Friday, May 29, 2009

"Something More than a Miracle"

Last night, my book club met at my house, and it was a fun time, as it always is. However, we little discussed the book because I, as it happens, was the only one who liked it. The book in question is Gilead. If you haven't read it, it's about an elderly minister, John Ames, who has been blessed with a second-chance family late in life. He also suffers from angina pectoris and is expected to die fairly soon. So he decides the write notes to his seven-year-old son, an epistolary testament of his memories, in which he explores the meanings behind events, his past, his Christianity, and the sacred love he has for life.

The main criticisms are that the narrative is slow and repetitive, and these are fair assessments. Introspective retrospection (if you'll forgive the term!) is often both slow and repetitive. How many times do we revisit, through our memories, those events in our lives that have either deep meaning for us or some sense of heightened awareness, a sense of magnitude that is somehow just out of the reach of our conscious understanding? Or do we even take the time to do this, in our ridiculously busy culture? Perhaps we are too busy to think, to reflect, on how blessed we are just to be alive.

For more than two years, I've been acutely aware of the irrevocable passage of time. My children are growing so fast. My own childhood memories have taken on a luminous quality, even the darker ones. All of my grandparents are gone, although one still lives in a nursing home, oblivious to all and "useless." That word seems harsh, but it was her own word about the kind of dotage she did not want, but is living all the same.

So perhaps I've been in the mood for Gilead, for a quiet, poetic blessing of life, the sweet and the bitter. Perhaps I've needed to see with clarity the beauty of life, most of which slips by unnoticed by us. And even in his anxiety about leaving his young family behind after he dies, un-provided for, as it were, I couldn't help but join him in his joy in the life we are all blessed to live.

John Ames writes to his son: "You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."

As for the food, which is almost as important as the book, (ha!) I served a simple supper: grilled chicken souvlaki on skewers with tomatoes, Vidalia onions, lemon wedges, and Greek olives on the side; tzatziki sauce; and toasted pita triangles. For dessert, I made mocha mousse. Several ladies asked for the tzatziki and mousse recipes, so here they are:

(serves four -- I doubled it)
2 cups plain yogurt
1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and grated
1 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried dill

Line a strainer with a paper towel and place the strainer over a bowl. Pour the yogurt into the paper-lined strainer. Let drain in the fridge for 30 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix together the grated cucumber and the salt. Let sit 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze the cucumber to remove the liquid. Then mix the cucumber, garlic, dill, pepper, and yogurt together. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Mocha Mousse
(serves 8)
2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
1/3 cup confectioners sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup strong hot coffee
1 tablespoon Kahlua (optional -- I had it, so I used it)

Whip cream and sugar until set, but not stiff. Pulverize chips in a blender or food processor (that can handle liquids). Add hot coffee and blend. Scrape down any chocolate stuck to the side of the blender and blend again until well mixed. Chocolate should be melted. Add Kahlua, if using. Pour chocolate into the cream and fold together gently but thoroughly. Refrigerate and chill at least two hours. Serve in individual bowls. Or, before chilling, pour mousse into a serving bowl and then chill.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Swim Team: The Agony and the Glory

"When I run, I feel God's pleasure." --Eric Liddell, Olympic runner and missionary

We had our first swim meet last night, which we won by a landslide (am I mixing metaphors here?). It was a time of high excitement and celebration, since last year we won only one meet (by a very slight margin) and the year before was winless. If you've never had the pleasure of attending a meet, let me tell you that they drag on and on. We were at the pool from 5:00 p.m. until 10:30. If I were a decent parent, I'd insist that my family leave for home right after their last event, but no. They beg to stay to hear the final score report, and I relent. I'd be lying if I said I was not excited, myself.

For someone who is lukewarm toward sports in general, not competitive herself, nor good at any sport whatever, I change personality at swim meets. I cheer for every swimmer by name (we have a heat sheet, so we know who's swimming; they all look identical is their team swimsuits and caps). I rabidly cheer for my own. But at the risk of sounding pathetically sentimental, I'm not cheering for a win, but for an effort. And that's the attitude of everyone there.

