Friday, December 30, 2011

525,600 Minutes

"Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?"
- Seasons of Love, from RENT
[Complete lyrics here.]
[Song performed here. (A Caroline/Mama favorite.]

Just a few of this year's 525,600 minutes ...

We celebrated marriages. 
We welcomed a baby cousin. 
We bid my father farewell. 
We climbed mountains. 
We adopted a puppy ... who quickly became a dog. 
We became Those People. You know, people who buy a doggie cupcake for their pet's birthday. 
We created things. 
We tried to do small things with great love. 
We said "I love you" and "I'm sorry" and "Is that kind?" 
We went barefoot. 
We laughed. 
We cried. 
We put many miles on the van. 
We whispered prayers. 
We sang.
We sighed. 
We found it was better to sing than be sighing. 
We learned to say "Thank You" ... in a bit more of everything. 
We felt the thrill of the finish line. 
We made new friends and kept the old. 
We traveled with family and friends. 
We washed, dried, folded, put away. Again. 
We went to bed too late. 
We did not accomplish everything we set out to do. 

But we loved well. 
And that's how we measure a year. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just Because ...

Because they call Mini Coopers "Tofu Cars" and pinch each other upon sightings. 

Because she can't make it through the American Girl books I get for her at the library but has plunged into Eragon, her brother's latest obsession. 

Because he begs her to walk the dog with him every single morning, and mostly, she does.

Because they bought each other nearly the exact same HexBugs for Christmas. 

Because she can predict when he'll need to, as she puts it, "exercise some flexibility," and understands just what that takes for him. 

Because he speaks with pride of her "silent but deadlies."

Because they start their mornings in a snuggle ball. 

Just because ... I love this photo. And I'm their mother. Forever and ever, amen. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Top Ten Books of 2011

Hey, friends! Here's hoping your weekend was festive and cozy and calm and bright and whatever else you were hoping it would be. 'Round these parts, we're dedicating this week to mostly being home, shelving the schedule, building marble runs, digging underground forts in the back yard, building castles on Minecraft, an occasional outing, catching up on Project Life, more time than usual in pajamas, and plenty of gentle reading.

And with a backward glance to the year, I thought I'd share my favorite reads, some of which I've already discussed here. Without further ado ... and in no particular order ... the literary highlights of 2011:

1. Winter Garden
I read this on my own and then reviewed it a few months later with my book club. This is the kind of book you can't put down, even when your heart aches. It makes you want to hug your little ones close and keep the refrigerator stocked. Loved. Needed Kleenex.

2. Jane Eyre
 A re-read, and even better than I remembered.

3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Okay, this book made me feel a bit guilty about shopping at Costco, but don't we all need a little reexamination now and then? Barbara Kingsolver writes so beautifully and even humorously that you can enjoy her writing even if you're not quite ready to embrace the full-on locavore lifestyle. And reading this did prompt a few extra visits to the farmer's market.

4. Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life
I started this in 2010 and finished in 2011, according to GoodReads. Definitely a book that changed my perspective on doing vs. being, and definitely one I'll need to re-read at regular intervals. Loved.

5. One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
 I mentioned this book several times on my old blog, and I think many of you may have read it. Did I love reading this book? Hmmm, hard to say. The writing style is intense. I had to read it in small chunks. I found myself desperately wishing for [the appropriate use of] adverbs. And articles. BUT. Of all the books I read this year, and maybe even in the last five years, this probably changed my life, my thinking, my emotional landscape the most. No exaggeration.

6. The Count of Monte Cristo
Talked about it here. I've decided it's in the running for Favorite Work of Fiction of All Time. It has the length, the depth, the emotional impact of Les Miserables without all the arcane details about Paris neighborhoods and Napoleonic battles that make your eyes glaze over. Awesome.

7. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings
Okay, can you believe I'd never read Tolkien until this year? For reals. I had to see what all the fuss was about, especially among my men. And I liked it. I'm not going to go all LOTR on you, but I think Tolkien can take his place among the best of them, and I loved picturing his collegial weekly chats with C.S. Lewis over his manuscripts.

8. The Little Women Letters
This book was just fun. And we all need a little fun sprinkled into our reading, don't you think? That's not to say it was trivial or poorly written, but it didn't require substantial processing, either. I loved the family, and I got a real kick out of the matriarch's advice to her engaged daughter for a happy marriage, which can be summed up in one word: Treats. Read the book, and you'll understand. I think she's onto something.

9. Wives and Daughters
I'm not sure why Jane Austen gets all the attention -- you know I love you, Jane -- while Elizabeth Gaskell languishes in relative obscurity, but it took watching Cranford and North and South to discover this author. If Austen tends to feature the landed gentry, Gaskell seems to focus more on the common man ... or woman. She's dead-on in her insights into the subtleties of human nature and relationships.

