It seems there’s a formula to the new-years-update letters we get around the holidays, usually from friends we only hear from once a year.

There are the photos of kids who can’t possibly be that grown up already, and the news of everybody’s milestones and victories. It seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of bragging. I’m OK with it, really… considering how much of our daily conversation is spent complaining about the boss, the idiot in traffic, or competing in the who-had-a-more-frustrating-day contest, it’s probably OK at year’s end to climb up somewhere tall and look down at the bigger picture, taking stock of our blessings and what went well this year.

2006 will be remembered, in my kids’ journals and our family history, as The Year Mom Went Back To School. Against all rules of timing, finances and common sense, I began an MFA last September, at a school 50 miles away. The artist’s way credo is “Leap, and the net will appear” — but to be honest, I would never have jumped without a couple of hands in the small of my back, pushing. (My teacher’s, my husband’s, and a couple of friends who didn’t think I’d lost my mind.)

I have learned that I was not as good a potter as I thought I was, and that I was a better student and harder worker than I had given myself credit for. I learned that the bonding experience of being grad students together bridged any age gap between my twenty-something peers and my own middle aged perspective.

I learned that I DO remember who I was and what I wanted before I was mommy, honey, mommy, mommy. I remember what it was like to be a student, again, which has made me a better teacher for my own kids. I pay more attention to the details, deciding when to step in and micromanage, when to step back and give them some autonomy… when I need to critique their progress, and when I need to reassure them that they are good kids with good minds and good hearts, doing a good job.

This was the year I started writing for Clay Times. It was the year I backed away from commitments and committees all over town, to free up my time for school. For the first time in 15 years, I had no vegetable garden, and I gave away my hens and tore down the coop. I do sigh over the pallid, flat yolks of store bought eggs, and I don’t think I can handle another summer without at least tomatoes, basil and eggplants, but I had to get rid of everything to see what I really needed to take back. My bees require a lot less attention than the hens did.

I built my woodfired clay bread oven this summer. I also fell in love with my husband all over again. The time we spend apart while I am at school gives me a whole new appreciation for the time we spend together, and the stress of my schedule and nights alone out of town make me appreciate the comfort of his company, even if he is sound asleep by the time I get off the highway and crawl into our bed. He is patient with my eccentricities, supportive, funny, creative, hard working and willing to try anything.

Jeff has mastered more woodworking skills this year, despite the fact that we missed our annual summer workshop trek to Appalachian Center for Craft. He has been working with segmented blocks of wood, which he glues together and turns. I’ll be putting some images on my website soon.

He went to Montana this year for the Organization of Biological Field Station Managers meeting, which he always enjoys. Next year he’ll be leading a panel about environmental outreach programs with homeschooled and school groups. His homeschoolers’ science class for this semester begins next week. In fact, the day that I am at school in Michigan all day, my kids will be going to work with their dad, to do experiments and research projects with their fellow “homies”.

Jeff has been the “kid taxi” since I started school, running kids to tae kwon do, gymnastics and scout meetings every week. His hair and short trimmed beard are very salt-and-pepper grey, and after a sales clerk made a comment about his charming “grandkids”, my kids have started to tease him by calling him “grandpa” in public. (He’s a pretty good sport about it.)

He went to Connecticut again this year to deer hunt with his brother-in-law and nephew, and came home with three deer! So our freezer is full for the year, and we’re grateful. (All that cutting, grinding and packaging is a big job, but a full freezer feels like money in the bank.)

What else can I tell you about my Jeff? He likes to kayak, likes good restaurants and cooking shows and enjoys cooking with my mom during the holidays — especially “fancy stuff”. He and Connor enjoyed taking some cooking classes together this year. He also ended up being the coach for the boys’lego robotics team, and camping out in the snow (without a tent) with Tyler’s scout troop for “Camp Alaska”.

Tyler turned 13 this year, and declared that he wanted to grow his thick red hair long, “like Ron Weasley in the third Harry Potter movie”. He has moments of looking alarmingly like a young man, and it has begun to dawn on us all that our babies are marching toward puberty at an alarming pace.

He loves Tae Kwon Do, draws elaborate cartoons, says he’s not really a “team sports kind of guy” but he seems to enjoy all the sports at the local recreation program. He’s still a bookworm, and has to be discouraged from sleeping in a pile of library books, and he grew an inch in the month of June. He spent his second week away at Boy Scout camp this last summer, and is ranked First Class as a scout, with merit badges in art, reading, space exploration, mammal study, swimming and rifle shooting. He also wheels and deals in pokemon cards with all the seriousness of a wall street day trader.

