Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Humble Beauty of Soup

I'm a soup girl. Not the store-bought, canned variety -- homemade soup. I ate a lot of it growing up and love it still. And while I fully admit that there are some perfectly wonderful soups that are well worth making on purpose (a good, creamy clam chowder is one), the best kinds of soup, to my mind, are those made with what one has on hand.

On Christmas Day, I roasted a pork picnic (bone-in). This typically inexpensive roast is wonderfully flavorful and makes a great soup or stew afterward. We feasted on Christmas Day and had loads of meat left on the roast. I wrapped it up and stuck it in the fridge.

On the fourth day of Christmas, I put the roast in a Dutch oven, covered it with water, and set it to boil. Then I simmered it for a few hours, til the meat was falling off the bone. The last 30 minutes, I added some cut up carrots and potatoes. I forgot to add some onion, so I threw in some onion powder -- I really missed the onion, though.

When the vegetables were cooked but still a tad crunchy, I removed the bone and meat hunks. Then I cut up the meat and put it back in the pot along with some some leftover limas. All other leftovers are worth consideration here, as well. The broth tasted thin, so I grabbed a jar of ham-flavored Better than Bouillon paste and added a tablespoon or so to the soup. This made all the difference in the world and really gave the soup depth it had lacked before. Then I let it simmer a bit longer to finish up the vegs and let the flavors blend.

(Aside: I've come to prefer Better than Bouillon base over bouillon cubes in the last few years. I have jars of chicken, ham, and beef flavors in my refrigerator as I type. I use it to flavor vegetables, soups, stews, you name it. The sodium is, of course, high, so take that into account if you need to watch such things. However, a tablespoon in a big pot of soup is not really that much.)

This was probably the best soup I've ever made. Good thing, since I had quite a vat of it in the end. I had some cornbread (not the yellow, sweet kind, but the Real Thing) in the freezer, and it was the perfect complement. The rest of my family (sweet yellow cornbread muffin lovers, all) preferred saltines.

And when the weather is chilly and damp, like it is today where I live, there's nothing like soup for soothing body and soul. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Most Perfect Gift

"All I want is what's coming to me. All I want is my fair share."
-- Sally in Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

On this Christmas Eve, I thank my God that what He had planned is so much more than what I should have coming to me, so much more than what I really deserve. In the gift of God's son, Jesus Christ, there is more grace than I could ever comprehend.

And that's what Christmas is all about.

Blessings from our family to yours as we celebrate the most perfect gift, the birth of our Savior.

Hallelujah! The King is here!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Few Kitchen Successes

Not everything was a flop this season. The red velvet cupcakes with the white chocolate peppermint cream cheese frosting were tasty. I even managed to locate four candy bows that weren't hideous or embarrassing and put them atop four of the cupcakes, which I gave to friends.

The Tuscan shortbread is always a winner, and so is the saltine toffee. I've had requests for recipes for the latter two, so here they are.

Saltine Toffee
Everyone who tastes these thinks they are divine. I have to agree.
At least one sleeve saltines
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups (1 12-oz bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 chopped nuts (optional -- I never use them)
more butter for greasing the pan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter well a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides) and then line with the saltines in a single layer, breaking pieces to fit if needed. Set aside.

Combine butter and brown sugar in a saucepan and melt over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and boil for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Immediately pour over saltines and and spread to cover as best you can. there may be a few at the edges that remain uncovered. Bake for five minutes. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle chocolate chips over top. Let sit for five minutes.

Spread melted chocolate over all the crackers and then sprinkle with nuts, if using. Cool completely. I often pop them in the fridge to speed up the cooling process.

Break into pieces. A pizza cutter helps immensely. Whatever you do, remember to hide some of this stuff in your pantry. After one bite, you're going to crave it.

Tuscan Shortbread
Not your run-of-the-mill shortbread, these scrumptious bars are fantastic with a cup of tea. Frankly, they're fabulous any way you eat them.
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 T chopped fresh rosemary or 2 t dried (I've used both successfully, but prefer fresh)
1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pine nuts on a cookie sheet and toast in preheated oven til they are a bit darker and fragrant, about five minutes. Take care not to burn them! Remove from oven and pour onto a plate.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. remove from heat and stir in confectioners' sugar, rosemary, and pine nuts. Then stir in flour to make a stiff dough.
Pat into an ungreased 8-inch square pan, making sure the dough is even. Bake until golden and firm at edges, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cut with a sharp knife into 16 squares. Let cool in pan at least 10 minutes before removing with a small spatula.
The bars can be stored tightly covered for five days, but I highly doubt they'll last that long. You can also freeze them for future use.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Confessions of a Mediocre Cook

I've spent more than seven hours in my kitchen today, attempting to throw some things together for Christmas. Many things were going against me. One, I try too many new things. Two, my cooking fantasies far outstrip my actual capabilities. This is never good.

Here's what my kitchen looked like today. And sort of still does. I spared you the photo of the sink piled high with dirty pots, pans, spoons, etc.

The red velvet cupcakes I made for friends turned out nicely, albeit a bit plain-jane looking. The frosting was a first-time recipe, and I was pleased with the results. I wanted a really white frosting, and this fit the bill. But I have to admit, the cupcakes I envisioned were certainly more noteworthy. If not elegant, then at least flashy. But no.

On the flip side, this Tuscan Shortbread is fabulous. I've made it dozens of times, and it's so easy. Fabulous and easy -- what's not to love?

Here's one of the completely new things I tried. I used Wilton Candy Melts and a decorating bag with a writing tip. I drew bow figures with Sharpie on parchment paper, flipped the paper over, and then piped the bows. As you can see, most look like a toddler made them. Note the blobs of white chocolate on and around the bows. But the red sugar was a nice touch, right?

The second tray was much, much better. So I was aghast to note that I'd forgotten to flip the parchment paper before piping. Here's the result. So the prettiest bows are now languishing in my trashcan. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Dh just got home and looked over what I'd done. He had a hard time believing me it took all day. It takes longer when you're not very good at it. By the way, if you want any of the recipes, let me know and I'll post them.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bake Your Way to Happiness

Or something like that. In an effort to rid myself of a dispirited, bah-humbug frame of mind, I have flung myself into some baking this afternoon. So far, I've made cupcakes (26), and a dozen cinnamon/orange/cranberry muffins are in the oven now. I've never made the muffins before; if they turn out nicely, I'll post the recipe. Here they are! I have high hopes for them.
I'm planning on a white chocolate peppermint buttercream for the as-yet-unfrosted cupcakes.

Some of the cupcakes turned out a little wonky-looking, but it's nothing a heap o' frosting can't fix. Like a lot of things in life.

MUFFIN UPDATE: They were awful. The fresh cranberries were so tart that the muffins were inedible. Oh, well. I guess the birds will be glad.

It's Christmastime in the Suburbs

And I am SO behind. I haven't sent any Christmas cards. I printed out several yesterday, and addressed them this morning. But I still need to print more. I'm on of "those" people who sends a Christmas letter, but only to friends and family we see rarely. I actually enjoy reading other people's Christmas letters and hearing their news. It's faster than a phone call.

I've done no baking, but the girls and I went to the grocery yesterday to buy what we needed. This year, we're going to try our hand at these really cute Christmas tree meringues, featured on Duh-licious. Also on the list are peanut butter fudge, buckeye bars, Tuscan shortbread (with rosemary and pine nuts), and chewy ginger cookies. We'll see what actually transpires. My plans tend to exceed my reality.

We've turned to Christmas books for our family readings, as well. For our scriptural study, we've read and discussed both Matthew's and Luke's writings on the birth of Jesus and his presentation at the temple. We've also consulted Isaiah to read Old Testament prophecies about Jesus. Just a smattering of other books we've enjoyed at Christmas are: Terry Kay's To Whom the Angel Spoke (this is especially wonderful); Henry van Dyke's The Story of the Other Wise Man; Charles Tazewell's sweet (albeit scripturally unsound -- humans do not transform into angels after they die) The Littlest Angel; and Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

So, time marches on. Christmas will come whether I've made my shortbread or not. But as I look at our busy-ness and the busy-ness of friends and neighbors around me, I feel a deep need to simplify, to settle in, to be quiet at home, and to truly contemplate the miracle of Emmanuel. God with us.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Our Week in Review, Sort Of

When I sat down to write a wrap-up of this past week, I realized that we had really just continued everything we'd been working on the previous week. Just different pages. And nothing terribly fabulous or exciting had occurred either. This is not the sort of exciting stuff with which a wrap-up to make. So I skipped it. I guess some weeks are just like that.

