Monday, August 31, 2009

God used *me*?

Open doors, closed doors. God uses them, people. And sometimes, if you are watching carefully, you'll see that He uses you, too.

I'm honored to announce that the little girl I wrote of sometime back --the one whose placement we turned down--will be officially adopted into her forever family on September 28. The family who took placement--the woman who was eager to add her to her family when I called--will give her their love, their name, and their home. Forever.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

TOS Review: Maverick Books

My kids are swimming upstream in the "normal sense of humor" department. When you grow up in a house with parents that sing a toned-down version of the song "Jackson" to one another as they fry up your Saturday morning breakfast, you're just going to turn out a little odd. Mr. Blandings and I ... well, we're goofy. We say really strange things--and then we laugh hysterically for a very, very long time.

And this doesn't even touch on our habit of quoting movies out of the blue. Spaceballs? Big Trouble in Little China? Raising Arizona?

They've gone to plaid!
Well, you just tell them the check is in the mail.

Two hours a day, either educational or football, so you don't ruin your appreciation of the finer things.

HAHAHAHAHA! What? You're not laughing??!

With this highly developed sense of hilarity being a general trait in our household, a few problems have arisen. Namely: children's books. Most of them--as you may have noticed--are just not funny.

They are silly, they are slightly amusing but no, they are not funny. And for a parent who likes to both read aloud and laugh aloud at the same time, they can be downright torturous.

Thank goodness for Hank.

We discovered the Hank the Cowdog series from Maverick Books a few years back. To be honest, I had heard them recommended several times and had even grabbed one from the shelf of our local library a time or two. While I liked the storyline (lighthearted mysteries) and the characters (overbearing cowdog with delusions of grandeur, daffy sidekick with a penchant for disappearing at prime moments, etc.) the language gave me pause. Quite regularly, in the midst of tense moments, the main character (that would be Hank) berates his fellow ranch residents with words that are strictly verboten in the Blandings household. (Idiot. Dummy. Moron. You get the picture.) At a certain phase in the development of our family, I knew that introducing a dog who spewed what we consider "bad words" was just not a good idea. So we passed.

Then, around the time Jo was 9, I realized that we were tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Good adventure stories that draw in both boys and girls are hard enough to find without scribbling a line in the sand over a couple of insults. We got a couple of Hank books for read-alouds, and simply edited out the naughty words. And you know what? They were a huge, massive, overwhelming hit.

A bumbling, ego-maniac dog galloping his way over everyone else in a quest to do the right thing. Hilarious caricatures of cowboys and ranch owners who can't seem to understand anything that the dog tries to do. And a rotating band of lesser characters who botch language, puff themselves up, pull tricks and are otherwise insane. Beautiful!

Mr. Blandings especially enjoyed reading the Hank books to the kids. His voices for the characters bordered between Texas drawl and Georgia syrup, and man, were they funny. Even without the bad words, this was some family time well spent around a bowl of popcorn and a gas fireplace. We laughed, and we giggled, and we got goofy with one another in the best of ways.

We have since graduated to audiobook versions of Hank's tales, which never fail to turn even a long ride into a giggle-fest. Yes, Hank is rude in these, but we've never had any problems with a child repeating an off-color (to us) word. I suppose that if I had a child prone to that kind of behavior, I'd be reluctant to indulge in the cds. Even though author John Erickson's narration and singing (yes, there are songs!) are priceless, I'd be willing to miss out if it meant going back to editing and still being able to enjoy the stories.

The magic of Hank stories, for us, is that they truly captivate all ages. Logan, at 7 adores listening to them; so does Mr. Blandings. To find something that pulls everyone in--something that makes a trek cross-state seem like a holiday in and of itself--is rare and delightful.

Being something of a sensation, Hank has expanded beyond mere print and audio. In addition to his website (complete with games), he has merchandise. T-shirts, playing cards, a backpack and even a travel-sized board game. I can almost hear Pete, Hank's nemesis, purring, "Why, Hankie! You're a star!"

The board game--based on one of the books--is a tornado-themed romp similar to SORRY! It's called ... get ready for it ... TORNADO. Since my family is highly competitive with the game SORRY!, I was a little nervous to let them play TORNADO. And sure enough, it got cut throat. The plastic playing pieces are in the shape of Hank, Drover (his sidekick) and Junior (a buzzard). A few spins caused absolute mayhem as Logan bumped Atticus back to the starting point, Jo zoomed ahead of everyone else and I tried to decide how to NOT knock someone else off the board. It's a great game, don't get me wrong--but I recommend playing it when a) you've got a big chunk of time on your hands and b) you've got plenty of time to help someone understand that it's not personal ... it's just a game.

Hank is one of our family's favorite characters. His off-beat approach and serious silliness melt right in around here. If you're looking for a series that's got a few rough edges, a smidge of drama and some personalities that will brighten your day, check out his books.

Laying 'em down

I have not been having perfect Mommy Moments this week.

I have been having very real, very rough Mommy Moments. The kind that make you feel like a bad mom when, in truth, you're just a very tired mom bordering on burn-out.

I hate those moments.

I hate the fact that listening to Logan's excited chatter has allowed my mind to wander over the laundry I need to do or the lunches that need packing.

I hate the fact that Oliver's lack of communication has felt like an insurmountable hurdle I will never, ever cross.

I hate the fact that seeing Jo worn-out from a week's worth of Fair fun has left me exasperated.

I hate the fact that I see Atticus disappear into his own little world and feel like I am failing him miserably.

I hate the fact that Manolin's squeal of joy as he lunges for my glasses--again--makes me cringe.

Mommy Moments. Some are beautiful, powerful, amazing things that remind us of our blessings. And some are ... well, some are the bits that we hope we forget as our children pass into adulthood.

I realized this morning what the source of my weariness was. It's not my kids. It's not the 4-H chaos of Fair week. It's not a toddler. It's not a special needs son. It's not social workers, or restless nights.