10. The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education
Apparently, I didn't do a whole lot of reading about parenting or homeschooling this year. But in preparation for joining Classical Conversations this past fall, I read Leigh Bortins' treatise on classical education in the home, and found it pretty approachable, with plenty of thoughtful quotes about the value of what we're doing and aiming at here amid our seemingly ordinary days at the kitchen table and on the trampoline. Here's a favorite quote:

"Words need to be savored, laughed at and cried over, wrestled with, and stomped on. They should hit us in the head, knock us off our feet, and spin us around. Words should the thoughts in our heads that comfort, challenge, sharpen, soften, frighten and embolden." 

I have a few already on the TBR list for 2012, but if you have any favorites from the year you'd like to recommend, feel free to share! 

[Full disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, which means that purchasing through these links helps fund my family's reading habits, but if you prefer to find your books at your local library or independent bookstore, more power to you!]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Joy to the World

(All images of my children and nieces courtesy of Sabrina Bean photography. I want to take photos like this when I grow up. Amen.)

God Bless You, Every One!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Made With Love

As you may have noticed, I'm not known for my wizardry with the glue gun or the knitting needles. However, I can totally get behind the concept of homemade gifts, and this year we have some doozies up our sleeves for one another. At least, I think they're doozies. One involves some woodshop time spent by three generations of our family's menfolk, and how can you even start to giftwrap that?

My craft method of choice is all about photos. Shutterfly is my go-to, as I make calendars for both sides of the family every year (and every year they're TOTALLY SURPRISED! It's amazing! Wink.). And this year, my children will be receiving digital scrapbooks, which I've compiled, using my passable Photoshop Elements skills, at approximately the pace of a lame tortoise. I can't wait to see their faces as they pore over the books.

And this morning, as I assisted Caroline in her endeavor to make her sister a pair of ear muffs out of a hairband and two giant pom-poms, the following discussion took place.

Caroline: OK, now we need to make another pair.
Me: Oh yeah? Who are those for?
Caroline: I can't tell you. It's a surprise.

Note to Completely Mystified Self: You love your job

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Things Don't Go As Planned

It's funny how plans can go awry.

Not seriously whackadoo, but just ... differently than expected. At the beginning, I made this lovely December Family Fun calendar modeled on this advent calendar (we do our own kind of Advent separately). Trying to keep our focus off of THINGS and more on PEOPLE (and shared experiences), I put a sticky note on each card, which the kids have loved opening each day. Some days it's no-stretch fun: a family Mario Kart tournament, or decorating homemade wrapping paper, or a drive around town to look at some of the funkier light displays. Some days it's more of a you-will-discover-the-joy-as-you-do-it fun: making lunches to distribute to some homeless folks under the bridge, or singing with a group of friends at a nursing home. Some days, it's a combination: taking their grandmother out for frozen yogurt, or baking for neighbors.

Along the way, there've been some hiccups, starting with running out of number stickers before finishing the calendar.

One child woke up sick the morning we were scheduled to visit the nursing home.

I didn't get around to finding a puzzle to work on together the day that was scheduled.

The homemade gingerbread pieces I spent considerable time rolling out and baking completely failed at our gingerbread house decorating party with friends. Within ten minutes, all eight kids were using graham crackers instead.

 Et cetera, et cetera.

But when I'm tempted to chafe at the chinks in my plans, He reminds me: If your focus really is on Christ in this season and in every season, then why does it matter? Do you want perfection, or do you want peace?

After all, the King of Kings wasn't born into a Martha Stewart nursery. His crib sheets didn't match His bumper pads. Oh, wait: He didn't have crib sheets. I doubt Joseph and Mary even had the carseat installed on the donkey's back, rear-facing. I wonder if Mary sputtered to Joseph, "But ... but ... here? In a barn? Honey, we're not even at home! This place smells like manure! This wasn't my plan!"

And that baby, who was born "Jesus, our Emmanuel" can still be "Emmanuel, God With Us" today. Even -- especially? --  in those moments when family members don't seem to be contributing as I wish they would, or the printer runs out of toner before all our annual letters get spewed out, or I've forgotten someone who deserves a call or a card or a gift, or I suspect that my kids might be taking my efforts for granted.

This truth eases into focus, as I survey the crumbled gingerbread pieces and the children's laughing faces: It's through the cracks in our imperfect lives that light can shine through.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Best Toys $5 Can Buy

So you've seen GeekDad's list of the 5 Best Toys of All Time?

