Category Archives: Parenting Parkour

When You Can’t Have Family Dinner… Plus the Muffin of the Week

It has one of the highest impacts of anything we do as families… and it becomes harder and harder the older the kids get.

It’s dinner as a family.

Study after study talks about the benefits of a family dinner. It’s important physically, emotionally, spiritually, even mentally–according to this article, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. As someone whose job used to involve a lot of evening meetings, and now involves travel a couple of times a month, family dinner is a challenge. But it’s also a cherished value for us. It may not be leisurely or gourmet quality, but I’d say we pull it off four or five times a week.

That average just got a lot harder. On Mondays, our kids have choir rehearsals. It’s a single program, but they’re in three different choirs that all start and end at different times. It’s not close enough to our house to drop off and pick up, so we’ve been MacGyvering our way through it with sack dinners, the occasional GoPicnic, and bringing homework along while we wait in what is thankfully a very comfortable space to hang out for three hours.

Wednesday is our other challenge–piano night. We were able to keep all of the kids with the same beloved piano teacher we had before we moved, but the lessons are one after the other during the dinner hour. So again we’re doing the sack dinner thing. I drop the kids off and go somewhere nearby to do some writing, then pick them up when they’re done.


For the last two weeks we’ve tried a new practice. If we can’t have dinner together, we can at least have dessert together. Monday is too hectic to do anything and we get home too late. So on Wednesdays when the kids and I get home, Robert has the table set for something simple: last week it was ice cream, this week it was these pumpkin gingerbread muffins with whipped cream and Trader Joe’s lemon curd.

We use the fancy dessert plates (because it’s no extra effort) and do our customary dinnertime check-in of most favorite and least favorite parts of the day. It’s been a great way to end our day.

…Ok, this week someone had a meltdown and left the table in a huff. That happens too.

What do you do to make family meals or other special times happen in the midst of your busy life?


adapted from Simply Recipes


  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup pumpkin purée
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 Tbsp finely minced candied or fresh ginger (optional)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 Tbsp water


1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare 12 muffin cups or a loaf pan with cooking spray.

2 In a medium bowl, vigorously whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

3 In another bowl, use a wooden spoon to mix together the pumpkin purée, melted butter, sugar, molasses, fresh or candied ginger, eggs, and water.

4 Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Stir only until incorporated.

5 Place the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 50-60 minutes (loaf) or 15-20 minutes (muffins), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then gently run a knife around the edge and remove from pan(s). Let cool on a rack for 30 minutes or longer.

Screen Time in the Summer–What’s a Work-From-Home Mom To Do?

article-2241437-164A0D73000005DC-831_634x637When we first began practicing Sabbath, we weren’t sure what to do about technology: TV, video games, social media and the like. We started out by putting a limit on those activities without banning them outright. Each of the kids received a coin that they could spend whenever they wanted on 30 minutes of screen time, which was usually watching a TV show. Now that the kids are more into MineCraft, Wii and (in Caroline’s case) emailing and texting friends, we’ve expanded that to two 30 minute blocks.

But with Robert and me both working from home this particular summer, we needed something a little more robust. We need the kids to be more self-directed–we can’t be monitoring who’s doing what and for how long. Besides, the girls are reading more and more books on tablets–who wants to keep track of whether they’re reading or watching Netflix?

Enter the Momentum Optimization Project, in which kids can have unlimited screen time, AFTER they have completed ALL the items on a list written by the parents.

Here’s the philosophy behind it:

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am.

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves.

Here’s the summertime edition of the MOP.

We were in Dallas over the weekend, so our MOP began in earnest yesterday. Yesterday’s list included:

  • tidying rooms
  • reading for 30 minutes
  • vacuuming basement (James)
  • changing sheets on the top bunk (Margaret)
  • washing and folding one load of laundry (Caroline)

We also took a trip to the library so each kid would have an arsenal of books.