In other news, both girls were invited to a sleepover birthday party in our neighborhood on Friday night, so Dh and I enjoyed a rare date night. It was lovely. We went out to eat at a non-kid-friendly restaurant, and then I beat him at Scrabble in front of a roaring fire. (Only by six points, but still.) What more could a girl ask?

My parents visited the next day and spent Saturday night with us. On Sunday, we went out to lunch at our favorite barbecue place to celebrate my Dad's birthday. A live band entertained us with a varied program, including bluegrass, Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, the Beatles, John Denver, etc. We all enjoyed it, but my Dad particularly enjoyed it, which was wonderful. I have been especially blessed in my parents, and it was a joy to celebrate my Daddy.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I'm feeling quite warm and fuzzy at the moment, and I intend to enjoy every second. A few challenges await me in the coming days, so I'll relish all the warm and fuzzy I can get.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Frohe Weihnachten

My sister's friend and her daughter from Germany visited with us this Thanksgiving. They brought gifts for my daughters, one of which was this unique advent calendar. I say unique because it's unlike any advent calendar I've seen in the States.

It came on two sheets of cardstock: one of which was the stable and the other features all the figures for the scene. Nothing is perforated, and the directions were in German, which I don't read; so we sort of winged it. I cut out the stable and folded where I thought I should and then glued it together. Each day, we cut out that day's figure (they are numbered) and glue it into place. The baby Jesus (squalling, appropriately, and complete with halo) goes into the manger on Christmas Eve.

Several of the figures are humorous, but the astronaut on the right (in the photo below) has us quite flummoxed!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Drop In & Decorate Scout Event a Success!

I posted a couple of weeks or so ago about Drop In & Decorate, a non-profit organization that helps people plan and organize a cookie-decorating party for a group and then donate the cookies to a charitable organization. Last week, our Girl Scout troop (Juniors) had a blast taking part.

Before our troop meeting, I baked a slew of sugar cookie cut-outs, made white icing (see recipe below), made buttercream frosting, and bought a few other decorating items (like tubes of "writing" icing). I already have enough sprinkles to stock a bakery. The day of our meeting, I tinted some of the buttercream yellow, green, and blue. I prefer to use the Wilton gel colors because you only need to use a tiny bit and the colors are quite vivid.

Since I did not want a cookie-decorating-free-for-all, I divided our troop into two groups. Another leader had printed out photos of nicely decorated cookies, and we also checked out the Drop In & Decorate webpage of decorated cookies. I stressed the idea that they should take their time to decorate a cookie that people would actually want to eat -- unlike the ones kids tend to make for themselves to eat. Gag!

Of course, after they had decorated their cookies for donation, they each got to decorate one to eat right then. I told them to have at it, and they took me at my word. You would have had to pay me to eat any of those cookies!
Let me tell you, it was fantastic. The girls put a lot of thought into their cookies. I think it really helped that they knew we were donating these cookies to a local homeless shelter for women and children. The girls wanted the cookies to be special. And they were.
I wanted to pass along the recipe I found for the icing because it was so easy and hardened nicely into a shiny white glaze. Most recipes I saw used either egg whites or meringue powder to make a stiff royal icing. That wasn't what I wanted; but this recipe is perfect.
Sugar Cookie Icing
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
In a small bowl, stir together confectioner's sugar and milk. Add more milk in small amounts if needed until it's smooth. Beating with a fork, add corn syrup and extract until icing is smooth and glossy. If it's too thick, add a bit more corn syrup. Divide into separate bowls, if desired, and add food colorings to each to desired intensity.

Sick of Being Sick

I've been sick for more than a week now, so today I broke down and visited my handy neighborhood Minute Clinic (inside the CVS pharmacy). It was fast and easy. I am now armed with two prescriptions: an antibiotic and a cough syrup.

Fingers crossed that it will not be long at all before I stop sounding like Demi Moore, minus, of course, her bank account.

Our school week has been lighter than normal, due to my being under the weather and struck with laryngitis. The girls have had independent work to do, but other work has fallen by the wayside. I'm praying that I'll be back up to speed, even if my voice is not completely, by tomorrow.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Our Week In Review: Nov. 30 -- Dec. 4

It's been too long since I've posted. The week of Thanksgiving was difficult and busy, and this week was also nuts. To top it off, I am now sick. The family is, as I type, at a party I'm missing. So I thought I'd post instead of wallow in misery.

I know several homeschooling bloggers who write about what they did over the past week, so I'm jumping into the fray.

Bible: We used the Word for the Week flyer that comes home from church each Sunday. this week, the theme was faithfulness. Some of the scriptures we read and talked about were: Psalm 20, Jeremiah 29:11, and Proverbs 16:3. We also worked on our memory verse: "Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth" (Psalm 86:11a). We only attend to memory verses sporadically; after the New Year, I intend to focus more fully on this aspect of scriptural study.

History: We are in the Middle Ages, and we use Our Island Story, by H.E. Marshall, as our spine. I download free from LibriVox and then burn CDs. This week, we learned about Henry III (Henry of Winchester). I bought a neat little book the last time I was in England, Life in Medieval England, by Rupert Willoughby. Each two-page spread features a theme with fantastic artwork. This week, we studied the chapter "Life and Death in the Towns." Here's a link, in case you're interested.

In honor of Thanksgiving and our American heritage, two weeks ago we began reading Pilgrim Stories I: From Old Homes to New, by Margaret Pumphrey. The girls are reading independently Mary of Plymouth, by James Otis. Both of these wonderful e-books came to me via the Homeschool Freebie of the Day site. If you are not on their weekly email list, sign up right this second! I've downloaded audiobooks, e-books, and more from their wonderful site, all for free.

Science: We are studying James Watt and his steam engine in Great Inventors and their Inventions, by Frank P. Bachman. I must admit that the more technical sections of the story are not that interesting to any of us (pistons, cylinders, vacuums, condensers, you get the picture). However, instead of chucking the entire thing, we opted to read the historical parts and eliminate the more tedious information. I am fully aware that some families find this sort of thing riveting; to each his own. You can find this book for free on the Baldwin Project's website here.

Literature and Poetry: This week, we read together "How Perseus Slew the Gorgon," from The Heroes, by Charles Kingsley, and available here on the Baldwin Project's site for free; "A Winter's Tale," from Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, by Edith Nesbit (which I downloaded free from LibriVox here and we listened to it in the car at Miss Priss's request); "The Light of Truth", from Margaret Gatty's Parables of Nature, also available for free from the Baldwin Project here; and finished Nesbit's The Railway Children. Miss Priss is reading The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald, and Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild. This week, Tiny Girl finished Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. We loved all of these.

For poetry, we have been studying selections from William Blake's Songs of Innocence. Truthfully, Blake is not my favorite. Come to find out, he is not my girls' favorite, either. (I did nothing to sway their opinions, honestly!) After one reading this week, Tiny Girl asked, "Can we go back to Christina Rossetti? I like her a lot better than Blake."

Language Arts: The girls completed three days of copywork and one day of studied dictation. Tiny Girl also worked on spelling, which is much more of a trial for her than for Miss Priss. In foreign language, they each studied French with Rosetta Stone for 10-15 minutes per day. Miss Priss and I only managed one day of Latin (we use Latina Christiana). Our schedule is two days; but my illness scrapped that for this week. Instead, she practiced the Table Blessing on Friday.

Math: Both girls are working on multiplication facts with me (flashcards) and independently (, which we highly recommend). We also did our MEP lessons.

Test Prep: In our state, each homeschooled student must take a nationally-recognized standardized test every three years, starting in third grade. This year is Tiny Girl's turn. She has a Spectrum test prep book for third grade, which she works in every day.

Artist/Music Study: I slacked off in this area this week.

Extras: We also had piano lessons, choir rehearsal for the children's Christmas concert at church, and Girl Scouts for both girls. Tiny Girl had riding lessons, as well.

Writing all this out was a really good exercise for me. Some days, I feel like we aren't doing enough, that the girls are "missing out" on something crucial to their educations because we homeschool, that I stink at this, etc., etc., ad nauseam. But when I take the time to write it all at (instead of merely looking at a chart), I see that we did quite a lot. Affirmation! Yippee!