It's where my eyes have been. Namely--on everything I have to do, and how little time I have to do it. And where have they not been? Why, on


When will I learn this lesson? And, Lord, how is it possible that you continue to have patience with a wretch like me?

Friday, August 28, 2009


I met Benny in the spring of 2003. We each had a little boy whose life was still measured more accurately in months than in years; Punky had just crossed over the one-year mark and Logan was getting pretty darn close. We met on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor's house, dodging kids on bikes with training wheels and scooters and Flintstones-style Little Tykes cars. Benny seemed like the mom I had been just a few short years before; in fact, that was a pretty true assessment, as I was going into middle school the year Benny was checking out first grade.

Aside from Punky and Logan, we had very little in common. I had three kids five and under, was a newbie homeschooler and had just trekked cross-country in a ten year-old Volvo with my husband of six years. Benny had been married less than three years, was newly pregnant with her second baby and had yet to parent a kid out of diapers.

There wasn't a whole lot of potential there. And yet ...

Six and a half years later, there is the easy comfort of being known and loved. Not just for me, but for my children, too. As a family living nearly 3,000 miles from the nearest relatives, we're often the objects of pity when holidays or occasions roll around. Let me tell you--when your 11 year-old daughter--the one who has begun to cringe just the tiniest bit when you lovingly call her childhood nickname across a crowded room--when that daughter breaks into a full-on run, lanky limbs splaying, to throw her arms around your best friend ... well, you realize what a beautiful thing God has given you.

Today, our two families met at the local Fair. This is something of a tradition; we've gone-- just Benny, our kids, and me--for years. The first time I can remember, the weather was cool and overcast as the seven of us checked out the offerings. Throughout the years, our families have grown and the weather has been as unpredictable as one might expect in the Northwestern summer. This year,
the sunshine was almost blinding. We attended with three toddlers, one preschooler, one kindergartner, two second graders, a fourth grader and a pre-teen girl. We've graduated from a single stroller being enough to hold the sole baby and our two lunch bags to needing one double stroller, one single and two ergos ... plus the generous help of older siblings who don't mind pushing or holding hands from time to time.

This is the magic of our two families: as a team, we are unbeatable. There is always an older child happy to make a baby on the verge of a meltdown explode into laughter by making goofy faces. There's always a joke for the moms to whisper just out of earshot of the little ones. There's always a precious preschooler that makes everyone's heart melt. There's always an extra ear to heart the most recent tale of intrigue pouring form an adventurous boy's imagination. There's always someone who understands when a kid doesn't behave. There's always an extra set of hands to hold down the fort for a quick potty trip, change a diaper, or snap a carrier strap.

When you have known someone through so much good and bad, through so many changes and so many blessings, they are an irreplaceable part of the fabric of your family. They are a yardstick, in a way, of your own family and its amazing journey.

My own family has gone through countless changes since Benny and I became friends. Personally, I have grown and changed and found myself at crossroads of emotional, spiritual, and even physical wellness. Benny can say the same. Who we were then is not who we are now.

And yet, today I emerged from a rabbit barn with my band of boys and a grinning, loopy Jo, who had just picked up an award for one of her 4-H bunnies. Benny and her brood were spread out on a couple of green benches, luxuriating on a hot day in the sticky-sweet goodness of an Italian Ice. Beside Benny sat an untouched cup of shaved ice colored impossible shades of blue and red.

"This one's for you guys," she offered, even though we had not asked for one. She pointed out a pile of plastic spoons she had gotten for us to dig in with. "The red is strawberry and the blue is coconut," she added.

Because, of course, coconut is one of my favorite things.

But I didn't have to say that coconut is one of my favorite things. Because Benny already knew. She knew it the same way she knows how to discipline one of my kids, how to encourage me when I'm down or how to stay quiet when I'm in a rant. This are all second-nature things.

So instead, we could both ponder and giggle at the choice of blue as the shade for coconut as we passed Italian ice from mouth to mouth and wielded plastic spoons of our own. We could watch our kids writhe in happiness on the warm wooden benches and feel the glorious weight of our own laughter as we talked about the nothingness of everything.

It was impossible, in that moment, not to see us sitting on the same benches five years before. Children not yet born, battles not yet fought, hard things not yet said. The people we were before we grew up, together, into the people we are today. It was impossible not to see the ground we've covered and to wonder over the places we've not yet gone.

It was impossible not to be grateful.

I'm telling you, true friendships are like yardsticks. When you stand beside them on a sunny day, they tell you exactly how far you've come.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

TOS Review: Web Design for Kids (and Curious Grown-ups)

I know nothing about html. O.k., that's not quite true. I do know the html code for bold and italics. But that's it, people. Why do you think my blog is on blogspot? Why do I have a Mac? Hellllllloooooo? I like to have the nit picky stuff done for me. I just want to look like I know what I'm doing.

But Mr. Blandings has been after me for some time to learn more about designing a web page. See, we have a nonprofit. And the nonprofit has a webpage. But ... well, I'm too embarrassed to link to it because it's so bad.

Which isn't going to fly for much longer because our nonprofit is our sending agency. It's how we're letting people know about our ministry in Nepal. That's a preety big role for one little web address to play. Which means ... well, we want it to be presentable, right?

So I spent two days tinkering with my iMac's amazing iWeb program. I clicked and dragged and pulled and rearranged. I watched a tutorial or ten. I designed a fabulous (to me) set of pages.

And I said, "It is very good."

And Mr. Blandings said, "It looks like 58 million other pages that people have made using the same template. I want something you make just for us. Can't you learn about html or something?"

Very, very rarely do I want to ask Mr. Blandings exactly what he thinks I do all day. I know that bon bons never enter his mind. Really, I do. But seriously, people ... do I look like I have time to read a 700-page book on html? Do I?