It went pretty well. With morning swim practice, the MOP doesn’t really begin in earnest until 10:30 or 11, making the day more compressed. But I could have given them slightly more to do. So today’s list includes a few of the same things, plus:

  • 45 minutes of reading instead of 30
  • emptying the dishwasher
  • going through the books in their rooms and sorting them into “keep” and “giveaway” piles. (We’re moving at the end of the summer, so I expect each day’s list will include some decluttering task.)
  • doing something creative for at least 30 minutes, e.g. playing music, doing art, Legos, or cooking.

The underlying benefit of the MOP is oftentimes you get immersed in an activity and forget all about screen time. That seems less likely to happen with James, who loooooves his video games, so I need to be mindful of that when I compile his list. But yesterday Margaret ended up inviting a friend over and didn’t have much screen time at all. And Caroline is currently making muffins, which will end up taking longer than 30 minutes.

[pause writing for a quick trip to the grocery store–we were out of eggs. While there I picked up ingredients for Margaret’s “something creative.” Both recipes will be linked below.]

The challenge for the “something creative,” clearly, is that I need to make sure they have adequate supplies. Plus they are full of questions. James wanted to know if he could use the old boxes in the garage to make a tunnel. Caroline wasn’t sure which dish to use to melt the butter in the microwave. I’m encouraging them to try to solve the problems themselves first, then ask me if they get stuck.

I’ll report back as the summer goes on, but so far, so good. They are definitely having more screen time than they would with two 30-minute tokens, but I can’t imagine it’s more than I had at that age. I did all the standard childhood-summer-in-the-1970s stuff–swimming pool, playing outside, but I also watched an epic amount of TV. (The above image is from I Dream of Jeannie, which was an indispensable part of my summers, along with Bewitched, My Three Sons, Leave It to Beaver, and of course, The Brady Bunch. And somehow I am not ruined. And the great thing about the MOP is it’s a hybrid of self-direction and parental guidance.

And I get some folded laundry out of the deal.


Margaret’s “something creative”: Creamy Orange Popsicles

Caroline’s “something creative”: Brown Sugar Muffins

The Beauty in the Ordinary


I am a writer today because I was a blogger first. Some 11 years ago I began a pseudonymous blog, as was the custom at the time–a place to write about my kids, ministry, and life in general. I wrote poems and top ten lists and meditations on parenting. I wrote liturgy but also cursed freely. It was a liberating space because there were no names attached, though if you knew me and stumbled upon it, you’d recognize me quickly. At least that’s what I always hoped. Authenticity, with a Google-proof veil of privacy.

Now eleven years and hundreds of posts later, I write this blog, I author books and articles for a living, I freelance for a non-profit, and I speak to groups about a whole host of things. But I don’t write as much personal stuff. Sabbath in the Suburbs has some memoir-ish elements in it, but I don’t know that I’ll publish another biographical book any time soon. My kids deserve not to be on display as they mature.

There is one place where I still write personal things. For the past few years I’ve been keeping three paper journals, one for each child. I call it The Memory Project. In it I write one-sentence entries about what’s going on in their lives. I keep it to one sentence because a paragraph or page is too much. One sentence is a small enough goal that I’ll actually do it.

My hope was to write every day, but every three weeks is more like it. I strive to record the quotidian moments as well as the milestones. In fact, I hope to write more of the former than the latter, since the latter are often easier to recall later.

This beautiful Atlantic article, The Value of Remembering Ordinary Moments, helps spur me along in this discipline:

Quotidian life seems too banal to document. Why write down routine conversations, ones we’ve had a million times and will have a million times more? Isn’t it more important to remember extraordinary moments: first steps, graduations, jobs, awards, marriage, retirement, vacations? Yet people seldom realize how fondly they will look back on days spent mundanely: a day spent reading in the bay window, a picnic in the park with friends. These things may not stick out while they are happening, but revisiting them can be a great pleasure. “Who would call a day spent reading a good day?” writes Annie Dillard. “But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”

I write these journals because I hope my kids will want this window into their childhood some day. I write because some things are too precious for Facebook… and other things are too mundane for it. But according to the article, it’s the everyday experience that we crave:

The people in the study were most interested in rediscovering the mundane experiences. Asked to write down what they were doing on an ordinary day (a few days before Valentine’s Day) and then on an extraordinary day (on Valentine’s Day), participants had more pleasure reading their entry about the ordinary day three months later than their entry about the extraordinary day.