Now I think I'll go read my twaddle and have a cup of hot tea. Maybe a nap, later.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Getting a Jump on Thanksgiving: Recipes

Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time making some do-ahead items for Thanksgiving. I made sixteen sweet potato pull-apart rolls, sixteen yeast rolls, and a loaf of pumpkin gingerbread. Of course, I now only have fifteen of each roll because I had to eat one of each when they were hot out of the oven. They are now all packaged up and safely in the freezer until I need them. I've had some requests for recipes, so here they are.

Sweet Potato Pull-Apart Rolls
(uses a bread machine for mixing and first rising)

- 3/4 cup mashed, drained, canned sweet potatoes (I used Trader Joe's canned sweet potato puree and skipped the mashing and draining step)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 egg
- 2 T butter, cut up (margarine is okay, too, if you must)
- 2 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
- 1 T dark brown sugar
- 3/4 t salt
- 1 1/4 t active dry yeast or bread machine yeast

Add ingredients to bread machine according to manufacturer's instructions. Select "dough" cycle. When cycle is complete, remove dough from machine and punch down. Cover and let rest 10 minutes. Divide dough into 16 portions, and shape each portion into a smooth ball. Divide balls between two lightly greased 8-inch round baking pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double (about 30 minutes or so -- took mine more like an hour).

Then, mix together:
- 1 slightly beaten egg white
- 1 T water

Brush over rolls and sprinkle with more wheat germ.
(I actually inadvertently skipped this step and they still turned out fine.)

Bake at 375 degrees about 15-18 minutes until lightly browned. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove rolls from pans and devour.

For even more fabulousness, serve with Orange-Ginger Butter.

Orange-Ginger Butter
- 1/2 cup orange marmalade
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1 T balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar
- 1 T finely chopped crystallized ginger

Heat marmalade in a small saucepan til just melted. In a medium bowl, beat butter until fluffy. Add melted marmalade, vinegar, and ginger. Beat til well combined. Cover and chill at least one hour before serving. Makes about 1 cup.

Pumpkin Gingerbread
- 1 package (14 or 14.5 ounces) gingerbread mix
- 1 cup canned pumpkin puree (about 1/2 a 15-oz can) NOT pumpkin pie filling
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup warm water

Place oven rack in the center position and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly mist a 9x5 loaf pan with cooking spray and then dust with flour and shake out the excess (or use Baker's Secret brand spray, like I did). In a large bowl, mix together all four ingredients on low speed of electric mixer for 30 seconds. Scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix on medium for 1 minute til batter is well combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake loaf until it springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, about 45 minutes. Remove pan from oven and cool on wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a long, sharp knife around the edge of the gingerbread and remove from pan to cool completely on the wire rack.

(Note: I used Trader Joe's Deep Dark Gingerbread mix. It's really good, but it's also strong and spicy. The ginger flavor dominates the pumpkin. I'd use another brand next time for this recipe.)
Serve with Cream Cheese Butter.

Cream Cheese Butter
- 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1 t vanilla
- 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

Beat first three ingredients til light and fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating well. Cover and chill. Let stand at room temp 30 minutes before serving.

I tend to omit the vanilla and add cinnamon for a different flavor. Another option is to omit the butter as well and just mix together some cream cheese, powdered sugar, and cinnamon. If need be, thin with a little milk.

Finally, start practicing a modest expression with which to greet all the gushes of admiration. You'll probably need one.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What I Want You to Know, Part Two: Purpose

In Part One of this series, Who's Talking Louder?, I wrote that we need to be louder than the media to effectively drown out those destructive messages that plague the girls in our care. It's critical that we talk often and loudly about God's love for each girl and His purpose for her life (whatever that may be). We must help them explore their unique gifts and talents and the important ways in which they can use these blessings. In that way, we help instill in our girls a strong core of who they are in God's eyes.

So I've been thinking about the idea of purpose. And here's what I want to say to my daughters:

God created each of you on purpose, and He has in mind a specific role for you to play in the body of Christ. Only you can fulfill that purpose God has planned for you to do.

But don’t worry too much about what that purpose is, exactly. People devote too much time and energy to fretting over their purpose. It’s true that some people have a clear understanding of what they’re meant to do with their lives, a singular focus. Others (like me) live day by day, using whatever gifts we have when we can. Concentrate on seeking and serving God, and fully enjoy the blessings He heaps upon you.

While you're at it, make certain to try new things, even if they may frighten you at first. Don’t be so afraid to fail that you live tentatively, taking few risks and missing out on a rich and varied life. God often asks us to do the very things we feel the least capable of doing. Look at Moses!

Most importantly, seek God through prayer and study. Consider everything you do as serving Him, yes, even when you're cleaning your room! Take time to fully enjoy the blessings He heaps upon you, His beloved child.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Suggestions for Pre-Teen Girls

I am always on the lookout for book suggestions for Miss Priss. Tiny Girl likes to read, but Miss Priss is my avid reader right now. (I have hopes that T.G. will blossom in a year or so.) I stumbled upon this member discussion on Amazon, and thought I'd pass it along. Obviously, you'll need to use your own discretion about what's right for your family; but it never hurts to have some titles on a list for future reference.

The discussion made an impression on me because Miss Priss just recently asked me if she could read the original Little Women. I hesitated. Well, it's really long and the language can be a bit archaic! But we read literature chock-full of archaic language in our lessons every day, so she'd probably have no problems. And she's reading The Princess and the Goblin with no problems whatsoever. After reading this discussion, I'm telling her to go for it. I know she'll love Little Women; I did, and I wasn't much older than she.

What Beautiful Birds!

As you may know, we are backyard birders. However, the girls spotted these two lovelies on the roof of our neighbor's house this morning. I snapped a few photos, and then did a bit of research. (Gotta love Wikipedia!) We thought they might be turkey vultures, which we'd seen at a birds of prey show at Callaway Gardens last year. We were correct. A bit more research yielded that they are specifically Eastern Turkey Vultures (C. a. septentrionalis, in case you were wondering).

One of them adopted this spread-winged stance (see his shadow in the photo below?), which, according to Wikipedia is quite common: "The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria."

We learned a lot about turkey vultures and the crucial role they play in our ecosystem. I'm glad they're on the planet! But I'm also glad they don't visit my feeders.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Bake, Decorate, Donate": Tasty Fun for a Good Cause

A blog I really enjoy reading, A Year of Slow Cooking, featured a great activity for the Christmas season. I thought I'd pass along the info. It's called Drop In & Decorate. Basically, you bake some cookies (or buy some), invite some folks over, decorate the cookies, and then donate them to a charitable organization, senior center, homeless shelter, etc. The fabulous Drop In & Decorate website tells you everything you need to know to make this a successful venture. Not only would it be great for Scout troops, church groups, your book club, or whatever, it would also be a fun thing to do with your children and maybe some of their friends. In fact, it's a great thing to do all year round.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Best Place to Bury a Dog

My dear friend Jackie wrote a lovely post in honor of our loss of Lily. In her post, she included a link to this lovely poem, which appeared on her friend's blog, La Ferme de Sourrou. I loved it and wanted to share.

Burying a Dog

There are various places in which a dog may be buried. I am thinking now of a Setter, whose coat was flame in the sunshine, and who, so far as I am aware, never entertained a mean or an unworthy thought. This Setter is buried beneath a cherry tree, under four feet of garden loam. And at its proper season, the cherry tree strews petals on the green lawn of his grave. Beneath a cherry tree, or an apple, or any flowering shrub is an excellent place to bury a dog. Beneath such trees, such shrubs, he slept in the drowsy summer, or gnawed at a flavoursome bone, or lifted his head to challenge some strange intruder. These are good places in life or in death.

Yet, it is a small matter, for if the dog be well remembered, if sometimes he leaps through your dreams actual as in life, eyes kindling, laughing, begging, it matters not at all where that dog sleeps. On a hill where the wind is unrebuked, and the trees are roaring, or beside a stream he knew in puppy hood, or somewhere in the flatness of a pasture lane where most exhilarating cattle grazed, is all one to the dog, and all one to you. And nothing is gained, nothing is lost if memory lives.But, there is one place to bury a dog.