I don't. Which is why God made Web Design for Kids (and Curious Grown-ups).

$19.99, people. $19.99. Probably the best $20 you'll ever crack if you or your kids have need of some basic, beginner's programming skills.

Web Design for Kids is not software. It's a dvd that you watch on your t.v. (or computer) and take some simple notes. Then, applying those hand-held baby steps, you plug a few lines (10!) into Notepad/TextEdit and Explorer/Safari (platform dependant, obviously) and ...

You've given birth to a web page.

It's not a super-snazzy web-page, but it's not bad, either. For me, simply being able to begin tinkering with already-formatted pages is fabulous. I gleaned enough about this from the video to actually start making some tiny tinkers with our nonprofit page. Mr. Blandings is very, very happy; I finally fixed the color of the header. It was a no-brainer, actually. I'm almost embarrassed that it took me this long to figure it out.

Topics covered include the 10 basic lines of code, color for letters and backgrounds, making letters scroll across the screen, designer backgrounds, changing fonts, and adding pictures. Actual screenshots make the concepts even easier to grasp, and the tone is very conversational without having an "HTML for Idiots" feel to it. I was engaged, and so was Atticus. He is chomping at the bit for the next level dvd, which is slated to come out this year.

Here's a peek of the dvd:


TOS Review: Barnum Software/Quarter Mile Math

I started my homeschooling career with a distinct disadvantage in the math department. Me? Teach math? Good heavens, folks ... I spent the first semester of my freshman year in college in a class whose catalog description pretty much sums up what I was lacking in my understanding of general mathematics:

100 Intermediate Algebra

Credit does not apply toward graduation nor count in the student’s GPA.

Real numbers and their properties, linear equations, systems of equations, polynomials and functions, fractional expressions, exponents and roots, quadratic equations, graphing, inequalities.

You guessed it. The dreaded remedial math course. I was humiliated. Not to mentioned frustrated. Did you catch that line about how the credits weren't counted? Yet, I still had to pay for the class. Ugh. What a mess.

Surely, I thought as I contemplated my kindergarten-age daughter, I can do better. Somehow.

I latched on to the teaching theory that made the most sense to me at the time: concept-based mathematics. The idea behind this line of thought is that drills and memorization are nowhere near as important as understanding the process behind math and how it works. For example, if your child doesn't know that 5 x 5=25, that's o.k. As long as he understands that when he places five bundles of five sticks in a line, the total can be be represented by the number 25, you're gold.

It sounds great. And it works like a charm, in my experience, through the younger skill set. But unless you've coupled this kind of experiential approach with some good old facts practice, you run the risk of the whole mathematical universe crashing down on your kid like a house of cards. I'm not saying it will happen. I'm just saying it could. It happened to Jo. There are certain higher-level concepts that rely on basic computation skills, and facts memorization makes that kind of thing all the easier. Having seen Jo flounder in math due to a lack of a strong base in facts, I vowed never to make that mistake again.

Which means that in our house, we drill.

Yes. Drill. I know it's a bad word to some people, but to me, it's a necessary evil.

I've added a variety of tools to my arsenal of drill methods. Most of them are designed to be as fun as possible while still getting the job done. Games using cards, die, etc., are all in heavy rotation. But the biggest draw to keeping drill somewhat fresh with my kids has been computer offerings. (What is it about that screen?!)

Pretty much all drill programs, whether they are offered free or through purchase or subscription, whether they are downloadable or available on disc format, operate the same way: a problem flashes on the screen. Your child solves it as quickly as possible. Another problem pops up, and so on. The nuances are present in the graphics, the complexity of the storyline, and level and variety of skills covered.

Quarter Mile Math is one of the best paid options on the market. It's been around a while, and has achieved something of classic status with most homeschoolers. When a product has that kind of longevity and popularity within a specific market, you know there's something to it. And with Quarter Mile Math, there is.

First and foremost, the skills covered start with kindergarten and go all the way up to 9th grade. Bundles are available to make this a one-shot purchase, something that multi-age homeschoolers appreciate. But what kind of skills are they drilling exactly? How about letters and numbers for the little guys, basic addition through division facts for the middle ones and--for your older learners--estimation, decimals, integers, and equations? Kind of sounds like that college course description I referred to above, doesn't it?

Even the most incredible software isn't worth a dime if your kids won't play it, though. And this is where Quarter Mile Math shines. Using a very simple "racing" concept, the drills are played out through either wild horses running over a meadow or dragsters speeding down a strip. The format allows your kids to race against themselves, rotate and race one another or even subscribe to an online option that allows for tournaments. Logan (7) loves it because he is using the same "guys" to race as his older brother and sister; while his skill set is different, the fun graphics and sound effects are the same. Jo likes it because she adores horses, and anything that sounds like a stampede makes math more fun. And Atticus is pleased that he can constantly try to best himself.

Prices for this product vary depending on the bundle and options chosen. Since there are so many ways to purchase this product, I can see it being a good fit across the board. $19.95 buys online access to all three levels for a year for an entire family.

Barnum Software offers a free download sample as well as a homeschool page, which is something that endears them to me, personally. I love companies who allow their product to sell itself AND cater to homeschoolers. I call this one a winner!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cousin Malcolm has landed

One of the most common questions I get in my email inbox is this: "Where is Cousin Malcolm these days?"

Cousin Malcolm was made infamous (apparently) by his two day stay with us. He also holds a soft spot in my kids' hearts. They each have opted to spend their personal letter writing time filling him in on the happenings in their lives as of late, and a simple mention of his name sends them of to wax poetic about one or another of his tales. They also pray for him nightly--that smoking bit really has them concerned. But they love him.

Judging by the number of facebook friends Cousin Malcom has (732, and counting), he pretty much has that effect on people in general. Locations and names pretty much cover the globe. It's amazing, I tell you. The man is a legend in his own time.

