hi Brad! Your Mom told us you read these. You and Beth rock! We were blown away and inspired.)

The house is perfect. The location and craftsmanship are wonderful.

The house is stunning and very comfy and the location is beautiful and peaceful.

Floor to ceiling windows meant tons of natural light, but it felt very private thanks to its orientation toward the woods. We had a great time sipping coffee on the patio watching the chickens peck around the yard.

Great location and beautiful crafted home.

The home was more beautiful than we expected. It was gorgeously designed and built by her son…which made us marveled at it more.

we just sat in awe at the craftmanship of your sons little home. (architect or engineer?) your chicken coop may have convinced my new wife we can have one

The cottage was just as described and pictured. It is a work of art, set in the woods and very peaceful.

This house is so awesome! The pictures were not even able to capture how beautiful this cottage was. Patricia’s son built it by hand, which makes it even more unique and special. Tiny-home fanatics (like my boyfriend and I) will DIE when they see this.

Patricia’s son is something of a Renaissance man and built the cottage and most everything in it with skilled hands and utter attention to detail.

Your son is so talented and you’re very generous to share such a gift with the airbnb community. We couldn’t get over the quality of craftsmanship evident everywhere.

Patricia’s Son and his girlfriend built an amazing cottage that is Cozy and peaceful.

We were blown away by the beautiful windows and the view of the mountains! I did not expect the house to have that. Perhaps you would want to include a picture of this on your page? It was our favorite part of the house. 🙂

Patricia’s cottage was wonderful – everything we expected and then some! It was cute, quaint, and absolutely perfect. It is a a beautiful property nestled back in the woods.

This cabin is the cutest! I can’t believe they built it themselves.

This space is a true gem. Bright, open and extremely comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. In fact, we are planning a time to come back for a whole week to sink in and enjoy the stunning architecture of the cottage and it’s peaceful surroundings.

The cottage itself is just beautiful, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the woods, and maintains the perfect balance between quaint/rustic and modern. My husband absolutely loved the wood burning stove, too– despite 65 degree weather, he kept it going all weekend and it was wonderfully cozy!

My great thanks to Rob O’Connor for the following images which give you some idea of the finished product.

March 2016 (3).JPG

March 2016 (54).JPG

March 2016 (39).JPG

March 2016 (57).JPG

March 2016 (50).JPG