When I reflect on my childhood, I remember the Christmas I got the entire series of Sweet Valley High paperback books (at least, the mere fifteen that had been published at that point). I remember the family trip to Colorado and the sooty chug-chug of the Silverton to Durango train. I remember my baby brother getting into my prescription medicine when I had the chicken pox and watching from the upstairs window as the paramedics drove away with him to get his stomach pumped. But I don’t remember what my random Thursdays were like. I don’t remember what our go-to dinner was on busy nights before my mother led the Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember shoe shopping.

My favorite movie of 2014 was Boyhood. Many people appreciated the cinematic achievement of following the same actors for seven years, but thought the story itself was boring. I agree that the movie was about the in-between moments–the fight before the divorce, the party after graduation–but I consider that a feature, not a bug. The scenes of a mother driving her son to school or a father taking his kids for pizza–those are the precious places of everyday grace.

Those moments are what make up a life. That kind of vision, a vision of the sacred in the ordinary, is what I mean when I talk about living Sabbathly. Living Sabbathly means we are awake to our life as it unfolds. And life unfolds primarily in ordinary moments.


My Disembodied Head… Or, On Not Being Two Places at Once

So what the heck is this all about?

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 5.45.33 PM


The Presbyterian General Assembly starts on Saturday, but most members of Team Wilkinson/Dana are already in Detroit today, meeting with young adult advisory delegates, having meals with interest groups, and attending a prayer gathering to get fortified for the work ahead (whether as moderators of the gathering or as among its 650 commissioners).

I am not with them.

I already knew that I would miss Margaret’s dance recital on Saturday afternoon, which coincides with the opening plenary of the assembly. But my heart sank several weeks ago when I discovered that the girls’ piano recital was Friday evening. In an ideal world, I would already be in Detroit today. But working parents never live in an ideal world. (Does anyone?)

Thankfully John, my co-conspirator on this great adventure said, “This one’s easy. Don’t miss the recital.” So I asked the girls’ piano teacher to schedule them in the first half of the program (which she was happy to do) and am booked on the last flight to Detroit tonight. If the timing works out, I will listen via conference call to the prayer gathering while waiting at the gate, but I am holding this and all things lightly.

I remember hearing about pastoral boundaries during the call process. Ministry is a demanding job, emotionally and spiritually, I was told. You have to protect yourself! And yes, there are more opportunities for caregiving than you could ever complete. Sunday seems to come every 39 minutes. The average congregation is not going to guard your mental health, people warned. (Guess what? Your kids don’t do that either. They want all of you.)

I don’t know whether this antagonism was intended, or whether I misheard it. In either case, I entered ministry thinking of boundaries as thick walls. Sometimes family life took precedence and sometimes the church had to come first, but there was a clear right answer—or at least, I convinced myself that there was, because the ambiguity was too uncomfortable to acknowledge.

Thanks to my friend Julie Johnson, I now think of boundaries not as brick walls but as semi-permeable membranes. Think about the wall of a cell: some things get through and other things don’t. The cell changes shape depending on a number of factors, but it retains its basic integrity. And most important, it is an organic thing, alive and changing.

To be sure, it’s disconcerting to see yourself as a semi-permeable membrane. There is vulnerability in it. You’re… squishy. But also, stuff can filter back and forth more easily. Case in point: this afternoon I was playing Margaret’s recital music from my laptop and got a private recital. As I closed my laptop afterwards, a “thinking of you as you get ready for GA” email caught my eye. So it goes.