But, dear readers, even a rolling stone must sometimes gather a little moss. Cousin Malcolm has recently settled into an apartment here in the states, where he's attending a prestigious law school. YES--a law school.

Go figure.

So for now, Cousin Malcolm is staying put. Being decent and respectable. Playing the part of the tamed schoolboy.

And biding his time, apparently, until he can visit us in Nepal ... which he's already promised the kids he will do.

Monday, August 24, 2009

TOS Review: Sense & Sensibility Patterns

Mr. Blandings and I are not splurgers. In actuality, we own shockingly few things that we can claim were first ours; the vast majority of our furniture, appliances, and everything else under our roof came to us (as we like to say) "with the bugs worked out." Most of the items came our way thanks to the generosity of folks who like to upgrade, and we're not at all offended to be the recipients of the cast-offs. Quite the opposite. My family room sports a rock-solid love seat circa 1980, an amazing oriental rug, a diminutive two-shelf book case and a wooden buffet cabinet. We bought none of it. Not a single piece.

This trend isn't unique to the family room. It's the entire house. Most rooms don't have anything that hasn't been recycled from someone else's home. And I'm perfectly o.k. with that. I don't hold any nostalgia for the "it's ALL mine!" concept that runs amok in most Western minds.

But you know what I bought brand new this past spring?

A sewing machine.

It was still in the box when the kind gentlemen who ran the store brought it out. I watched him slice the packaging tape, lift the styrofoam-bound machine free and settle it onto the table. Together, we were the very first ones to flick the switch, wind a bobbin and thread the needle. The very first stitches that the machine made were mine--setting number 2, an all-purpose straight stitch. The thread was pale pink.

I was instantly smitten. And the love affair continues.

There's something romantic about browsing fabric aisles and imagining the possibilities. Matching the idea in your mind to the woven cotton in front of you, pouring over notions, creating a hundred different motifs in your mind. It's creative, artistic, engaging. It requires the work of your hands, the focus of your mind and the commitment of your heart.

This is a kind of craftiness I can embrace.

Mr. Blandings has embraced it as well--hence the new sewing machine. In a complete turnabout of his normal frugality, Mr. Blandings not only endorsed the purchase of a brand new sewing machine, he also hasn't blanched a bit at the mounds of fabric that keeps piling beside my little sewing area, aching for a project.

The projects, of course, are what sewing is all about. My main goal in buying the machine to start with was to make skirts for Jo and me. More than simply a statement on the awful offerings in local stores (although it's that as well), this machine was destined to be the focal point of some very productive, very heartfelt Mother/Daughter time. And it has been. Sewing has brought generations of women closer; try it in your house if you don't think it's true.

Of course, a girl tires of sewing skirts evening after evening. She earns her gold star on A-lines and is ready to fly. She wants to soar. She longs for something out of the ordinary. A fancy, beautiful, maybe even frivolous thing that she will display with the same kind of joy that bakers reserve for their perfect meringue creations.

Enter Sense & Sensibility Patterns.

The tag line on the motif says it all: Winsome Clothing with an Old-Fashioned Appeal.

And then some, people.

Sense & Sensibility is patterns and more: downloadable sewing tutorials, ultra-helpful sewing tips and amazing vintage eBooks that will make you long for a time when a woman's idea of beautiful would have never included a ponytail and her husband's soccer jersey. The website alone is worth a fun gander; it's clearly the work of someone who labored in love.

The heart of Sense & Sensibility, though, is truly the themed patterns. Covering some of the most fabulous eras in clothing design, the patterns give you a taste of what it would have been like to be a true lady of the day. Eras represented include Regency, Romantic, Edwardian, Titanic and Swing. Gowns, undergarments, blouses, pinafores, aprons and skirts are all considered, and the sizes range from toddler girls to women. The end result of these patterns are simply beautiful pieces of practical, wearable art.

Patterns are downloadable and can be printed off of your own computer. Step-by-step photographs walk you through the process, too; if you're a visual learner, like me, this puts Sense & Sensibility Patterns heads above the typical printed directions that you painstakingly meander through. For true newbies, Sense & Sensibility offers class bundles that will literally hold your hand all the way through the process. Audio instructions, a photo tour of your pattern and even videos make the process next to foolproof.

Jo and I worked through the Girl's Edwardian Apron Pattern (a $7.95 download). While I won't say that this was a simple project, it was certainly doable by a mom and her 11 year-old daughter, neither of which has been sewing for more than three months. The photographs saved the day; some of the trickier elements (like the bias pieces ... whoa!) were explained so clearly that we literally only messed up once. Perhaps that's too large a margin of error for you, but for us, it was an A+ effort! The entire class--with a pattern that you can reuse countless times--was just $24.95. Frankly, what I leaned about sewing in general was easily worth $24.95.

Jo now has her eyes on the Titanic-era 1910s Tea Gown Pattern. Since she wore her Little House on the Prairie dress (handmade by my dear aunt) until it was above her knee, I have no doubt that this one will come to good use as well. After all, if you've paid full prince for something like a sewing machine, you might as well use it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Summertime, and the eatin' is easy

I'm not a big summer person. O.k.--I actually don't even like summer. As a season, it's dead last in my very selective top four list. In order of preference, I vote autumn, spring, winter, summer. I realize that this makes me an odd duck. But hey, if that's the confession that clues you into my ultimate quirkiness, so be it.

You know what I do like about summer? Fresh food. I'm extremely biased in favor of vegetables, and not shy about the fact that cooking them is purely optional in my book. To get an idea of how rare it is for me to do more than briefly steam (or very lightly grill) a veggie, enjoy this quote from Logan after he'd eaten at a friend's house:

"I like eating there. But their green beans are soft. They don't snap. Why don't their green beans snap?"

My poor sons will grow up and drive their future wives insane trying to get them to leave their veggies naked and uncooked. Either that, or they'll marry a woman who thinks the only good vegetable is a boiled one, and finally be converted.