Sadly, our culture places a high emphasis on our children excelling in everything. The idea(l) is so prevalent that we even give trophies to everyone just for merely existing, so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. To my mind, swim team is different. Sure, everyone gets a ribbon for each race (different colors for different places). But each child swam the length of the pool at least once to earn those ribbons.

As spectators, we can easily see the beauty and grace in the older kids who've been swimming for years: their speed, their agility, the perfection of their strokes. Yet there is also beauty and grace of a different kind in the five-year-olds dog-paddling, struggling down the length of the pool, looking up to see how much farther, hanging onto the ropes to rest a moment, doing their best to just get to the finish.

I recall one little girl in particular. Everyone else had already reached the finish, yet she soldiered on. To me, she looked seconds away from drowning as she flailed in the water, then grabbed the rope for a breath, repeating the process every foot or so. It was almost too agonizing to watch, but what a trooper! She finally touched the wall and we all cheered. Her dad, who'd been encouraging her at the end of the lane the entire time, swept her wet body up out of the pool, kissed the top of her head, and then wrapped her snugly in a towel.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Great Giveaway and an Even Better Essay

My friend Jackie has a wonderful giveaway going on over at her blog Hedgerow Ways and Fireside Days (one I love to read). It's a lovely book entitled Food from the Kitchen Garden, a subject near and dear to my heart. (Not that I have a kitchen garden. But I want one. To feel validated, I must tell you that I have a kitchen herb garden every summer. We're going to try for tomatoes this year. How's that for going out on a limb?)

While you're visiting Jackie's blog and registering to win the book, stay to read her fabulous essay called Beauty and the Beast. And then you'll know why I love to read her blog and why I'm proud to call her my friend.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


All our butterflies hatched as of this morning. Unfortunately, they did this on the sly -- I had hoped to catch at least one in the act of hatching! They've been enjoying the watermelon slices and sugar-water soaked tissues. We plan to observe them for a few days and then set them loose on the world.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Birthdays, Bah Humbug!

It's my dh's birthday today. To quote him, "It's just another day." He's not much for celebrating birthdays, and I spent a lot of time in our early years of marriage teaching him that not everyone feels the same way. Some of us, for instance, like to be recognized on the anniversary of the day we arrived on earth.

We're in our second decade of marriage, but my mother still has trouble accepting that he is as blase about birthdays (especially his own) as he claims to be. When my parents still lived nearby, we always had a family dinner and party on this auspicious occasion, complete with gifts. If we didn't, "his feelings might be hurt," my mother explained. My family is very celebratory.

So we do not let his birthday slide by unnoticed, regardless of his own opinions. We're glad he was born, and we're going to let him know! The girls made cards earlier today. We wrapped three books as gifts for him. A London broil marinates in the fridge, awaiting the grill. And we made his favorite peanut butter cookies for dessert, which, incidentally, are the best peanut butter cookies I've ever eaten. To keep the mood somewhat low-key, we forego the cake. But to leave out the birthday song is practically a sacrilege, don't you think?

Peanut Butter Cookies
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
maybe a little salt, if you use peanut butter with added sugar

Oven 350 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets. Cream everything together with a mixer. When it's all nice and combined, roll teaspoons of dough into small balls and place 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet. With a fork, make a cross-hatch pattern on each dough ball. Bake for 10 minutes. Let cool 2 minutes on the cookie sheet. Remove to baking rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Over My Head

So now that I'm into this blog thing, I decided to do some research to make my blog, you know, sing. Big mistake, because now I'm intimidated.

There are some really intense blogs out there! And I was mostly looking at homeschoolers' blogs. These people are serious.

