Saturday, October 18, 2014

Embracing my Occasionally "Picture-Perfect" Life :: Embrace the Ordinary (vol 13)

A story about my once-in-a-great-while picture perfect life.

I often joke with a friend that I long for my life to be like a page from one of our favorite picture books, Ox Cart Man...

... and his daughter took her needle and began stitching,
and his son took his Barlow knife and started whittling, 
and they cooked dinner in their new kettle,
and afterward everyone ate a wintergreen peppermint candy,
and that night the ox-cart man sat in front of his fire 
stitching a new harness for the young ox in the barn...

(from Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrations by Barbara Cooney)

It's not usually like that in the evenings around here.  Can't we all just be calm and civilized and not jump and prance around the house, climbing the walls and hooting like animals??  Can't we just all sit in front of the fire, enjoying each others' company, sewing, working on puzzles, sipping minty hot chocolate?? 

Most of our evenings are a hectic jumble from the moment we sit down to dinner (well, some of us sit, and some of us think it's ok to lounge on top of the table...) to all that follows... "clear off your place, brush your teeth, use the toilet, did you shower?? Are you dirty??  Clear off your place!  What do you mean you're not dirty?!  Look at this filth!  Stop hiding your brother's pajamas, get off of the baby, put some underwear on!!  What do you mean we're out of shampoo?  and soap?  and toothpaste and toilet paper??  CLEAR OFF YOUR PLACE.  I don't know where the chapter book is, check under the couch, what?  why is the baby under the couch??  Ah!  What is that sticky, disgusting mess?  Let's say prayers, stop using a foolish voice, stop putting your foot on your sister's shoulder, "All for the greater glory of God"  (huh??) ok - time for bed, get in your bed please, stay in bed please, GET BACK IN YOUR BED NOW!  NO.  you do not need a band aid....  Or a mini screw driver...  If it's still itchy in the morning, I'll put some cream on it....  In the morning....  She's still talking?  Put your pillow over your head....  No, the Red Sea is not still parted...   Great.  You woke up the baby.  GO TO SLEEP."   (talk to me, ladies... is this normal or is this just us???) 

The truth is, even though I whine that my life will never be as idyllic as the Ox-cart family's, we do have rare evenings that play out like the picture book.   When they do I cherish it!   Once in a while we are all together in front of the fire (bonus!), some happily coloring, some crocheting, some sewing, some nursing (!), and some reading.  In those moments I feel like everything is perfect.  

If one of my great joys is peaceful, non-hectic family time, another is handicrafts and creative endeavors.  I take so much joy in sewing and crafting that I'm always anxious for my children to experience the same joy and satisfaction that comes from creating something beautiful. For the most part, my boys get that from their Lego creations and their various inventions utilizing materials from the recycling bin (the "cereal dispenser" they duct taped to the dining room wall comes to mind...)  But they also (to my delight) enjoy trying their hand at other crafty things once in a while.  

I was thrilled when Aaron asked to work on some simple embroidery projects for Christmas gifts.   It just makes my heart sing!  And then I loved this picture that I got while he was working :)  It captured the delight I take in my kids creating things, as well as the warmth of heart I feel when we're all gathered together in the living room, happily occupied and loving being together.  

the end.

"...there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary
situations, and it is up to each on of you to discover it."
Passionately Loving the World, St. Josemaria Escriva

Linking up with the lovely Gina at Someday (hopefully) They'll Be Saints!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Halloween: Take it or Leave it? We Leave it.

Some bloggers that I love have been chatting Halloween again...  I really appreciate these conversations among civilized and gracious women who believe all the same essentials of the Faith and can have an agreeable disagreement about their various takes on non-Church holidays and popular American cultural. 

So, um... can I get in on the dialogue??

I wrote the majority of this post last year after Halloween.  When I finally got around to finishing it, it was sort of a non-issue because by that time everyone had moved on to Christian parents' next favorite topic... Santa.

I'm pretty sure that all sides of this Halloween thing have already been covered and the debate has already been had, but if you haven any thoughts on the topic and want to chat respectfully here, I'd love it!  (Bonus points and gold stars to all of us who can comment and disagree with charity and respect!!) 