If you bury him in this spot, he will come to you when you call - come to you over the grim, dim frontiers of death and down the well-remembered path, and to your side again.And though you call a dozen living dogs to heel, they shall not growl at him nor resent his coming, for he belongs there. People may laugh at you who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall...who hear no whimper, people who never really had a dog. Smile at them, for you shall know something that is hidden from them, and which is well worth the knowing.

The one best place to bury a dog is in the heart of his master.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Memoriam: Lily

Our precious Pembroke Welsh corgi, Lily, died this morning. She turned 15 years old 10 days ago. We are all heartbroken. The last two years or so had been difficult, as arthritis had set in and got much worse this fall. She could not go up or down stairs at all. Then two days ago, she began having what the vet later deemed were seizures. These episodes were agonizing to witness. After her second one yesterday morning, the girls and I took her to the vet, who gently agreed with me that it was time to let Lily go. These new neurological issues (most likely caused by either a tumor or stroke or both) were not anything that were going to get better.

We took her home for one last day. I won't describe how difficult that day was, for us or sweet Lily, because those are private sorrows. If you've ever watch a beloved pet suffer, you already know anyway.

This morning, I took a few final photos of Lily. Then we all went back to the vet and afterward brought her home to bury. As I said, we are heartbroken, but we are happy that we had Lily to love for a good, long life. She was a blessing to us; may the Lord bless her and keep her.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book Review: The Woman in White

"The driver was evidently discomposed by the lateness of my arrival. He was in that state of highly respectful sulkiness which is peculiar to English servants."

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is really a novel to sink your teeth (and brain) into. (I realize that's not a grammatically correct sentence, but sometimes I opt for the vernacular over the cumbersome.) First serialized in in 1859 and then published in book form in 1860, the work is one of the first in both the mystery and sensation genre. Once I started reading it and wrapped my brain around the 19th century verbosity (the antithesis of minimalism), I was hooked.

The story line is complex, with more than one mystery to unravel. Collins effectively utilizes the epistolary format to present different characters' interpretations of events and to tie together various elements of the plot. This was especially entertaining to me, as it really gives an in-depth look into the perceptions and personalities of different characters.

Collins is adept at creating memorable characters, almost all of whom seem so real you would know them anywhere. Consider this description of Laura Fairlie's former governess, Mrs. Vesey: "Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life. Sat in the house, early and late; sat in the garden; sat in unexpected windowseats in passages; sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking; sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question -- always with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn of the head, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic circumstances. A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth." Can't you just see her?

Of course, there those few issues when 21st century readers dive into a 19th century text. Certain plot twists meant to elicit shock fall short; but that's to be expected. We're talking about one of the first mystery novels published. Contemporary readers of the novel were completely surprised by developments that readers today can see coming from miles away. That being said, The Woman in White still has the power to pull the rug out from under us, keep us guessing, and pull us into the story. For me, that is a hallmark of a classic. The laundry and dishes may pile up and your family may wonder aloud about supper, but sometimes the book is so engrossing you just can't put it down. Aren't those the best?

What I Want You to Know: Who's Talking Louder? (Part One)

I am surrounded by young girls. I have two daughters of my own. I teach Bible to fourth and fifth grade girls on Wednesday nights at church. I also teach fifth grade Sunday school. And I'm a co-leader for my daughters' Girl Scout troop. These girls are between nine and eleven years old, the crucial tween years. I say crucial because our society has already begun an onslaught on them: what's pretty and what's not; what's cool and what's not; what's important and what's not; and what's worthwhile and what's not. And now's the time to intercept those messages, change them into something else.

I'm not the only person who thinks so. Lately, I've been talking about this very topic with other women, other mothers, who want so desperately to be louder than our culture, to speak out against media manipulation, and, truly, to save our girls. And we're not the only ones, either. Contemporary Christian artist Jonny Diaz's fabulous song, "A More Beautiful You" says perfectly the very words we must pass along to our young girls.

Now, I am not a fan of the current philosophy that builds a child's self-esteem in such a way that encourages a sense of entitlement instead of gratitude or superiority instead of service. Not only is that extremely dangerous, it's also unscriptural. Nor do I believe that we should teach our girls that they are inferior or in any way less than other people. I am a fan of embracing God's values instead.

So how do we drown out the enemy? We talk often and loudly about God's love for each girl and His purpose for her life (whatever that may be). We help them explore their gifts and talents and the important ways in which they can use them. We instill in our girls such a strong core of who they are in God's eyes -- how precious they are to Him -- that they'll never fall prey to any other lies.

What I Want You to Know: A Letter to a Girl on the Brink of Womanhood

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend of mine (I'll call her Rachel). I was only one of many recipients, and Rachel asked each of us to write a letter to her daughter, who would be turning sixteen at the end of October. Rachel wanted to give these letters of amassed "wisdom" to her daughter as a present. I thought it was a fabulous idea, and then proceeded to worry and wonder about what to write. A typical set of circumstances for me, alas.

But after I wrote and sent the letter, it occurred to me that what I'd written is what I want to say to my own daughters. So I thought I'd share. Since the words I wrote for Rachel's daughter were for her only, I've adapted the basic ideas into a series of posts. I hope and pray you can find something of value as well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Note About Chocolate. . .

But just a note.

Le chocolat du jour chez moi: Trader Joe's Organic 73% Super Dark. Luscious!

For My Edification and Enlightenment

I stole the title above from a psych professor I had as an undergrad (developmental psychology, in case you're wondering). She was forever saying, and I quote, "Blah, blah, blah, blah, for your edification and enlightenment." Perhaps she still does, these two decades later.

I shared earlier that we are using Rosetta Stone French 1 and couldn't be more pleased. Let me amend that: Miss Priss and I are pleased; Tiny Girl is not. She struggles with the pronunciation bit. Anyway, I've been using it as well, in the afternoons and evenings, but I've found I can recall much more than I thought I would. So it's too easy pour moi.

Then I thought I'd check the ol' Internet for free online college courses, which I can take in my loads of spare time. I found this website right away. I'm sure there are others. Of course, not every university listed offers what I want. NYU, for example, seems to offer only mathematics courses. Linear algebra, anyone? I thought not.

But Open University in the UK offers several free French classes. Yippee! The first course takes about 20 hours. So when I finish this box of bon bons I've been devouring (because that's what housewives do), I'll register and take the class. I've nothing better to do.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What's a Bluestocking, Anyway?

In case you've been wondering, a bluestocking is "an educated, intellectual woman," according to that fount of all things encyclopedic, Wikipedia. Since I like the way the entry is worded, I'll continue to quote: "Such women are stereotyped as being frumpy and the reference to blue stockings refers to the time when woolen worsted stockings were informal dress, as compared with formal, fashionable black silk stockings. The term originated with the Blue Stockings Society -- a literary society founded by Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s. This provoked derogatory usage in the late 18th century, specifically in reference to women. . . ." You can read the entire entry, should you so desire, here. Take particular note of William Hazlitt's charming description of a bluestocking that appears in the entry. What a gentleman!'

So what I've been wondering is: if I call myself a bluestocking, why don't I talk about books on my blog? Am I really a bluestocking, or just a mere dilettante (as defined in number 2 of Merriam-Webster's online)? I'd like to think I'm the real deal, except for the frumpy, odious, egg yolk stuff.

If time spent reading is an indicator, then I'm golden. I read all the time. I read instead of doing other things, like watch TV or clean my house. I've been known to shush my children if they interrupt me at a really good part. (Just so you'll know, if it were a real emergency, I would stop reading and attend to my children. But it never is. Someone just wants something. As per usual.)

I'm in a book club. Check! I used to be in two book clubs, but discovered, what with Girl Scout service unit meetings, neighborhood Bible study, and church every Wednesday, that I needed to cut back on my evening meetings. So one book club had to go.

If I'm without a book to read, I get this nervous, twitchy feeling. I prefer to have two or three lined up before I've finished the one I'm reading.

And speaking of "one I'm reading," I'm often reading more than one at a time. Is this a tad excessive? Or is it normal?

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I'm a book snob. It took me years to read any Harry Potters because if everyone thinks they're fabulous, they can't be. Right? (I've since read all seven. Twice.) But there have been plenty of books I've read upon recommendation that I could hardly tolerate. And that's okay.

