Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Working for Happiness

Tonight, after the kids were tucked in bed, I went in the kitchen and made homemade zucchini bread while the cats played in the homeschool room. I didn't have to. There's cereal in the pantry I could feed the kids for breakfast, and I could pick up something from the bakery section for the Bible study potluck (or continue showing up empty handed, as has been my modus operandi for the last three months). I didn't have to, and I was tired, and the couch and a book sounded like a great combination.

But I got up.

I grated zucchini. I measured flour and sugar. I whisked and stirred and licked the spatula. The house was quiet and peaceful, and it was one of those moments where I found my soul being fed.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how sometimes when we choose to enrich our lives, it can initially look like we are needlessly complicating them. I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am pausing to consider some of the choices I make. Kingsolver's book is about her family's journey into the world of slow food, so I've been thinking about food, but I've also been drawing conclusions about how those same principles spill over into other areas of our lives.

For those of you who didn't catch it, I said "cats", as in plural, earlier. This weekend, we expanded our family in the furry, feline department. I know. The first thought is: why would you add to the crazy? But the truth is, it hasn't made things more crazy--as much as we did consider that possibility. Somehow, adding has made things more beautiful.

Our new little cat, Blythe, has made us laugh more than we thought possible (in fact, right now, she's trying to attack the computer and possibly add her own spin to this blog). She's easy entertainment for the kids, who, in turn, are learning gentleness and responsibility. She's even managed to mellow the older pets a little more. What looked, on the surface, like a complication to our already at times chaotic life, has instead been a source of joy.

This post is not about a cat though (or not just about a cat). This post is about us and our pursuit of happiness and beauty.

The last couple of years, our family really backed off in a lot of areas as we tackled some massive family changes. We were, for all intents and purposes, in survival mode (I don't mean that dramatically). And that was okay. Necessary, even. But now, it seems like we're finally coming out on the other side, and we need to be just as purposeful in adding back the things that give life, whether that's homemade bread or good music or outside the home ministry options or little furred friends who need homes.

Even if, at first, we may feel a little tired and just not want to, or others think we are crazy for our choices, or logically it just doesn't make sense... Even if all that is true, wouldn't it be worth finding out?

If there's something that you are wanting to do, something you know will bring you joy, why not put forth a little effort and take the risk? The worst thing that could happen is that you realize that it's not the right choice for you, not right now.

But who knows, we may find those seeming complications leave us with an added measure of peace as we figure out what our little corner of happiness looks like. May we not forget that, like all good things in life, joy does not come without some measure of effort. And the best things in life are worth working for.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Collective Learning: in Retrospect

This morning while making breakfast, starting laundry, cleaning up breakfast, kissing boo-boos, chasing rogue baseballs, and breaking up fights, I drafted and edited a blog about our homeschooling year. Then it promptly disappeared, never to be seen again.

Sometimes this is what homeschooling feels like.

Dissecting flowers
We get to the end of the morning, and I've gotten check marks on everything that needed check marks even while mass confusion abounded, but did anything really sink in? In all honesty, I think it did. We won't be rewriting the entire book next year. And this is good.

Some of this year I've felt like I was shooting the educational arrow and then drawing the proverbial target around it. To a certain extent this may be true, but when I stop to really think about what my goals were for the Little Man this year and whether or not we've met them, I can say yes without hesitation.

A dear friend and her sister (both of whom are teachers) came and gave a special
botany lesson to Littles. It ranked as one of my favourite homeschooling moments of the year.

This year I was hoping to 1. teach Littles how to read and 2. instill in him a love of learning. Everything else was deemed icing on the cake. It's May now, and our school year is drawing to a close, and Littles is reading, slowly and haltingly, but reading, and while he may not always love school, he does love to learn. I did a little interview with him on the first blog post (that disappeared) and he told you a few lovely things that he learned about whales and dolphins and his garden (science was a favorite for him). He also informed me that Sarah, Plain and Tall was his favorite chapter book this year (though he wasn't sure why), and that he was disappointed he didn't get to learn more about great white sharks.

I think within the next few months he's really going to take off in the reading department, and I'm pretty excited about that. While I've enjoyed reading out loud to him, I know how much I love the solitude of reading, and I'm excited for that for him. Plus then I can stop reading the twenty gazillion science books to him that he brought home from the library. Although, let's be honest, I like those too.

Littles loved it too.

Side note: did you know there's really no such thing as a black panther? There are black leopards, black jaguars, and--supposedly--black cougars, and "black panther" is our generic term for all of those.

And on that line of thought, I'd like to share a few things that I learned this year. Because, let's be honest, what's the fun of homeschooling if we don't all learn a few things together?