Genius, I tell you.

When my first child was a toddler, I pored over educational toy catalogs, amassing as many high-quality, wooden, open-ended toys as the budget would permit. Oh, and Thomas the Tank Engine trains. I loved Hearthsong, HABA, Magic Cabin, and the like. I was kind of a toy nerd.

By the time my third child came along, we were living in smaller quarters and on a correspondingly smaller budget (grad school!). The poor child rarely received new toys.

If you know Caroline, you know that she suffered IMMENSELY from this injustice. No imagination. IQ just fair to middling. It's a very sad story.

In her honor, I'd like to continue the GeekDad list (Stick, Box, String, Cardboard Tube, Dirt) with a few of our own kid-tested, mother-approved favorites.

1. Straws. You've heard of Tinker Toys? Granted, those will last longer, but give a child a 99-cent box of drinking straws and you might be surprised at the creations that will result.

2. Bubble Wrap. I personally know of at least two adults who tied a ribbon around a roll of bubble wrap and gave it to a child for Christmas, only to find that all other presents paled in comparison. Want to win the Cool Relative Award? Snap, crackle, pop.

3. Hammer. Nails. Wood. A friend of mine once gave her oldest son a pile of scrap lumber and some tools for Christmas. That's terrific ... but how about this? My neighbor, Emily, stopped by one day to dump a tree stump on our doorstep. "That's for your kids!" she called cheerfully as she drove away. Sure enough, they pounded nails into that thing until they had chain mail. Thanks Emily!

4. Duct Tape. Ian likes to remind me that it's just like The Force: It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds everything together. I can't begin to describe the number of things that have been manufactured at our house with this substance. Bonus: It now comes in fluorescent colors and funky patterns. Check your local craft store.

5. Aluminum Foil. Caroline has made probably hundreds of things from this, from origami objects to multiple pairs of shoes. We usually give her a roll for long car trips, and we've had certain houseguests bring her a roll when they come to stay. Isn't it endearing to have adults in your life who understand how your child ticks?

6. Fire. As in, matches and candles. Blah blah blah parental supervision blah blah blah responsible oversight blah blah blah. Don't send the authorities after me. But seriously, friends. Do you know how long my two girls can sit at a table melting candle wax, watching the shape of candles and flames change before their eyes, sculpting creations from wax, making fake sealing wax for fake letters, etc.? Answer: a very long time. In fact, I had seven girls at this house just yesterday doing this for a solid hour.

And time will fail me if I tell of water, reams of paper, recycled tires, and old silky scarves, the larger the better.

Wealth untold, right at their fingertips.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Great Biggo List of Book Lists

(Aw, look! It's my children reading Shakespeare! Really! Okay. Not really.)

I simply had to include the words "Great Biggo List" in the title of this post, because it's a favorite turn of phrase of my dear friend Stefani (see what I mean?), and last year she gave me one of my favorite books ever (oooh! Currently bargain-priced!) for Christmas. In fact, I think a re-read is definitely in order.

But anyway. Most of us are in gifting mode these days, and what better way to dazzle a child's imagination than to present him or her with a delicious new book? Here's a roundup of some great places on the Web to find high quality suggestions.

For hot-off-the-press reads, NPR's Michele Norris presents Top 5 Books for Backseat Readers. I totally have my eye on that memoir by Allen Say, as I think he's one of the best children's author/illustrators ever. In the world, even.

Melissa Wiley has ideas for you, and believe me, this gal knows her stuff. In the comments, she and her readers may even toss you a personalized suggestion! How's that for service?

I've mentioned MotherReader's amazing book-giving list before, and now she's updated it. 150 ways to give a book? Yes, please.

The Chinaberry catalog/website always has a well-curated lineup.

I often consult Sonlight, a company catering to homeschoolers, for reliably great, wholesome, age-appropriate, literature for curl-up-together or independent reading.

Here's a list of 1000 Classic Children's Books, starting with picture books. A while back, I printed out a copy just to see how we were doing. :-) I'd say a child who's read all or most of those books couldn't fail to get a mighty fine education.

GoodReads is a wonderful resource. I use it for keeping track of my personal reading, my children's reading, our shared reading, our audiobooks, etc. In that way, it becomes a built-in homeschool recordkeeping system ... and it's easier than ever now I have the iPhone app. I just scan the barcode of a book we've finished and add it to my shelves. Ta-da! Plus, I can see what my friends are reading (Hey Raji! Hey others!) and get recommendations from GoodReads based on what's already on our shelves. Golden.

Okay, so I promised you "Great Biggo," but any more links and I probably run a serious risk of overwhelming you, if you're anything like me.