Tonight we sat down to our all-time favorite summer meal. I realized as we gathered around the table that it's probably the last time we'll have this particular spread this year. Summer's hour glass is quickly running out of sand in the NW, and the hot weather vegetables are creeping past their peak. Personally, this excites me. Going back to my list of favorite seasons, this means that autumn is just around the corner; and I, for one, am ready for it.

But tonight, watching my family tear into one of the easiest meals ever with such appreciation, I felt the total blessing of summer. An amazing bounty of crisp, yummy treats--ours for the taking just outside our back door. A few added ingredients from the store and ...viola! Happiness in food form.

For those curious as to what kind of a dinner brings such joy to the troops at Casa Blandings, here's a list of the goodies tonight:

2 chicken breasts, thinly sliced, sprinkled with seasoning and broiled--then refrigerated until cold.

an immense bowl of our last summer lettuces

3 of the most beautiful cucumbers I've ever plucked from a vine, peeled and sliced

3 tomatoes--2 heirloom Summer Feast, one heirloom Rainbow's End

1 huge yellow squash, raw, cubed

1 bowl croutons, made from toasting and seasoning stale rice bread

1 decanter Raspberry Vinagarette

a variety of cheeses, artfully arranged and very eagerly nibbled

THIS is what summer is good for. And maybe, just maybe, I might miss it. Just a little, of course.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Walk on

Manolin is walking now.

Walking everywhere, all the time, without a thought behind it. No longer toddling or simply cruising around, doing his best to gain the cooperation of his lower limbs. No, we're past all that. It's a completely automatic reaction now; he cranes out from my hip, arching toward something on the floor. I slide him from his perch and before he's even close to my knee his chubby legs shoot out--rigid--ready to do their job.

It's as if he never scooted his way across my kitchen. Never bear-walked through the hall at church. Never crawled from toy to toy.

He's walking now. Running, nearly.

He is a toddler.

No more babies! No more limp weight dangling from my side. No more bottles to prepare, heat, serve, wash, repeat. No more fragile sleeping schedule. No more steaming and blending veggies and meats. No more tiny, delicate little ones to shelter from the ruckus of older siblings.

But, oh ...

No more babies. No more warm, sweet softness clinging to my side. No more gazing into wide, trusting eyes peering over the rim of a bottle while enjoying the perfect little head on the crook of my arm. No more easily-predictable downtimes. No more warm fuzzies of satisfaction from serving up my love in food form. No more giggling, bouncing ones to enjoy the fray of the big kids.

Manolin is a toddler now. He wants to be a part of every fracas, every meal, every everything. He is not content to ride out life. He's ready to grab it by both ears and tear off a chunk for himself.

And it is glorious.

I would be shocked, awed, amazed if God's plan for us at this point included any more tiny souls. Preschoolers, big kids ... yes. But babies? I think Manolin was God's gracious, beautiful gift that helped us feel that door close with a last, sweet dose of mercy and love.

And I'm o.k. with that. I actually am. I never thought the day would come, but right now I immensely honored to be charged with the task of escorting six people into adulthood. Anything else ... well, that's what they call gravy, right?

I guess we're all getting our bearings around here. Growing, moving forward. Walking. And not looking back.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thanks, Michelle!

Michelle at A Life Better Thank I Deserve (don't you just love that name?!?!) has honored me with a very cool award. Thanks, Michelle!

The rules:
1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate up to 10 blogs which show great attitude and/or gratitude!
3. Be sure to link your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Remember to link the person from whom you received your award.

My Nominees --

Benny at The Lord's Day, because if you are able to take your one year-old baby girl in for stitches and still walk away thinking that God had the day mapped out for you, you're my spiritual mentor, plain and simple.

Mama Snail at The Snail's Trail, because she is new to homeschooling and infectious in her joy of discovery.

Thy Hand Hath Provided
, who is amazingly talented with both food and a camera, and just tickles me.

Full of Joy, who has aptly named her blog (and has really cute kids).

Tree Climbing Mom
, whose writing is open, hopeful and entirely too close to my own experiences.

So ...

Anything new with YOU? :-)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Change #4--Revealed

Some browsers view this video better on the youtube page. :-)

TOS Review: Grapevine Studies

My kids like to have their hands busy. People ask me all the time how it is that I can set aside big blocks of the day for read-alouds and not have a mutiny in my living room. The answer is simple: busy hands.

Ninety-nine percent of the reading that gets done around here happens with Legos being mashed together, Lincoln Logs being stacked, colored pencils creating masterpieces or Wikki Stix morphing into happy little oddities.

The follow-up question, once I explain the HOW behind the reading is usually WHAT--as in, "WHAT do you do to keep them focused, then?"

Again, the answer is pretty simple: through a fairly natural process, I find that the business my children's hands are engaging in is usually fairly well linked to the material they're being read.

A bouncing, fun read-aloud starring silly mice trying to rid their cottage home of a dastardly Scottish auntie? Chances are good that the Loegos will be employed in the manufacture of an elaborate mouse manor fit for our hero and heroine. A tale of siblings experiencing the profound landscape of Africa? Pretty good time to draw a savannah, don't you think?

Very, very rarely do I hold my kiddos captive at the kitchen table and force them to digest information that I'm ladeling out with a heavy-handed spoon. Aside from being extraordinarily boring, it's also outrageously one-dimensional. And I don't know about you, but auditory learning is not a skill that flies solo in
my house. So busy hands, it is!