So where am I coming from??  My parents were overtly less than enthusiastic for Halloween.  We still got to celebrate Halloween when I was a kid, but with some fairly strict guidelines... only handmade costumes (no money to be spent thrown away on store-bought costumes.  EVER.), no objectionable or scary costumes, no scary movies, no Halloween parties, no haunted houses, no haunted hayrides, no haunted anything, but... you can go trick-or-treating and you can eat whatever candy you get :)  And you always, always say thank you when you get it.  

I recall Halloweens of yore when I dressed up as a Crayola crayon, a bar of Ivory soap, and a Mexican man (??) And I remember heading out on crisp nights with friends and an adult.  Always an adult.  And I recall how bizarre, creepy, and uncomfortable it was to go to neighbors' houses - people that I knew well and liked a lot - and have bloody skeletons greet me or red-eyed ware wolves dare me to take a piece of candy.  What the heck??  They didn't spend any other night of the year pulling out all the stops to scare the innocent little neighborhood kiddies.  I don't necessarily recall being scared.  (I was far too aloof and serious minded to be duped by that stuff... hmmm, sounds like me today...)  But I recall being disturbed.  I recall the feeling in my gut that told me this wasn't right.   

It's my impression that in general, Halloween has become only more gruesome and grotesque as the years have passed.  This is not to say that many people - including many lovely families that I know and admire and that we count as friends - love celebrating Halloween and enjoy the holiday with their children in good-spirited fun while minimizing the weirder aspects that "creep" up. I love kids in creative costumes as much as the next person, and I think it's fun to get candy and treats and to party.  (Oh no, wait, I'm a introvert, remember?  I don't love parties.  But, mmmmm.... candy!)  But I think that it's getting harder and  harder to avoid what's objectionable when you leave your home on Halloween; we can't control other kids' costumes, or the decorations on the neighbor's porch, or the unsettling displays in the stores, but we can control whether or not our kids see it.

We've chosen to skip Halloween.

I intensely dislike the aspects of Halloween that celebrate evil and normalize what is grotesque and unnatural.  I don't feel comfortable exposing my children to mutilated bodies or blood-sucking creatures as entertainment.  (We encountered plenty of this when, in a momentary lapse of judgement, we took the kids to a presumably harmless neighborhood "Trunk-or-Treat" night. Ugh.)  They have plenty of exposure to good vs. evil in the real world, in stories from the Bible, lives of the saints (in which a mutilated body may be unavoidable, but it is in witness to Christ and holds the promise of everlasting glory and is not about wacky fun on an autumn evening) and other stuff we read - classics beyond reproach, like The Chronicles of Narnia, come to mind.  For the most part, especially in Scripture and in the books we read, evil is evil, not entertainment, or something to imitate.  It's not for play-acting, or something to laugh at, or something intended to shock and awe.  It's always a consequence of original or actual sin.  It's not a disguise, or a trick, or role play. It is a real and present danger to body and/or soul that should not be taken lightly.  I cannot abide the aspect of Halloween that treats the unnatural, the gruesome, and the disgusting as something fun, comical, or "just for kicks."  And regardless of what standards of costumes, movies, activities I would hold for my own family, once you're out on Halloween, there truly is no way to anticipate what you may encounter.  A grotesque mask once seen, can't be unseen, and that's wretched for the mind's eye.  (I have an awful one in my head from several years ago...)  But what if it's more than once?  And what if it's celebrated or made light of?  Repeated exposure to what is evil and grotesque presented in that light  (fun, comical, just for kicks, not-a-big-deal-would-you-please-just-lighten-up-Theresa) may, in my mind at least, deaden our natural reactions to things that we know are wrong.

It is that desensitization to what is evil and unnatural that I fear for myself and for my children.  I do not want to shelter my children from what is evil in the world.  I want to train them to recognize it and react - whether it be fight it, distance themselves from it, seek help, call out in prayer...   When my children, now and in the future, encounter something evil or unnatural, I want them to shudder and know in their gut that "this is wrong," and not to think, "oh, this reminds me of a Halloween mask I once saw."   