What about you? Are you planning to give books this year? Where do you like to gather suggestions and make your purchases?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Whatever You Do ...

Class, are we ready for a frank discussion?

[Draws deep breath, actually feeling stomach quiver as she wades into sensitive waters.]

So, this is a time of year when blogging becomes quite awkward for me, aside from the fact that I seem to either have writer's block or schedule block these days. Why awkward, you say? Why not write well-photographed posts about all the cute activities and sweet moments you're sharing with your children?

Well, it goes like this. (I told my friend J. I would write this post, and now I'm finding out just how ridiculously much I care what people think. Sad.)

I know a whole lot of Christians, some of whom read this blog, who don't celebrate Christmas. Wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. In fact, if you really backed them into a corner, they might say that you can't truly love Jesus and celebrate Christmas, because many Christmas traditions reportedly have pagan origins, and light can't mix with darkness.

Then I know a whole lot of Christians, some of whom read this blog, who can't imagine not celebrating Christmas. In fact, they might say that you can't truly love Jesus and NOT celebrate Christmas, because it's all about Him being born, the Word becoming flesh, and as believers, we must stand strong against the secularization of our society. None of this "Happy Holidays!" stuff, please.

Finally, I know a lot of non-Christians, some of whom read this blog, who have only the foggiest idea of what I'm talking about. This post may confuse the bejeebers out of you, and you totally have my permission to skip it. :-)

I bet some of you are wondering just where I stand. You'd like to know exactly what our family does at this time of year. Then maybe you can figure out just what kind of Christian I am, anyway, and what my spiritual condition is. Yeah, I understand the impulse.

Well. The truth is, no matter what I say here as I strive for simplicity and balance, some noses are going to be whacked all out of joint. I cannot please everyone. Possibly, I cannot please most. Also, I don't want the way the Lord has led us to become someone else's excuse for not following their own leading.

But, at the same time, I need to be authentic. If I share things in this space during this season that don't jive with you, I humbly ask you for grace. If you're truly bothered one way or another, please read elsewhere, and perhaps we'll meet again in 2012. :-)

Here are a couple general principles I have come to embrace:

1. To Christmas or Not To Christmas is not spelled out in the Word of God, and should not be treated as an item of the common Christian faith. It should never become a weapon with which God's children can judge, hurt or measure one another.

2. Regardless of what you do or do not put in your home in December, the tree that really matters is the Tree of Life. Today, that Tree is a Person, and He lives in His believers, and He wants us to follow Him rather than a set of rules that lead to death. Spiritual death, that is. I'll bet you already know the symptoms.

3. It is better to say YES than to say NO. Meaning, I want to be positively motivated by joy rather than negatively motivated by fear. When we say "no" to something, it should be because we're saying "yes" to something more important -- or why say "no?" Life's too short to do otherwise.

And that's as specific as I'm going to get. :-) But I have lots of thoughts on the subject, so if you'd like to email me privately with your thoughts (civilly, please) or personal experience (nonjudgmentally, please), we can chat. Of course, there's always the comment box.

Here's a link to a blog post that I found rather balanced and thoughtful on the subject.

Now. Onward and upward! Only smiles on this blog from now on!

Or at least, peace on earth and goodwill among men.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Revenge is Not So Sweet

Aaaaand a little more bookishness.

At the breakfast table, the children and I are reading the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. Lo and behold, we stumble across the very verse I've been mulling over ever since I finally finished The Count of Monte Cristo.

I look up. I offer them a tidbit of story, and next thing you know, they're begging for details, and their eyes widen as I describe a prisoner, hurtling through the night air in a body bag, landing with a splash in the sea, fighting to cut his own ropes free and disappear into the night, memory, oblivion. There's a huge treasure, I tell them. And while everyone believes him dead, he goes to find it. And then the rest of his life begins.

 Not for nothing is it called the Greatest Revenge Story Ever Told. (In fact, at one point my Kindle margin note simply reads: "DUDE." I am quite profound that way.)

Here's Edmond Dantes [betrayed and wrongfully imprisoned as a young, talented, beloved and faultless man] toward the end of his story: "Still I was but an agent, led on by an invisible and offended Deity, who chose not to withhold the fatal blow that I was destined to hurl."

And here's Joseph, son of Jacob [betrayed and wrongfully imprisoned as a young, talented, beloved and faultless man[ toward the end of his: "Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Gen. 50:19-20)

The contrast can't be more striking, and it comes down to this, I tell the children: Do we believe that being God is our job, or His? Do we believe His heart is always good toward us, so that out of a temporary evil can come a greater good? Or do we believe He stays distant, watching us hurt one another and expecting us to skillfully execute His justice on one another?