All this to say: I don't consider reading a hobby. Reading is truly a huge part of who I am. I'm a Reader (capitalized on purpose). I've been thinking lately about what that means, to be a Reader. I have some ideas, but they are still percolating. More on this to come.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book Review: A Superb Living Book on Medieval Town Life

This week, we read Walter Dragun's Town, by Sheila Sancha, which depicts the English town of Stanford in 1274. The author based the work on her research of the Hundred Rolls, so many of the characters and events were actual. The wool and cloth trade is the axis on which the town turns, and Sancha does a wonderful job intertwining educational material (industry, economy, trade, market life, vocations, daily life) into the narrative. We all learned a lot about market town life in the middle ages, but also enjoyed the story. A true living book, Walter Dragun's Town is suitable for elementary ages and up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Escaping the Trap of Motherhood Martyrdom

The other day, I was feeling dispirited and unappreciated by my children. I'm certain this never happens to you. But it does to me and, instead of snapping out of it, I decided to wallow in it for a little while. I was in that kind of mood; the same mood that grips a mom with the need to screech out, "The bulk of what I do in my life I do for you! And you don't even care!" I call it Motherhood Martyrdom, and it's quite a morass.

But, frankly, it's also true. I most likely wouldn't be a Girl Scout leader, a children's Bible teacher, a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher, a homeschooling parent for crying out loud, et cetera, et cetera, if it weren't for my daughters. Never mind that these pursuits bring me joy and often teach me a thing or two. That is not the point right at this moment, not while I am in the throes of MM. (It's easier to abbreviate the words, and acronyms are nifty, anyway.)

But I am never allowed to wallow for long, and here's why: a memory floats to the surface, one I'd prefer to forget but can't because of moods like this. Back in the early to mid-1980s, there was a movie of such cinematic doggerel that only teenage girls cared to see it. I'm of course speaking of Endless Love, starring Brooke Shields and Some Guy. My BFF (who turned out not to be, but that's not part of this story) and I talked my mother into taking us. It was rated R and we were underage, so her compliance was necessary. However, we decreed that she could not actually sit with us, as that would be too totally uncool. (I cannot believe I am admitting this.)

So here's the specific memory I can't banish from my brain: the picture of my precious mama, sitting several rows ahead of us at a movie she has absolutely no desire to see, eating her wretched popcorn, all by herself. Just the thought makes me cringe and squirm. It's simply too awful to contemplate (sort of like the movie itself, come to think of it). To my mother's immense credit, she never once complained, sneered, gagged, or in any way kvetched. That would have ruined my enjoyment of the day, which she would never have done.

It's only now, with the clear vision of both hindsight and more than 20 years, that I understand what I once took for granted. Mothers love and mothers serve, and those two verbs encompass many, many things. It's not just what I do but how I do it that will make an impact on my daughters.

When I was a child, I thought like a child, just like my children now think. So if I'm waiting for my girls to rise up and call me blessed, like the Proverbs 31 woman, I'm in for a long wait. But if I'm waiting for grace to change my heart and my outlook and my raison d'etre, it's only a breath away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I AM Speaking English

I have always had a love for words and spoken accordingly, to the amusement (one might say glee) of those around me. I remember in particular one occasion at work many years ago. A co-worker informed me that part of a project had been completed ahead of schedule, to which I replied, "Splendid!" After the knee-slapping hilarity of the others in the room had passed, another person asked me, jokingly, "Why don't you just say 'cool,' like everyone else?"

Why, indeed.

A couple of years later, my dh asked, more than once, essentially the same thing. "Why don't you just speak regular English?"

In my humble defense, I am speaking regular English. English is a rich, complex, and heavily nuanced language, and I intend to speak as much of it as I can. It reminds me of the scene in Sophie's Choice in which Sophie complains about all the English words for "fast," while in French there is only "vite."

I love all the different nuances in English. For example, She put the letter away hastily is very different from She put the letter away quickly. Is it just me, or does the first sentence imply a sense of guilt or subterfuge? The difference of one word opens up vast avenues of new possibilities.

This past summer, my neighbor gigglingly relayed to me something Miss Priss said while visiting her house. My two girls and her two had just eaten some fabulous peanut butter fudge, and then laughed at how quickly they'd wolfed it down. Miss Priss said, "I didn't take time to savor mine." It was the "savor" that threw my neighbor for a loop. "I don't think my girls have ever heard that word before!" A few weeks later, Miss Priss remarked to me that we had enjoyed "a day of splendors!" I had to agree.

Weird? I don't think so. While I can "talk American" with the best of them, I've never felt it necessary to dumb the language down for my children's ears. We limit the amount of t.v. they watch, and they listen to "my" radio stations in the car. Also, the books we read tend to use elevated language. So it's only natural that my children pick it up.

And I think that's cool.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: Good Masters! Sweets Ladies!

We are studying the medieval period of history right now, one of my favorites. In fact, I think I'm taking too long to cover it with the girls, but I can think of worse problems to have. The girls and I have enjoyed reading many great literature selections depicting the middle ages, and one that stands out particularly is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Past winner of the Newbery Award, the book is a collection of nineteen short plays, most of which are monologues. Each character is between 10 and 15 years old and lives on an English manor in the year 1255; Schlitz leaves it up to the readers to decide for themselves the age of each character. Some characters are members of the nobility and some decidedly are not. Yet each one has his or her own unique voice, which Schlitz creates with wonderful accuracy for the period.

That is the beauty of the stories: each character is so finely depicted, his voice is so vivid, her circumstances so carefully constructed that the medieval era comes to brilliant life. Far better than any dull textbook rendering of "Life in Medieval Times," these plays vividly re-create the social strata and living conditions of a typical feudal-system manor, from the desperate situation of a runaway villein to the frightening expectations of the lord's nephew and all those in between.

The book includes several explanatory essays that give background information on issues of the day. These include "The Three-Field System," Medieval Pilgrimage," "Jews in Medieval Society," and "Towns and Freedom." Well-written and just thorough enough, the essays shed light on aspects of some of the characters' lives. Also, there are notes alongside the text whenever further explanation of a term or situation is warranted.

As we know, medieval life was difficult and often cruel, and these plays do not shy away from tough topics. There are brutal drunkards for fathers, dishonest millers, rank poverty, and other ugliness. I have not felt the need to skip or edit any of the selections, and the girls and I have had some good conversations following particularly difficult monologues; but your family may feel otherwise. Use your own discretion. That being said, there are also moments of self-awareness, clarity, and honesty so poignant that it almost hurts to read them.

My daughters are developing a love for the medieval period, and I'm delighted to watch it blossom. This book is one of the reasons they've become so intrigued.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Our Homeschooling Journey: Studied Dictation

This past week, Miss Priss and I began the practice of studied dictation as part of her lessons. I gleaned all the how-to's from Lindafay's superb blog, "Higher Up and Further In." She has several posts about studied dictation/spelling from a Charlotte Mason viewpoint, and I encourage you to give these a read-through. Here's how it worked at our house:

Since it was our first time, I had Miss Priss "prepare" only two sentences from the first paragraph of The Princess and the Goblin (by George Macdonald), which she is reading. She read the two sentences and identified troublesome spelling words. For each word, I wrote the word on our whiteboard, asked her to study it, and then picture the word in her mind. I also asked her to spell it out loud a few times with her eyes closed. Then I asked her to go over the passage independently, making note of punctuation, capitalization, etc. Finally, I chose one of the sentences for her to copy as I read it aloud, breaking it up into clauses. I warned her to pay close attention, as I was going to read each part only once. When we finished, I had her compare what she'd written with the original, marking any errors with a red pen. She then corrected her errors, of which there were three.

It was a grand success. Her handwriting was better than usual, she attended closely, and she enjoyed correcting her own work. She even asked if we do the activity more frequently than once a week. Even Tiny Girl asked if she could do studied dictation.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our Homeschooling Adventure: French

One of the (many) neat things about homeschooling is that you can "offer" subjects that are not generally offered, either at a certain age (my children are elementary-aged) or at all. French has been a part of our curriculum since we began our adventure. But I have to admit it's been catch as catch can, and we've missed more than we've caught. Until now.