  • School does not have to look pretty. Let me explain. When we started last fall, I had a whole peaceful routine to get us into the educational experience that included, prayer, lots of cuddles, and some semblance of order. By the end of the year, Alex had better be able to yell his phonics lesson loud enough for me to hear him as the twins climb on top of me, yelling ecstatically about something. Everything gets done (more or less), it just might get done while the laundry is getting folded, the dishes are getting washed, or one of the other siblings is getting unceremoniously hauled into "the principle's office".
  • For us, for right now, less planning was more sanity. Our first month of school, I'd drawn out simple lesson plans that I felt were completely reasonable. It stressed everyone out. The clincher was when Littles told the Man he needed to "finish school" one night right before bed. After that I took to just writing down what we were doing during the day and ensuring it was relatively well-rounded. Next year, things will be a little more scheduled (we're trying out Classical Conversations), which is necessary since it will be legit kindergarten (laughing about those two words being put together). But this year, less was more.
  • If you teach your boys about how celtic warriors painted their faces blue, put the markers under lock and key. They wouldn't let me take pictures, but FREEDOM!!!
Some items are more twin friendly than others...

  • Tying into that, it is amazing what Tiny picks up just from listening in on what Alex is learning. Kid may still be sleeping in diapers, but he can tell you where the Red Sea is and do simple subtraction. Although that last one may have been a fluke... But I'm still counting it!
  • Everything is a field trip. Got to go to Home Depot? Totally a learning experience--shop class for pre-K! Need to knock out the grocery store? A math lesson on the fly (with a little health class thrown in). Running errands downtown and forgot to do science? Pop on into the Aquarium and give yourself a check mark for the day!
The toys get moved around at random.
Some days it looks better than this. Other days worse.

  • Maps are the best. I wish I had bought maps earlier in the year. We were using a dinky plastic placemat map until last month when the Man and I finally scored some on eBay. Our homeschool room is beautiful now and the kids and I have so much fun looking for different places as well as talking about various topographical features. The Man has had a lot of fun teasing me about my lack of US geographical sense. 
  • It's amazing the amount of school work Littles can do unsupervised. I like to pretend that this is only going to increase as he learns to read. I can clean up after meals, get laundry done, cook dinner, and a multitude of other things while Littles does copy work or art or any number of other little things we qualify as "school".
  • Last thing, I had fun. I really wasn't sure I was going to. I thought homeschooling Littles was just going to be one more thing when I was already feeling overwhelmed and run down, but it was so fun to see how the Little Man's mind worked. It was exciting to be able to share with him my love of books and learning and creativity. It was pretty neat getting to see the Man step in on days I was busy and teach too. Part of me really anticipated dragging my way to Christmas and collapsing exhausted at the end of the first semester, feeling like a failure and saying, "Well! That was a mistake! Let's enroll him in a real school." And instead I find myself still plugging away mid-way through May and planning to continue with this craziness next year--most significantly, with Littles' full support.
Now we can learn music and memorize capital cities at the same time.

At any rate, this year of schooling is almost knocked out. We're taking June and July off to concentrate our efforts elsewhere before we buckle down and try something "similar but different". And while yes, there are still days when I think we must be crazy, more and more I think we're actually onto something here: a way to draw close as a family, raise well-educated and well-rounded kids, and provide a little bit of stability as the Air Force continues trucking us from one end of the country to the other.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Parenting has redefined a lot of things for me.

For instance, the phrase "back-biting". Prior to kids, I would have agreed with the dictionary definition which reads something along the lines of "malicious talk about someone who is not present." Now it means any extended period of time with Bruiser on my back in the Ergo. The bite marks are impressive.

Prior to parenting, sharing was a good thing. Now I realize that "sharing" means trading off who gets the Cars toothbrush and who gets the Planes toothbrush. "Sharing" is the reason we have nonstop runny noses in this house.

Before kids, mascara was something I put on my eyelashes. After kids, mascara was something for Bee to apply liberally in the general vicinity of her eyelashes, and then after that to rub with expression all over her clothes, hair and face.

Before kids, shop lifting was something juvenile delinquents did. After kids, I realize that shoe fetishes start at an early age and it's very easy to hide things in the back seat of the double stroller.

Before: child labor was deplorable! After: you don't take a nap, you better believe you're helping clean the kitchen and fold the laundry.

Before: a lunch break was time to actually take a break. After: lunch is something squished into the "break" that is supposed to be nap time, during which I'm also trying to throw dinner in the crock pot, recover the floor from the avalanche of lunch-crumbs, and quickly knock out any necessary phone calls so that maybe (just maybe) I can find ten minutes to do something that makes me feel halfway human, like reading something above a 3rd grade level or writing words not included in that day's phonics lesson.