Tyler does pretty well in his lessons, especially when he applies himself. He tied for first in the last spelling bee, and the second of three is tomorrow, between sports and a saxophone lesson. He’s thinking he’d like to go to high school in two years, for that fine academic reason common to many homeschoolers: “to meet girls”. We may choose an on-line charter school for 8th grade, to get him used to deadlines, testing and grades in a more structured learning environment. He tested at a 12th grade level in his California Acheivement tests last spring, and scored “post high school” in so many areas that we’ve kind of stopped worrying about what public school will mean for him academically.

Connor is 11 this year, and still enjoys reading, fishing, and all things related to cooking and food. He can eat his weight in seafood at the local Chinese buffet/mongolian barbecue, but he has a lot of physical energy and keeps in good shape. He and his dad are definitely “foodies”, watching Iron Chef, and trying every odd treat from weird moldy cheeses to sushi. My parents took him out for his birthday and told him he could order whatever he liked… my dad’s jaw dropped when he asked for calamari, live lobster, and creme brulee for dessert.

Connor was on the robotics team as well this year, has his Arrow of Light as a cub scout and is a green belt in Tae Kwon Do (just ahead of his dad). He also tested at twice his current grade level, and likes decimals, history, fractions and science. He went on a fishing charter this year at Islamorada with my brother, my dad, and Jeff, and caught yellow snapper, king mackerel and a big barracuda. He has photos of them on his wall, next to his new BB Gun and his fishing rods. He likes campfire cooking and did a great job on our pop-up trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, during the Perseid meteor showers last August.

Molly is 8 this year, and it seems official that there are no more “little kids” at our house. She is barely 50 pounds, but has a big vocabulary and seems wise beyond her years. She says her favorite subjects for homeschool are geometry and folk tales. She loves reading, fishing and riding her new sparkly pink bike. She’s looking forward to horseback riding lessons, but she’s still too little this year. She also tested at twice her grade level last spring.

Molly’s in a brownie troop, adores her pet mouse, Miss Bianca, and has clever little hands for crafts. Her grandma taught her how to knit this year. She is good friends with another homeschooler in our neighborhood, a little girl named Hedyeh whose family is from Iran. (in fact, we’re all going there for dinner tonight!) Molly likes dresses and all things pink and sparkly, but can also shoot a BB gun, clean a fish, trade pokemon cards and stand her ground with the big brothers.

She is very good at piano, and has a habit of drifting by the piano on her way somewhere (she has inherited her mom’s ADD tendencies) and playing “cool breeze waltz” several times a day until it has almost become a mantra for everyone in the house. Molly’s getting very grown up, but she’s still cuddly. When her dad leaves for work early in the morning she usually finds her way to our bed to curl up and go back to sleep with mom, and many evenings when the guys are watching “Lord of the Rings” or something too scary for Molly, we find a thick blanket and a couple of books, make a nest and read all evening.

My parents are well and happy, living five miles from us for most of the year. Their annual new year’s migration to Florida has been delayed this week, since my dad’s last check up found a blocked carotid and he’ll have to stay here until he has surgery to clear it, but he has been through this before, and after his major bypass two years ago, it seems more like an inconvenience than a crisis. We spend lots of time with my folks at the cottage in Michigan during the summer, where dad is often out in the rowboat with Connor or Molly by sunrise, catching pan fish.

My brother lives maybe 15 miles from us, and is in love with a woman in Bogota, Columbia. He travels back and forth to spend time with her, and the visa is finally clear for her to come to the states for the first time. In the interim, they stay connected by the daily miracle of webcams and the internet. He can project her on the wall, when he gets home from work, and they spend the evening talking together.

His high definition video, “Out of the Shadows”, won an award in Hollywood this year, and he’s working on two more. His band continues to play once in a while at clubs or the local rib-off, but between his job, travel, hunting and fishing trips and new romance, he doesn’t have much time anymore.

Grandma is 91 this year, still driving, and living on her own. She’s in Michigan in the summer and Florida in the winters. We look forward to spending time with her when we visit in february.

OK, that’s all I can think to crow about for this year. I have students coming for private lessons in an hour and my studio is a mess, so I am off to make order out of chaos.