Today I am here, but I’m thinking about my colleagues in Detroit—my heart is partly there. And Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., I will be at the dance recital, in spirit if nothing else. And that’s OK. In Sabbath in the Suburbs I talked about the importance of being present, of fully doing whatever it is you’re doing. And that’s true. But it’s also OK for your heart to be somewhere else too. That’s the way of the world.

AND! Permeability gives you some grace to be playful. Today I’ll be in northern Virginia in the flesh, but in Detroit in spirit… and, it turns out, in image. Some of John’s friends suggested a MaryAnn cardboard cutout that they will carry around with them, just for fun. We decided a MaryAnn mask, pictured above, would be more manageable. I’m hoping for pictures today, a la Flat Stanley, or perhaps Waldo.


If you’re in Detroit today, look for my disembodied head! And tomorrow, I’ll be all there. Except when I’m thinking good thoughts about the little girl dancing hip-hop to Run-D.M.C.

The Harder Thing is the Easier Thing


I love it when blogs and online articles build on one another. Sarah Spath, a career and life coach, recently wrote about an old blog post of mine, in which I reflected on one of my parenting mantras: the harder thing is the easier thing. Sarah summarizes it like this:

MaryAnn tells the story of being exhausted and trying to run errands when one of her three kids asks from the backseat, “Mommy, can we pretend we’re in a spaceship?” Irritable MaryAnn, out of creative energy, initially just wants to say No—to be left alone. But something in her said Yes instead, so fighting traffic and running errands while in the Minivan Spaceship became a fun adventure that averted cranky kid syndrome when bedtime finally rolled around. The harder thing in the moment—to give her kids creative energy—turned out to be the easier thing over the course of the entire evening.

Robert shared another example with me just yesterday morning: instead of trying to coax and fight our reluctant children to get out of bed, he made them a big yummy breakfast. The harder thing (scrambling eggs, slicing fresh strawberries, making toast, on a busy weekday morning) became the easier one because they sprang readily out of bed and threw on their clothes.

Sarah compares my idea to another meaningful idea she picked up along the way:

Acute pain is often better than chronic pain.

She describes her experience with repetitive stress injuries that came from being at the computer for 8-12 hours a day for her work. These injuries meant she wasn’t writing regularly:

Dealing with it required embracing some treatments that brought acute pain—the sore tearing up of knots in massage therapy, the angry abrasive friction of gua sha in acupuncture, and the terror of letting a chiropractor crack my neckbones. I’m now past the point of needing any of these treatments regularly, but they were critical both for healing and for understanding how my body works and what it needs.  And then a physical therapist told me that simply moving around more and getting exercise would help my healing.

So now I prevent and manage the chronic pain with regular exercise, something I never imagined myself doing because it seemed like such a chore. But the acute “pain” of going out for a walk, getting on a yoga mat, or lifting weights always paid off tenfold in the way it loosened me up (both physically AND mentally, it turns out) so that I could have a real writing life again.

This reminded me of the old Anne Lamott story from Bird by Bird about getting her tonsils removed. Her throat was in vicious pain afterwards, and the nurse recommended getting a pack of chewing gum and going at it. When we’re wounded, the nurse explained, our muscles clamp around the wound in an attempt to protect it.

The mere idea of chewing gum made Anne clutch at her throat. And sure enough, the first few seconds brought excruciatingly acute pain, a “ripping sensation” in her throat. But within minutes, the “chronic” pain was gone for good.

My current mantra relates to this stuff. In the midst of lots of big things coming up in my life–General Assembly being just one of them–my task has been to “hold it all lightly.” That’s a hard thing for me–I’m an excellent manager *cough*controlfreak*cough*.

But it will be the easier thing in the long run, as I’m able to be more flexible and gracious to embrace whatever comes.

Do you have a phrase or other wisdom that’s helping you through these days?


photo credit: Deborah Leigh (Migraine Chick) via photopin cc
This is one of the pictures that came up when I searched PhotoPin for “chronic pain” and I couldn’t resist.