Before: I thought legos were little block thingies you put together to build houses and cars and other vehicles. After: I know that legos are limitless in their imaginative scope and especially in their ability to show me how I'm failing as a feminist. The following conversation occurred Monday morning:

Lego Dad: How about this, boys? Mom goes into the kitchen and makes cookies while we watch the Braves play baseball?
Real Mom (that's me): How come Lego Dad can't make his own cookies? [insert for all blog readers: because you better believe Real Dad is fully capable of doing so--and he doesn't burn the cookies like Real Mom does]
Littles, exasperated: Because he's watching baseball!

Before: jeans were for your legs. After: dirty jeans from the laundry pile double as a scarf.

Before: not having trash service for an unspecified amount of time would've been an inconvenience. After: not having trash service is certainly smelly (diapers are fun!) but mostly sad for my three trash-truck obsessed little boys.

Before...well...there are a lot of words that have been redefined. I suppose having kids makes that happen, both on a serious front as well as an entertaining one. It's like discovering a whole new language! One that is confusing, full of laughter, and occasionally a little disturbing.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Streamlining, Assembly Lines, and Reality

I had such a great time seeing pictures of everyone's cute kids in their Easter finery.  I enjoyed them extra much because I so did not pull off Easter pictures this year. But, let me paint you a word picture.

First there was Littles. Sure, his shirt was still on the big side and his shoes are threatening to walk themselves to the trash can, but on the whole, he looked presentable. No noticeable stains or tears. But in a show of solidarity with Tiny and an effort to avoid Bruiser's hair pulling, he buzzed off all his beautiful brown hair on the Saturday before so he pretty much looked like a stranger to me. Thankfully, he left his eyelashes. This time.

Then there was Tiny, who was impeccably turned out until his lip got split by a wooden block that some nameless brother decided to chuck at his face. The split lip got blood all over his white sleeves, but changing him into a clean shirt before church? Ain't nobody got time for that.

The twins both had snot all over their faces (and then got snot all over me). Bee got orange juice on her sweater before lunch, and Bruiser's new pants were a little on the long side, but it was so nice to not have a direct line of sight on both of his knee caps that no one minded. 

We may be a little on the rag tag side of things these days, but things are settling now, more and more. I'm starting to think in terms of streamlining, and that's helped a lot. Sure, sometimes that means thinking of my children as parts in an assembly line, but if it gets everyone dressed and out the door with a minimum of tears, yelling, and lost tempers, I call that winning.

I'm making To Do lists and then organizing those To Do lists by priority and cutting myself slack where it just isn't going to happen. I'm working to decrease wasted time so that the work we do is more efficient. And I finally got maps hung in the homeschool room, so evidently I'm rocking that too.

The Man has taken to running our budget from his phone, and we are sticking to it with glorious rigidity. Bills that can be paid on schedule are being scheduled as such. Daily and weekly schedules are being compared and meshed appropriately. Streamlining. It's a beautiful thing.

I'm starting to mull over terms like minimalism, as well. As in: if I get rid of more stuff, there's less stuff to put away. Fewer toys = less pickup = fewer fights. Hmm. Also, fewer clothes = fewer choices = nudist colony. Just kidding. But I am kind of obsessed with the idea of a capsule wardrobe right now. Unfortunately, the fact that my post baby body is still shifting makes things a little problematic at times.

Oh, we also moved the twins back into the nursery together. Which means that the Man has his office back! He's celebrating by going through all our files and culling the herd under the watchful eye of the creepy squirrel. (I feel like I just mixed metaphors there, but I really didn't. And I'm sitting in the study with him as I write this, and even though I tried really hard to sit outside of said squirrel's line of sight--he's still watching me.)

Is there a point to this blog post? Yes. Streamlining. Minimalism. And getting my ducks in a row. It's spring and I feel the urge to get my purge on. Wow. That sounded way worse when I typed it out than it did in my head. But what I'm trying to say is: that closet underneath the stairs that we shoved random boxes in when we moved because we were both too strung out on sleep deprivation and twins? I think there may actually be hope for it. And quite possibly for all the other things in our lives that have been left at loose ends.

{No pictures of the big boys today, but you get pictures of the twins from last Sunday. That bow stayed in Bee's hair for all of the 30 seconds it took me to take that picture. And you can see how well  my attempt to get a picture of them together went over. The two bottom pictures are actually from Easter because I may forget to take pictures of my kids, but you know I'm not going to miss the chance to take a picture of my table and our homemade, watercolor bunting--thanks, Littles.}