Ever been thrown into a dungeon?
No? Your siblings aren't that rotten?
How about betrayal? How about injustice? How about accusations? How about hurt?
Ever been a victim?

The path of Dantes leads to death, madness, separation, sorrow -- and for the avenger, a "yawning abyss of doubt." The path of Joseph leads to a harvest of grain that feeds an entire nation for seven years, reunites a family, and blesses an empire.

Which do we choose?

And that's what I love about reading the classics. God speaks in many portions and in many ways, doesn't He?

P.S. If you've never read The Count, but have seen the movie, please, please, remedy that situation. There is no way a two-hour movie, even if it's good, IF it stars the dazzling Jim Caviezel, can do justice to such a book. Get your Caviezel from weekly episodes of Person of Interest instead ... and Then let's talk about it!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Stories We Tell

"When they were little the children were always wanting stories. We read them stories and we told them stories .... But we did tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and the listening, usually the last thing right before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life than we had?"
- Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

My book club's reading Hannah Coulter this month. Have you read any Wendell Berry? He'd been on my TBR list for a while. Hannah was a lovely introduction to his work, I thought. An homage to the Greatest Generation and to the beauty of the land and the people who've tilled it and bonded over it and wondered, as Hannah [the title character, not me, I don't refer to myself in the third person] does, why the succeeding generations -- their own children -- turn from that connection and drift away. 

I mulled that over -- it's one of many gems among the pages -- and at first thought it probably didn't apply so well in my own life. I'm not exactly a fount of stories to my own children. It's silly, really, but if they ask for autobiographical stories, my mind becomes a blank canvas. None of my childhood memories seem to contain the elements of a good yarn (you know -- plot! tension! resolution! humor!).

After a few days, light came. Actually, I'm telling my children a subtle little story every day. 

It's like this, you see. I like to call on the name of the Lord. It's the simplest prayer on earth: "Lord Jesus." It's easy. It's reviving. And -- what fun! -- it's super scriptural. And often, it's just barely audible, like breathing. 

But guess when I tend to call on the Lord most audibly in my children's presence? 

That's right. When things just ain't as they should be. They're bickering and the dog is licking scraps out of the open dishwasher and there's grated cheese all over the floor and no one has heard my third request for someone to set the table and we have run out of sandwich bread even though I just went grocery shopping two days ago for goodness' sake. 

And I can already see it in their faces. Mom said "Lord Jesus." Something must be wrong. 

Is this the story I want to tell my children? That the sweetest name on earth is little more than an expression of frustration? 

There's still time, though. They haven't grown up and left the farm quite yet. I still have a chance to course-correct the story, to show them that Jesus is more than a foul-weather friend and that Mom is happy a good part of the time because she's learning to give thanks in all things, the bitter and the sweet, and that there are times when breathing a Name can be a deliberate choice, a exhalation of unencumbered joy. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Weekend Mission: A Thank You Note

Y'all, I'm terribly delinquent. It's been, what? one? two? weeks without a weekend mission, and this one I'm posting so late that sweet Tamara, who requested the missions to continue, is probably already tucked into bed, weekend half over over there in The Netherlands (Holland? Enlighten me.).

Our mission this weekend is simple. It can take sixty seconds, or much longer, according to your pleasure. Remember my post earlier this week about developing thankfulness in ourselves and our children?

Let's write thank you notes. Just one, please. It can be for a recent gift, or a favor done (I have a friend in South Carolina who used to write us notes every time we had them over to dinner!), or just a "thank you for everything you've meant to me," perhaps with Kleenex enclosed. :-)

It's amazing, the power of words, both to wound and to bless. A couple weeks ago, a mom I've only recently met through our Classical Conversations group wrote me a short email containing a few lines that absolutely warmed me through and through. Like, even more than a pumpkin spice latte. Let's spread some of that love around before the weekend's up!

(P.S. Email is OK ... but nothing beats a handwritten something in the mail these days!)

(P.P.S. Speaking of email, I always love to hear about your experiences with weekend missions, either that way or via the comment box.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Slice of Truth

I'll tell you a true thing.

If you're fortunate enough to be a mother of an eleven year old boy, it's entirely possible that you'll step outside in time to hear the following words:

"This is the paint balloon that's going to change the course of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE."

And you may decide, in the split second before you open your mouth, that as much as you'd like a clean patio, a boy needs space to create his own stories and take delight in his own creation. You may also decide that this will not prevent him from growing up into a man who respects persons and property.

When you see what's happened to his brand new shirt, you may be tempted to change your mind.

The next day, when you see what he did with the paint splotch, you'll smile gently to yourself and be happy that life goes on.