After messing around with small French books and workbooks, I finally purchased Rosetta Stone French Level 1 for this school year. Yes, this is a pricey curriculum, but it's worth every penny so far. Its multimedia/total immersion approach is outstanding. Termed "Dynamic Immersion," the approach combines images, intuition, interactivity, and instruction. In effect, students learn the new language much as they learned their native language. As students move through the lessons, they select images when prompted, speak syllables and phrases, and write (by typing on the actual keyboard or an on-screen keyboard) in the new language. (If you want more information on this methodology, read this review from Rainbow Resource, which includes a link to a demo of the program.)

It gets a big thumbs-up from me because the girls work on it independently. They sit at the computer, pop on the headphones/microphone headset (included), click on their program of study, and off they go. Each child works for about 15 minutes a day.

I even included myself as a student on our Rosetta Stone and am completing the lessons myself for a refresher. I took four years of French in high school and three years in college, and I did rather well with the old-fashioned translation approach to learning a foreign language. But I can see that Dynamic Immersion is by far the superior method.

Finally, I feel like my daughters are really learning French, as opposed to dabbling in it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Camping Out Equals Staying in a Cheap Motel

That's the way I used to feel, anyway. My family and I did quite a bit of backcountry camping when I was a child; in fact, that's the only kind of camping we did. So a few years ago, when Dh mentioned camping to me, I said, "Not interested, thanks." But that's when I learned about camping in a state park. There were toilets! There were hot showers! There were grills! There were concrete picnic tables! And the ultimate amenity: each campsite had a water spigot AND electrical outlets! This was more like it. We've now been camping a few times. We're practically professionals.

This past weekend, we camped at Tallulah Gorge State Park in northeast Georgia. The gorge itself, with the Tallulah River running through it, is astounding. After an initial spell of vertigo passed (at the first overlook), I was able to stand at the guardrails and look out at the cliffs across the gorge and down at the river and several waterfalls below. It was all simply stunning.

That evening after supper, we drove into the town of Tallulah Falls for an outdoor bluegrass "jam," complete with bonfire. It was chilly once the sun set, but worth it. The music was fun, and the scene couldn't be topped for small-town local color.

Now, I know lots of people for whom camping really does mean a stay at a cheap motel. But the truth is that camping is sort of quirky, and I like quirky. When we camp out, we necessarily drop the artifices that are so much of our daily lives. No one wears fancy clothes. Make-up is practically non-existent. People are friendly, waving at you as they drive slowly by, saying hello while they brush their teeth at the sink next to yours in the restrooms. And where else will you see complete strangers in their pajamas except at a campground? For a few days, we drop the masks that hide us from the rest of the world. We freely offer and accept grace. For a little while, we can see each other as we really are.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Family Time -- The Ties that Bind (But Don't Gag)

Tiny Girl was scheduled to ride in a barn show yesterday, but it was postponed due to rain (which, incidentally, did not come until the afternoon, well past the end time of the show). To ease the disappointment, we let her choose an alternate activity, and she chose bowling. Every member of my family enjoys bowling -- Tiny Girl even had a bowling birthday party in first grade. Back in the day, Dh won Best Bowler on the Planet, or some such championship, so he is fairly excellent. I, on the other hand, just get by. I bowled a few strikes and spares yesterday, and one of Dh's comments was, "Way to use the bumper!" Yes, we bowl with the gutter bumpers in place; otherwise, a high percentage of the girls' and my (what noun to use? shots? flings? bowls??) balls would end up in the gutter. What fun would that be?

Yesterday, just after we began our fifth game, it was time for Cosmic Bowling at the bowling alley. In case you are part of the uninitiated, as I was until yesterday, in Cosmic Bowling they turn off most of the overhead lights, fire up the black lights and disco balls, and let loose the fog machine. The girls think it is fabulous. In fact, you really haven't lived until you've tried Cosmic Bowling.

On the way home, I ran into Target to pick up a few things while the family waited in the car. The check-out clerk was a college-aged guy. When he asked how my day was going, I told him about our bowling trip. He said it sounded like a blast. Then he said, "My family and I aren't really close. We never did things like that when I was growing up."

I've been thinking about that ever since. As homeschoolers, our family is blessed to be able to spend more time together than many families we know. But even so, we make a point to do other things together: play games, read aloud to each other, and bowl, to name a few. I don't think I've ever made a conscious decision to do those kinds of things, though. That's the way I was raised, so that's what I do in my own family. Activities we do with the purpose of being together (not just at the same event -- like a soccer game) are what cement us together.

I know there's been the debate between quality time versus quantity time raging for many years now. For busy folks, it's tempting to side with the quality-time camp, the "it's-not-how-much-you-do-together-it's-the-quality-of-that-time-that-counts" position. I'm all for quality; in fact, I like it a lot. On the other hand, though, it makes sense that the more time a family spends together, whether working on a household project or doing something fun, the stronger their bond will be.

Of course, this is not always sweetness and light. The more time you spend together, the more chances of "getting into each other's moustaches," as my dad used to say. I'd rather my girls be squabbling and then figuring out compromises than getting along famously because they rarely interact.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ah, Blessed Tea: The Elixir That Heals All

On Saturday evenings, I love to tune into our local PBS station to watch an evening of Britcoms (that's British comedies, for the uninitiated). I've been doing it for years. Dh has lost his fervor (we've seen all the episodes of our favorite shows, is his complaint, but this bothers me very little). Last night in an episode of As Time Goes By, one of the characters (Sandy, if you know the show) is somewhat spooked when she realizes someone is following her home after dark. Once she's safely indoors, she relates this to Jean and Lionel (parent figures with whom she lives -- there's more to it, but I'm cramped for space and you for interest), and Lionel rushes out to the street to investigate. Of course, the street is empty. Lionel's remedy: "I'll put on the kettle."

I love it! Stalker following you home from work? Have a cup of tea!

Now, in case you are wondering, let me be absolutely clear: I am not being facetious. Not only do I love tea, but I am also a firm believer in tea's ability to refresh, calm, and, in general, raise one's spirits. I tend to begin the day with a cup of tea. In the winter, I end it with a cup as well, a nice herbal or rooibos that's perfect for cold winter evenings. I also love the ritual of tea: boiling the water in my electric kettle, measuring out the perfect amount, warming the pot, brewing an exact number of minutes, slicing a lemon or pouring some milk into a small cream pitcher, setting out some sugar cubes, and, finally, pouring tea into one of the pretty china teacups from my collection. Then again, sometimes I use a tea bag and a big mug. It depends on my mood. Sometimes, it depends on the weather. Rain and fog call for a mug.

For me, tea has always alluded to Britain. I grew up reading books (often set in that land of my forbears) where the characters' taking of tea was more than a tradition. For me, it was a common thread running through the fabric of a culture. And it seemed so necessary and immutable; no matter the circumstances at the moment, teatime prevailed. How stable and dependable.

So, when Dh and I honeymooned in Scotland (my first trip abroad), I looked forward to joining in the tradition. We often stopped at hotels for lunch. At different establishments, we dined on gorgeous and tasty small sandwiches or hot soup and crusty bread or shepherd's pie, and we washed it all down with a pot or two of tea. I've now been to England three times (and counting) and have drunk vast amounts of tea while there, to my delight and satisfaction. However, once, in London, I bought a coffee at a fancy (read: pricey) coffee shop. It just wasn't the same.

But I always have to leave England and come back home. (Well, my family does live here, after all.)

Until recently, I could not understand why the tea I prepared at home was not in the least like the tea I enjoyed in Britain. I don't mean my fancy teas; I mean my plain hot tea. Then my grocery started to carry several shelves' worth of British goods, and I brought home a box of PG Tips. Eureka! It was the tea itself! Now my morning cuppa tastes like the tea I grew to love on my trips to the U.K. And that will have to do until I can get back to Britain.

Living with Less and Loving It

In an earlier post, I wrote about the chaotic state of our home when we returned from Maine, due to a hardwood flooring project. Now that our floors are now finished (and gorgeous!), Dh and I spent yesterday touch-up painting the trim and walls (may as well, right?) and moving furniture back where it goes. It's time to return everything to its rightful place.

But good grief! Whose stuff is this, anyway? And where did it all come from? Do we really need all this?

I am a minimalist at heart (except for books, of course). When Dh and I were dating, I shared an apartment with another career girl. Due to my life circumstances, I lived a minimalistic lifestyle. Except for the dining room table and chairs and the pots and pans, the only things I owned were in my bedroom. Every spring and fall, I went through my clothes and culled ruthlessly. I was organized. Since there was less to manage, I managed well.

