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?