One area where I've struggled to find lessons that allow for this kind of "happy hands, happy learners" kind of approach is Bible studies. Many pre-written curricula come complete with puzzles, word searches or even handy little dioramas that you can assemble
after the lesson itself. But during the teaching, it seems that far too many authors expect children to be seen and not heard. Which isn't, by the way, really what Jesus was after with that whole "Let the little children come to me," thing. ;-)

This summer, I've been delighted to finally (finally!) find a pre-written, multi-age Bible study that not only allows for busy hands--it requires them! Grapevine Studies are engaging, intellectual and faith-building studies that encourage children to use their visual and kinesthetic skills right alongside their auditory ones. Every lesson in every study lets your child unleash a little bit of imagination as they "stick figure" their way through the Bible. Stick figuring, by the way, is just what it sounds like: drawing simple characters to represent what's happening in the lesson as mom or dad reads.

From that humble beginning, of course, anything is possible. We're using the phenomenal Biblical Feasts and Holy Days curriculum, a multi-age program that allows me to teach a 7th, 4th and 2nd grader at the same time. Their stick figures have definitely reflected their varying abilities, understanding and creative bents, too. Not only have the kids have fun with some very deep topics ... we've also been able to engage in rich dialogue by using their stick figures as a jumping off place to grapple with some theology that rarely gets touched in your average kid's Bible Study. Our cute stick figures have leaped off the page more than once and given way to full-scale reenactments. I'm loving it! Who thought I'd be walking through the origins of Purim with a 7 year-old?

This study has been easy to teach, requires very little prep work and has given us enough room to guide our own further study where interest arises. The presentation is not tied to a specific doctrine; it's a straight Bible Study with the "religion" portion left to the teacher. Personally, I'm a fan of multi-age learning, but with a little tweaking, you may be able to stretch studies intended for specific age ranges to fit your whole family. The topics presented run from the basic (Birth of Jesus) to the deep (Old Testament Overview). They can be purchased as eBooks or hard copies, and there are separate teacher and student books.

Prices are reasonable, especially in eBook form. Our hard copy Biblical Feasts and Holy Days set of teacher guide and one student book retails for just under $35. Since this is a 13 week study, the weekly total is just $2.68. That's a pittance for the level of Biblical insight our family has gleaned through studying a rarely touched on topic.

Multi-age Bible studies that engage creativity and allow children to flex their auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning muscles. What's not to like?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Change #3--daughters, renumbered

Above is a photo of Bee, the delightful, charming, wistful girl who we've sponsored through friends for the past four years. This spirited child absolutely captured Mr. Blandings' heart during his most recent trip to Asia; it was their first face-to-face meeting, and one that caught both of them off-guard with its ease and power. Bee is an orphan of perhaps the most tragic kind. As usual, I won't share the full story; it belongs to Bee, and will stay that way.

Despite the odds being overwhelmingly not in our favor, we have chosen to follow our hearts and pursue adding Bee to our family. After all, God doesn't play odds ... He makes them. And that's all the assurance I need.

Which leads us to change #4, of course.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


This is why I am not one of those people who looks at dedicated unschoolers with total disdain:

The scene: breakfast at the Blandings house. Oliver is alternately eating and throwing his wheat-free, gluten-free banana muffin. Manolin is chowing on a delicious assortment of dried cereals. Jo is cleaning her rabbit cages and running the risk of missing breakfast entirely if she doesn't hit the fast forward button. Mary Grace, Atticus and Logan are liberating oatmeal chocolate muffins from the pan. Due to the state of disintegration her favorite oven mitt is currently enjoying, Mary Grace burns the sensitive web of skin between her thumb and forefinger and elicits one of her random, curious pseudo-oaths.

MG: Mome Rath!

Neither Atticus nor Logan flinch at the words, but sympathize with the burn. Whilst MG is holding her tender skin under the faucet, it occurs to her that her sons are so used to their mother spewing the contents of her decidedly eclectic brain onto them that they probably think everyone's mother mutters Lewis Carroll in moments of despair.

MG: Do you guys know what a mome rath is?

Atticus: It's something that hurts.

Logan: I think it's an animal that bites you.

Clearly, it's time to resurrect "Jabberwocky," which Mary Grace realizes her children have forgotten entirely, despite the rather in-depth study they did on portmanteau poetry several years back. Over muffins, the three older children (Jo has by now made her appearance) are held in rapt attention as their mother recites "Jabberwocky."

Atticus: You didn't write that. I know you didn't. That's from Through the Looking Glass.

Logan: Mommy! I thought you made up the mome rath!

Jo, whose eyes are tempted to roll in disbelief: Really?

MG: I didn't write it. I just memorized it. Do you want to memorize it?

All three kids nod, and they set about memorizing. From there, the impromptu poetry lesson moves rapidly to a discussion on portmanteau, a poetry slam, and far too many giggles. Logan is moved to write his own poem. Atticus decides to work on the language he's been composing: Mickibacki. It's still in its infancy, and needs some assistance. Jo wants more portmanteau. MG leads her to another classic Carroll piece, The Hunting of the Snark.
And that, my dears, is why unschooling has its own brand of brilliance. And why I encourage ALL parents (homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers) to follow rabbit trails. Or, in this case, mome rath trails.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Change #2--Food, redefined

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that when Oli joined our family in February of 2008, we found ourselves thrust into new territory on many levels. One of them that I don't often mention is FOOD.

Priorities had to be set when Oliver came. Among the many ailments he suffered from: constant diarrhea, chronic ear infections, a wet cough, perpetual green runny nose, no growth, developmental delays, not walking and projectile vomiting. The poor boy--at 14 months of age-- had suffered from more infections (particularly in his ears) than you could shake a stick at. I knew this, and was prepared to deal with such. After all, Jo had been through a year of nasty ear infections beginning right after her weaning, and I had learned a trick or two. I wasn't even shocked when our pediatrician put down her otoscope during his intake exam and told me, "This poor kid's ears a full of what looks like snot." Yum! I thought. How visual and yet ... disturbing.

So getting rid of the ear infections rose to slot number one in our quest to prioritize getting Oli's little body in order.