Then I married, had children, and began to accumulate a bunch of stuff. I admit, a lot of it is pretty stuff, but it's still just more and more. We're in our third house and it's on the small side, so I don't have tons of storage. Things pile up and around, I can't stay organized (it's not my gift, anyhow), and I start getting this weird tick in my right eye. . . . You get the picture. So, I periodically give in to an overwhelming urge to storm through the house, giant Hefty bags in tow, amassing piles of things to donate.

Feeling rakishly powerful, I turned my eye to all our homeschool books and resources piled around the study, waiting to be reshelved. To say we have a ton of materials is putting it mildly. I've bought quite a bit and inherited even more when my mother, a life-long teacher, retired. In fact, I don't even know everything I've got. While I may not set aside many books, there may be other materials my girls have outgrown or don't suit our homeschooling methods or that I tried and rejected. I need to go through everything with a critical eye.

In fact, this is the perfect opportunity to edit my life. Do I really need as many cloth napkin sets as I own? Is this number of candles for the dining room really necessary? Look at all the clothes I own. What percentage do I actually wear? (Hint: it's a small number.) Does all this stuff make me happy, or is it merely distracting, keeping me from other things I should and would rather be doing? Is it possible that my life would be a bit more manageable and my home a bit more tidy if I thoughtfully and carefully culled through my (and our, frankly) belongings and passed a good deal of it on?

My guess is that the answer is YES. What do you think?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting

We loosely follow Charlotte Mason principles in our homeschool, so the girls and I spend some time studying art and artists. I heard about Hugh Brewster's book, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting, on a CM Yahoo group, and ordered our copy from Used Books. The girls and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

As this is a book about art, the illustrations are top-notch. The book as a whole is reminiscent of a scrapbook, complete with photos, sketches, parts of letters, and painting reproductions. Captions and pull quotes are in "handwritten" fonts, lending even more of an album feel. All of these touches bring the story to life.

However, what really elevates this book from merely good to excellent is the quality of the narrative itself. Told from the perspective of Kate Millet, the daughter of Frank and Lily Millet, the story is lively and engaging. Americans who resided in the Cotswolds village of Broadway for several months each year, the Millets often invited other artists and writers to visit them in the summers. (To read a fun and informative article about the "Broadway circle," complete with photos, click here.) The American painter John Singer Sargent was one of their frequent guests. In August of 1885, Sargent arrives in Broadway to create "a painting that will make people simply rave with pleasure" (page 4). And from there the story unfolds.

In the Author's Note, Brewster writes that the story is a "fictionalized account . . . but is based on real events (and) . . . hews fairly closely to occurrences described in Lucia Millet's letters home and in the recollections of other members of the Broadway circle." Brewster successfully weaves several different textures into the narrative. Not only does he present the story of a particular painting, we also learn about Impressionism, Sargent's unique style of painting, artistic inspiration, and how friends and family impact an artist's work, to name a few.

The story entranced us and made us want to know more. Brewster helpfully includes a selected bibliograpy for further research, and we were inspired to do our own inquiry. Since we learned from the book that the painting now hangs in the Tate Gallery in London, we visited their website and found the correct entry. Then we Googled the painting title and located this article, which goes into even more detail about the painting's creation. When we make our visit to England (planned tentatively for 2011), Sargent's painting is a must-see for us.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting is a true achievement: accessible for early elementary children as a read-aloud, intriguing for older children, and fascinating for adults. The book represents education in its highest form: it lights a fire.

Friday, September 4, 2009

In Everything You Do

After days of low spirits (beginning in Maine), I'm finally feeling that it's good to be home. This week saw us swing into action with piano lessons, horseback riding lessons for Tiny Girl (now twice a week), and our church's children's program on Wednesday nights, in which I teach fourth- and fifth-grade girls' Bible time. It's Friday evening, the girls are asleep, and, instead of feeling weary as I'd feared, I feel fine. I feel blessed.

One (big) reason for the change in me: this morning, our Bible lesson was about honoring God in everything we do. When I asked the girls about how we honor God every day, they responded "by praying," "listening to Christian music," "treating others the way God wants us to," and the like. Then I asked them to consider the idea that we are serving and honoring Him throughout the day, in everything we do. Of course, this was not news to me. But for the girls, it was a bit mind-boggling. We serve God in everything we do! I saw their surprise, their epiphany, if you will, and it hit me: my reluctance to embrace the responsibilities and opportunities in my life here in the suburbs was a poor way to serve my savior and a weak example for my children. When the girls and I prayed, we asked God to give us sufficient grace that would enable us to do all our work for His glory.

Now. I did not have a "lightning-strikes" moment, when instantly -- ZAP! -- my entire attitude turned around. Nor did I attack my to-do list with grim determination and gritted teeth. However, as the day unfolded, I found myself cheerful in my work, satisfied with the fruits of my labor, and enjoying time with my precious daughters the Lord has entrusted to my and their daddy's care.

What a gracious God. Instead of "magically" changing my outlook, like slapping on rose-colored glasses, He revealed to me the better way all throughout the day. I'm trusting Him to do that for me my whole life.

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." --Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mixing Bowl.Com: Fabulous Recipe and Cooking Website

I wanted to let you know about a fabulous website I recently discovered after I bought the print magazine. It's called, and the tagline is: "Food and friends made fresh daily." Touting itself as an online recipe community, the website is huge. I could easily spend weeks perusing the pages and pages of recipes and groups for the home cook. Historically for me, I prefer to read about cooking rather than actually cook. In fact, I own quite a collection of cookbooks, which I love to read. But is inspirational even for me, especially with such groups as "Dinners Anyone Can Make" and "Affordable Dinners...FAST!" Even more tempting was the "heavenly gelato" reference on the home page. I clicked on the link and read the recipe for Nutella Gelato. I adore Nutella -- I've been known to eat it from the jar with a spoon. Alas, I don't have a mixer with a paddle, nor do I own an ice cream freezer, and the recipe instructions about carefully mixing the egg mixture into the hot milk mixture to temper the eggs AND then mixing thoroughly after each spoonful of Nutella sounded tiresome to me. (Note the group names listed above to which I was immediately drawn and you won't be surprised as to why the gelato recipe overwhelmed me.) But the idea of a Nutella gelato is heavenly. I can imagine what it tastes like, and imagination is calorie-free.

Roughing It

We made it back home in one piece and in two days, with only one vomiting episode and two traffic snarls. It wasn't as horrific as I'd imagined, but the second day was lo-o-o-ong. If it weren't for the hour break for lunch at Cracker Barrel, we might not have made it. Overall, I'd call it a success!

The house is in chaos. This is because Dh installed hardwood floors in all but two rooms downstairs while we were away, and they are yet unfinished. Ergo, all the furniture downstairs is crammed into the family room: dining room table (unassembled), china hutch (unassembled), piano and bench, foyer dresser, and a multitude of bookcases and books for our homeschool. Finishing the floors will take three DAYS, so the girls and I will be staying with my parents for a few nights next week. Due to the chaos, it took us a couple of days to locate everything we needed to get our lessons going.

Another rough patch: last spring, I bought a spelling curriculum after reading several reviews, thinking it would be a good one for Miss Priss (who takes to spelling naturally) and Tiny Girl (who does not). Today, I opened it up to give it a look-through and was disappointed. First off, it's going to take more time and effort on everyone's part. Since I'm a Charlotte Mason admirer (although not a stalwart adherent), I wasn't happy about my discovery. Now I'm trying to figure out a way to make the curriculum more CM-friendly. I hate to chuck it since I spent some cold, hard cash on it. So I'm in a quandary. I hate it when this happens. But I'll figure out something. We always do, don't we?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ready or Not, It's Time to Hit the Road!

It's our last day in Maine. I'm at the library (again) so Miss Priss can assist with her last children's story/craft time. We really didn't have time for this, but I didn't have the heart to tell her so. She's enjoyed it so much and has decided she wants to be a librarian when she grows up. In fact, the director told her that she could work as an intern here when she's a bit older. Did I mention before that this would most likely not happen at our library at home? It's been wonderful for her.