It's painfully clear to me that I've got a lot of work to do to make this worth your time. So give me a few minutes, okay?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nature Study, My Way

I have a confession to make. I am no good at nature study. In case you're wondering why this is a Big Deal, nature study is a major component of the Charlotte Mason philosophy of homeschooling. Since I love the Charlotte Mason method, I should adore nature study. In fact, I am a nature study failure. Sort of.

Nature study aficionados have lovely nature study notebooks, into which they artistically render flowers, birds, and other flora and fauna they encounter on their weekly nature walks. I've seen lovely examples on blogs and websites. I tried this one time with the girls, and it was an unqualified disaster.

Full of high hopes for the experience, we packed everthing up for a nature walk at a nearby park. My backpack was laden with everyone's art supplies, as well as beach towels on which to sit, and water bottles. Oh, and a few snacks, for we were sure to become peckish on our lovely walk! My joy lasted about five minutes into the walk. The backpack was a tad heavy, and the colored pencils box banged into the small of my back. I soon insisted we choose a place right away to sit and sketch. Several negotiations ensued until we agreed on the perfect spot. By this time I was tetchy. And my sketches were awful. I have never been an artist, and it appears I shall never be.

Well, we all have different gifts. I decided to alter my approach and go with my natural interests and strengths.
For example, we have been backyard birders for years. Before Miss Priss was two, she could identify a tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee, frequent diners at our feeders just outside the breakfast room window. We couldn't do without our copy of Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. So I incorporated this hobby into our studies. Last year, we read the Burgess Bird Book, which is, fortunately, part of the Ambleside Online curriculum. This year, we participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count. We've been tracking preferences for different types of seed. Carolina chickadees, for example, prefer black oil sunflower seeds to sunflower meats.

For another project, I bought a butterfly garden and sent away for the caterpillars. They arrived in their plastic cup, complete with air holes and food for them to eat. A few days later, they crawled to the lid of the cup, hung there, and formed into chrysalids. We observed three caterpillars "perform" this really amazing feat. I'd never seen anything like it. Right now, all five chrysalids are hanging in the garden. We're kept journals of our observations, and we expect painted lady butterflies to emerge in four to seven more days.
Now, I know this is not classic nature study, as Charlotte Mason intended. But it works for us. And I no longer feel like a nature study loser!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I May as Well Go for It

. . . since I have nothing ELSE to do. Blogging, that is. After a few friends suggested that I might want to start a blog, I hemmed and hawed over it for a long time. After all, isn't it such a responsibility? Won't I feel tied down? I don't need anything else to make me feel guilty, thanks. But then I had a few ideas on what I could write about (this is not one of them, by the way), and decided to give it a try. I still feel like a fish out of water.

(If you could find it in your heart to extend a little grace to me while I stumble around, I'd appreciate it.)

A bit of background by way of introduction: I am a southern belle married to a Yankee. Our family divides our time between New England and the Deep South, which we can do because we homeschool our two girls. Tiny Girl is eight and Miss Priss is nine. (They probably wouldn't like these nicknames, so let's just keep them to ourselves, shall we?) I love homeschooling because of the freedom it offers to live life the way that best suits us as a family. We tried public school for one year (Miss Priss's first-grade year), and that was enough. My life changed dramatically -- and not for the better -- just because she went to school! I thought "There has to be a better way." And there is!

Since I am a bluestocking and proud of it, I prefer a literature-based curriculum. Fortunately, so do the girls. I tend to blend Charlotte Mason and classical (as we define it today) elements in my planning. We use Ambleside Online for the bulk of our curriculum choices, although I, as a natural rebel, make alterations as we go along. I also like the book suggestions from the Tanglewood School's website. More on all this as I progress.

I am an avid reader and prefer reading to almost anything else. It's my chief hobby. I tend to pick up new hobbies and discard them after a while (like scrapbooking and crocheting -- I only ever made scarves!), but reading is my lifelong passion. I also enjoy writing and have written a few short stories for children (as well as numeous scholarly papers, but that's another story). I'm sort of "working on" a YA historical novel, but I mostly don't work on it. I'm blogging instead!