On a hunch borne of a far gentler experience, we suggested pulling dairy from Oliver's diet. He was on whole milk at the time and clearly was not thriving. Our pediatrician agreed, and suggested that rather than simply moving him to soy or another substitute milk, we keep him on soy formula until his second birthday. The calories could only help, she reasoned. And so, armed with this battle plan, we went forward.

Within two days, it was clear that the enemy was on the run. Oliver did not projectile vomit after each bottle now. Instead, he spit up slightly, which we were more than willing to accept. A month or so later, his pediatrician offered another suggestion after digging deeper into his medical history: let's pull rice and see how he does. Sure, we said. Why not?

For six months, Oliver was dairy- and rice-free. And he did much, much better. His ear infection stopped cold (he hasn't had once since he's been in our care, actually). His nose cleared up. His nagging cough disappeared. And the puking was finally gone.

We were elated. After all, it is much, much easier to focus on the bigger issues in life (like walking) when you are no longer worried about a baby who can't keep anything in his stomach.

But here we are now, 18 months further on. And Oliver still has chronic diarrhea. And he's still not growing. And nothing seems to help.

Enter a whole new round of food examinations. Under the microscope this time: wheat and gluten.

Oliver, it seems, fits the bill of celiac disease to a T. A quick search of some legit groups on the web suggests that our boy is most likely dealing with something a little bigger than dairy, and quite probably a life-long issue with a pretty basic food element.

I called our helpful pediatrician and was encouraged to begin a wheat- and gluten-free diet and see how he responded. Because of the hoops that must be jumped through to order even a simple blood test on a child whose biological mother is fighting termination, the doctor felt she could stamp such a test request "medical necessity" and opt out of the hoops if Oliver showed improvement on the diet. Dontcha' love docs who know how to finesse The System?

As of yesterday, our kitchen counter resembled (more than usual) the natural foods section of our local grocery chain. We've got some bread tagged "brown rice loaf" snuggled up next to a box of "Gluten free baking bix" and--Mr. Blanding's treat to his special boy--a bag of dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free chocolate chips. That last item was a total "I'm a sucker dad" buy, and when I teased Mr. Blandings about it, he stuck out his lower lip and shared that he can't imagine being two and not getting to try the yummy chocolate chip muffins your Momma puts on the table on Saturday morning. Sorry, ladies. He's not available. :-)

Benny was kind enough to loan me her library of wf/gf cookbooks, so I'm wading into the world of cooking like I've never cooked before. I admit that it's a little intimidating. I've always felt cautious about food allergy stuff because--let me be utterly honest here--I know far too many wonderful people who have made dietary issues their god. They are consumed by what they can and cannot have, and their daily lives are defined by this thing that takes on more and more significance the farther into it they swim. It becomes a control issue, rather than a relief-filled prescription for freedom from illness, pain or suffering. And it snowballs. There's a boogeyman of a food around every corner for some folks. Wheat is the devil. Don't eat soy. Stay away from this. You eat that?!?

And I just don't want to go there.

But for Oli, I will find a way to strike the balance between helping him be healthy and micromanaging. I will redefine how I cook, and why I make certain dishes in particular ways. I will praise God that our diet is already largely based in the food groups that are most friendly to his tummy (beans, rice and fresh veggies). I'll morph around the new parameters set before me as I walk into my kitchen. I will invest time from somewhere in my day into learning this new set of skills.

And I'll make wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free chocolate chip muffins. Because I love that boy. :-)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Change #1--Homeschool, reconsidered

This time last year, I found myself grappling with an issue that is familiar to a good number of homeschoolers who have two or more children: how on earth do I keep myself sane and still meet everyone's needs?

From the beginning of our homeschooling adventure, I've kept all three of the older kids combined in what I consider general studies: science, history, read-alouds and the like. Individual subjects that are skill-dependent (think math and Language Arts) are pursued separately.

This always worked very well for us. In addition to keeping my time commitment to homeschooling manageable, it served a greater purpose: my children were always on the same page when it came to new topics of interest. Everyone's studying Rome? Guess what all three kids are suddenly playing? We just learned about carnivorous plants? Everyone's thrilled when we spot a display of Venus flytraps for sale in our local hardware store.

This to me has been one of the most precious aspects of homeschooling, and one that I've sought to preserve for as long as possible. As a woman who grew up with only one brother seven years removed from my own experiences, a common thread between siblings is invaluable to me. I admit that the ability to group my three children (despite their 4 year age span) into one topic was one of the most alluring aspects when my family chose Sonlight way back in April of 2002. Over the years, we had advanced through the Cores (starting with K) happily, our little knot enjoying tales of Vikings, the invention of the elevator and a long sob with more than a a few missionary friends. We did it all together. We learned, and we grew, and life was rich.

But last year, I could no longer ignore a few simple truths that were staring me in the face. First and foremost: our family was no longer little. Not in physical age, nor in numerical standings. Five children now rounded out our clan, and their needs were as vast as the 11 years over which their birthdates were sprinkled. Second was the fact that we were a growing family. And I do mean growing--in many senses of the word. Yes, we were open to adding more souls to our brood. But more than that, the seven people that already comprised our unit were expanding in terms of skills, interests, intellect and desire. We had a new walker and a middle schooler, for Pete's sake!

It had always sat in the back of my mind that eventually, I would have to "split the kids off." To me, that meant allowing Jo to go on to the next Core, while grouping Atticus and Logan in another--hopefully corresponding--Sonlight Core. Maybe, I thought, it's time to do that. Maybe Jo goes on to Core 5 and the boys go back to Core K? That didn't feel quite right. A first grader in Core K is quite doable. A third grader who has already devoured the entire Brian Jacques Redwall catalog and considers "The Hobbit" light reading? Not so much. What to do?

I prayed and I pondered. I looked to Mr. Blandings for advice. He suggested that we look elsewhere for a year, perhaps traipse over to WinterPromise and see how their Sea and Sky program was coming along. I researched and prayed some more.