Back at the cabin, our clothes are packed up and the dry groceries, as well. I've been washing linens and packing them away in plastic tubs to keep the rodents out over the winter. I need to finish that project, pack our toiletries, enclose all the utensils in gallon plastic zipper bags (rodents again), take the trash and recyclables to the dump, pack up all the blankets, finish packing all our books and school materials, get the travel bag ready (full of games, activities, and snacks) for the drive. . . . I know there's more, but that's all I can think of now. I also have a slight headache.

Speaking of the drive: for years now, Dh has maintained that we can do it in two days instead of three. The girls and I have decided to give it a go this year. That means we'll be driving about 700 miles each day. The Plan is to depart tomorrow morning at 7:00 and then stop south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, perhaps getting as far south as Hagerstown, Maryland. I researched possible hotel stops online yesterday afternoon. It's a bit tricky, since we need a place near the expressway and that also accepts pets. Also, I don't want to leave it til the last minute, as hotels near the expressway fill up with travelers in the early evening. I think we should go ahead and make our reservation. Dh has agreed, but has not mentioned it again. Hmmm. I'm the planner in the family and also tend to be realistic (okay, sometimes pessimistic) about things. He is not. I think I should push the reservations issue when I get back.

All of this to say that I'm not ready to go back now. I have a full schedule of commitments and responsibilities awaiting me at home, none of which I'm overly jazzed about at this moment. I know it will be fine when I get there and back into the swing of things, but still. I will miss my quiet life here in Maine. I'll miss my friends here. I'll miss the church we attend here. I'll miss the quiet. I'm not ready to go.

But go we shall, tomorrow at the crack of dawn (or close enough). I've been doing this for years now, so I know the drill. And I'll slip into my old life as easily as I slip on a sweater.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Getting Ready to Say Good-Bye

This is our last week in Maine. Miss Priss is ready to go home; she misses her friends. Tiny Girl and I are not. While we miss our friends at home, it's always sad for us to leave our friends and life in Maine.

Frankly, I like my life better in Maine.

As my good friends know, all I want is a quiet life (in the words of the inimitable Digby Whitman). It eludes me in my city (okay, suburbs, but sometimes that's worse), but I wallow in a quiet life in Maine. I hang clothes on a clothesline here (not allowed in my neighborhood back home). We enjoy casual, drop-in visits with our friends and neighbors in Maine. Drop-in visits are almost unheard-of at home; everyone's too busy. We sit on our dock and watch the bald eagle and ospreys circle high above the lake. We watch the herons and loons with our binoculars. We read and play games and relax.

At home, we are busy with activities almost every day of the week. Some weeks, every day is filled. It's exhausting to think about now.

But I've done this for a few years now. Although there is a bit of re-acclimation time, both the girls and I adapt. We enjoy our activities. The city where we live offers many events and opportunities for educational and just plain fun things to do. And we'll throw ourselves into our lives there with abandon.

Until next spring, when we'll all begin to long for Maine. . . .

Friday, August 14, 2009

Angst Abated; OR How Things Fall into Place

I'm feeling better now, although I'm not sure why. I am grateful that anxiety attacks over whether or not I am ruining my daughters don't last that long. A few things happened to help.

Today we are at the library in our small town here in Maine. We were here yesterday, as well, for me to hook up to their wonderful WiFi connection, when Miss Priss (somehow) began to help the children's librarian, Miss Joanne, plan for today's young children's story and craft time. Before I knew it, both girls were selecting the story and craft, making copies, cutting out paper frogs, and making plans to bring in other supplies needed and assist this morning. We came in early this morning for them to prepare further. Now, they are upstairs with Miss Joanne and 20 preschoolers/young elementary children, making the craft; then they'll help clean up.

I sit here, astounded. First, because Miss Priss took major initiative with this entire project. It was amazing to witness; she seemed so mature and responsible throughout. Also, it stikes me that nothing like this could have occurred so naturally at our library at home, which is much larger and the librarians do not know us by name (perhaps not even by sight, although we are there a lot). Moreover, were we not homeschooling, it couldn't have happened at all.

In another scene, Tiny Girl and I sat down together yesterday (still at the library) and talked about our plans for her school year. She had many ideas, which I wrote down, and we both were excited about some things we're planning to try, such as a research project on horses for her alone. Miss Priss have yet to have her planning time, but she and I are looking forward to it.

And it all makes me think how grace flows in quietly, mysteriously, often when and where we're not even looking for it or expecting it. But it's perfect, every time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Angst: A Homeschooler's Constant Companion

Although I wish it were not. I just re-read my June post about our plans for nxt (this) year. Oh, how confident I sounded! How utterly decided and filled with certainty, despite the few holes.

Alas, the feeling has passed now that it's time to begin.

Over the summer, I did some research: The Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling (don't laugh!) and Homeschooling the Middle Years. Perhaps I should have followed the adage, if it ain't broke, don't mess it up by researching anything else. (What, you've never heard that one?) So now I'm re-thinking a few things, toying with our schedule, fiddling with our plans, tying myself in knots. . . .

We begin our year slowly and ease back into our studies. That fits our family best. Perhaps once we get back into our routine, my butterflies will settle down. But what if I'm missing something crucial? Some experience, some method, that will mean the difference between academic excellence and mediocrity? Or between a passion for learning and an apathy for it?

Arrgh. The girls are impatient to leave the constricting confines of the library (where I can use the WiFi), so I have to just embrace the angst. Believe me, that's easier than ignoring it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Visit to the Beach

Tuesday was lovely, so we made the drive to one of our favorite spots on the coast, the Lincolnville/Camden area. We weren't the only ones with that idea; Lincolnville beach was crowded! Tiny Girl caught (and released) two small crabs among the rocks. Both girls actually swam in the frigid waters of Penobscot Bay. I walked in the water briefly, then retreated to my place in the sun with a book. After a few hours at the beach, we went to Camden Hills State Park and drove to the summit of Mount Battie. What a glorious view!

See the crab in the seaweed?

The view of Camden and Camden Harbor from atop Mt. Battie.

Fabulous Frescoes

On a recent rainy day when dh was in town, we made a trip to a nearby town to see the South Solon Meetinghouse. This wonderful nineteenth-century white clapboard church was falling into rack and ruin when the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture rescued it in the 1930s. Then, the school turned it over to their students, who went wild with their paintbrushes, covering every interior wall (including the ceilings) with frescoes.

Visiting the place turned out to be a bit tricky. My 2001 Maine guidebook suggested the meetinghouse might be locked, so I should call ahead; but the number listed rang to someone's home. The woman who answered was friendly but had no idea what I was talking about. She suggested I phone the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce, who suggested I phone the South Solon town office, who suggested I phone a man named Andrew Davis. Armed with his phone number, I made the call and asked the young man who answered if he happened to be Andrew. No, he was Caleb. Apparently, I had called another residence. Andrew was at work. I explained why I was calling, and Caleb assured me that the meetinghouse would be unlocked.

Here's a tip: if you're ever in Maine, fork over the cash to buy a DeLorme atlas. This very detailed map is a necessity of you plan to hit the road, which we do quite often. And if you've heard the adage about Maine, "You can't get there from here," let me tell you that it can be true. Due to the highly irregular coastline, numerous rivers, and few number of highways, planning your route is essential. You often have to go someplace in order to get someplace else. If that makes sense.

So, I had a general idea of where the meetinghouse is located, and I had my DeLorme. What more did we need? (A highly developed sense of adventure, which we have in spades, even if the girls tend to get nervous at times. You're never lost if you have a De Lorme! I wish life were that simple, sometimes.) We hit the road in the rain.

The meetinghouse itself is not marked in any way. We sort of took a guess we'd come to the right place, although white clapboard churches dot the Maine countryside. We wre the nly visitors. Once inside, we were amazed. The frescoes were fabulous. I wandered around the interior, taking them all in: angels, the last supper, the crucifixion. I've never seen anything like it. I have to say, though, that the girls were more enamored with the ancient pump organ in the choir loft and ringing the old church bell. I even plunked out a few chords on the organ. Pump organs are very difficult to play!

We signed the guest book (a spiral notebook) and made a donation in the tin can set aside for the purpose. Glancing over the last few guest book entries, we saw that a wedding had taken place the previous weekend. And a few months ago, a woman wrote in the book that her parents had married at the meetinghouse in the 1950s, and this was her first visit to the place. Apparently, we weren't the only ones struck by the beauty and peace there.

The photos, of course, don't do the frescoes justice. But they'll give you a taste of what the meetinghouse is like. Just use your imagination.