But in the end, I felt this in my heart: one more year. One last year where everyone is lock-step and in sync. One more year of, "Let's play that book we just read." One more year of just one set of read-alouds. One more year of just one Core.

Mr. Blandings agreed, and indeed, it worked great. A little tinkering and modification here and there (for example, the read-alouds were far too mature for Logan) and voila! Together, we studied Eastern Hempisheres. And I relished it, because I knew that this was the last time we'd ever be the "little" family doing things "the old way."

As you can see, then, I came to the end of Core 5 with a sense of having completed a journey. Little did I know that I was right in more ways than one.

I took up my school planning in early July, as I always do. I began the process of researching how other people had accomplished what I was now setting out to do: educate three kids using a combination of Sonlight Cores 6 and 1. Jo, I knew, would be fully Core 6. Logan would be fully Core 1. And Atticus, I figured, would float somewhere in the middle with a leaning towards the upper Core. Easy enough, right?

Well ... wrong.

It took less than two weeks of sorting through books to realize that I had a pretty big problem on my hands. Jo has already read more than 80% of the books included in Core 6. Readers, read-alouds ... all of them. Remember how I've alluded to the fact that I supplement readers quite heavily due to the sheer volume of books that my older two consume? That's not the half of it. Not only had I inadvertently selected many of the titles for her a couple of years back, but she had been happily bringing them home from the library since she got her own card. On top of that, she has been listening to Story of the World on cd during long car rides since she was 6. She can recite, verbatim, huge chunks of Jim Weiss' dialogue just for kicks; it's one of the little in-jokes that our family, being nerds, finds amusing. And did I mention that the Usborne Encyclopedia used in Core 6 has been casual bedtime reading among Jo, Atticus and even Logan for a couple of years now?

You see my problem here? My kid had already done Core 6 ... without an Instructor's Guide.

So, what to do? And, back to my original question--how on earth do I keep myself sane and still meet everyone's needs? Because while I'd love to be one of those enterprising moms who writes her own curricula from scratch, I know that I'd miss the things I'd have to give up in order to accomplish that: namely, my writing, which is an integral part of that "keeping myself sane" bit.

Step one to solving the dilemma was talking to Mr. Blandings. Can I just say how much I love having a husband who is totally on board when it comes to being a homeschooling dad? He listens, he recommends ... he even googles things for himself! Got to love that in a guy! Anyhow, Mr. Blandings agreed that we were in a Sonlight pickle. His idea? Talk to Jo and see what she wanted to do. Maybe, he suggested, she'd want to go ahead and do the Core anyhow. Or maybe she'd give us clues as to what else she'd rather us look into for her.

So one night, after all of the boys were in bed, we pulled Jo from her reading and posed a simple question over a pile of homeschooling catalogs: "What do you want to learn next year?"

Her reaction was neither immediate nor rash. But it was firm.

"I don't want to read books about people who witnessed thing happening. I like to do that on my own time. I want to read the real thing. No more 'Johnny was an apprentice for so-and-so.' I want to read the actual classics. Plutarch. That kind of thing. Can I do that?"

Mr. Blandings and I considered one another for a moment. Could we do that? Then we considered our daughter. Could she do that?

We sent her back to her book upstairs and sat in silence for a long minute, considering the innocence of Story of the World and Usborne encyclopedias.

"Do you think we should let her?" Mr. Blandings asked.

"I don't know. I mean ... I read that in college. And it takes a lot of work. Not to mention the themes in some of that stuff ..." I shrugged. Isn't this what we've been trying to save her from? I wondered. The really overwhelming stuff that kills your desire to learn?

We closed the night in prayer and walked away feeling uneasy, like adult fish transplanted to a newer, bigger pond without warning.

Mr. Blandings and I struggled and prayed for over a week. We went back and forth about the wisdom of such an education for our daughter, and about what a 7th grader could possibly get out of the texts we consider "the deep end of the ocean" type reading.

And finally, we settled on this: let's call it a grand experiment. Let's see where this goes. Jo, you want to read the great works of Western civilization? Sure. Go for it. Let's see if you can swim in that water, babe.

We ordered the Omnibus 1 guide from Veritas Press and have set her loose. And Jo, for her part, is thrilled to be knee-deep in an RC Sproul tome on predestination theology with her dad. Mr. Blandings has joked more than once that Sonlight clearly has succeeded in creating a great thinker with a thirst for knowledge out of at least one of our children. "If you give a kid Sonlight," he says, echoing one of our favorite children's books, "chances are, they're going to want Antigone."

So this is where we've landed--at least in part--this year. What I see developing before me is a far cry from the cozy read-alouds I had imagined, or the build-your-own pyramid building spree I was planning. But ultimately, isn't this what homeschooling is all about? Giving them wings to consider life outside of the nest? Encouraging what looks like the impossible? Asking ... and listening to what God speaks into their hearts in this season?

This school year isn't shaping up to be like anything I would have planned. But it feels right. In a year that will no doubt be defined by flux, this first change is one that I can embrace and watch blossom with joy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Life is a swirl right now.

Everything I thought I knew has been upended. No ceremony. No applause. No preparation.

I wake up some mornings and wonder whose life I'm living. Because certainly, it is not the one I knew five weeks ago.

Change never comes slow and even into my family. Nope. We are the people who blink and find ourselves in Narnia, whisked from the commonplace and into the extraordinary at the will of Aslan, not by our own doing.

And so it is good. Change--even monumental change--and the upheaval it brings with it, is good. There is nothing so displeasing to the eye of one searching for beauty as a pond left to stagnate, its waters starved of oxygen and its quiet surface flecked with algae growth. This is not my life. My life is swimming with and life and metamorphosis. My life is bustling with transformation and brimming with new growth.

So hang on tight, dear readers. Change is, most definitely, ahead.