This morning (remember I wrote this last year...) I had my first frank conversation about all this with Aaron, who is seven.  He brought it up and kept saying, "I don't understand why people who believe in God think it's fun to dress up as something that's bad."  Me neither, bud.   I don't think I'll ever warm to the idea of emulating that which is disgusting.  Kids dressed as cowboys, princesses, unicorns, and knights?  Super Cute.  Kids learning about and dressing as holy men and women of God?  Awesome!  That's why I'm so grateful to have the best that fall-time candy and costumes have to offer at the All Saint's Day celebration!  (here  are the kiddos costumes from last year)

I reiterate, that my thoughts on Halloween are purely how I approach it for my family and myself.   I'm fairly non-judgemental when it comes to how other families tackle this topic (or enjoy this holiday!)   As I mentioned, I have good friends on both sides of the issue and we've never, ever fought about it :)  My husband is a little less intense about it than I am, but we're in agreement and once we decided together we would "skip" Halloween, his most pressing concern  was where he would procure bite size candy bars if not from the kids' trick-or-treat bags.  (It's called a grocery store, Babe.  I'll take you sometime :) )  I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, to hear if you agree  with some (or all) of it, we can chat about how you view it differently, and I welcome you to charitably poke holes in my arguments, question my rationale, and maybe even change my mind!  Because when considering all the big ideas that go into raising a family in today's culture and in the Faith, it doesn't do anyone any favors to be stubborn about all the extras.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  And ultimately, my take on Halloween doesn't change that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kitchen Stuff that Keeps Me Close to Fabulous

I found out recently that I cook.  

All the work I do in the kitchen?  My friends say it's "cooking."  I never knew!  

I truly never say that I'm "cooking" anything.  Until last week, if you asked me if I "cooked," I would have said "no," because to me cooking involves a certain creative intuition, a dash of this and a pinch of that, beautifully plated four course (at least) meals, and mysterious words like saffron, bearnaise, and aioli.  And I'm more into one pot meals that definitely don't involve aioli.  I would always refer to what I do in the kitchen as "making."  I make a lot of dinners.  I make casseroles and soups like nobody's business.  But it never felt like "cooking."   

Last week, some lovely women I know assured me that I cook.  I make things from scratch, so I guess that qualified me.  Ok, I don't do everything from scratch (I always have a boxed cake mix on hand for emergencies...) but nearly all of my dinners are from scratch (and any breakfasts that don't involve boxed cereal :) )  And even though I manage to keep everyone fed over the summer, this is the time of year when I really ramp things up and start to work in my kitchen and make my kitchen work for me.  Things are really cooking.  I'm cooking. 

If I had to choose a role model for my kitchen endeavors it would be less like America's Next Top Chef contestants (I've never seen it, but I'm pretty sure they do aioli and they don't do casseroles) and more like Ma Ingalls.   

Every day Ma made regular food for the people she loved, often under irregular circumstances.  Ma made bread when they had flour and corn cakes when they didn't.  She made vinegar pies and pies out of green pumpkins.  She made regular cheese, and head cheese (no thanks, Ma), and roasted pigs' tails.  She helped with the maple syrup and saved sugar for Christmas candy.   She worked wonders with wild fruit and home-grown vegetables.  She did it all without electricity, kitchen gadgets, and Pyrex.

For Ma and me, there are very few meals with spectacularly prepared meats flanked by a variety of side dishes, followed by tediously crafted desserts (occasionally there are, but not usually!)  Usually Ma and I favor feeding our families with simple, healthy, hearty meals.  I'll clearly never really be like Ma.  (I mean, for one, I buy all my ingredients, so "from scratch" quickly becomes very relative.)  Ma was fabulous.  I'll never be fabulous in the kitchen, but occasionally I get awfully close.  I know when it happens because my children are very good at praise and thanks when I make something they love!  Here are some kitchen gadgets that I couldn't live without could live without if I had to, but I'd like to hang on to them because they're my best chance at being as fabulous as Ma :)

Crock Pot - Starting out with the obvious.  I'm pretty sure this is the favorite kitchen item of all busy moms, the exceptions being those moms who have a personal chef and those whose brains have been hijacked by aliens - they'd use a slow cooker if they were thinking straight, but they're not... because aliens.  Although I use it frequently, I'm not super creative with my Crock Pot.  I could be better.  But they (I have two) get regular use for apple sauce, soup (obviously), stew, and pot roast.   Once I used it to make pumpkin pudding.  That was good.  

Bread Machine - I love my bread machine :)  I use it for straight-ahead bread for sandwiches and soup.  I make sweet fruit breads for breakfasts and pizza bread for lunches or snack.  And I use the dough setting more and more - it's been wonderful for dinner rolls, pizza dough, Christmas Eve cinnamon buns, and even monkey bread.  I love my bread machine.  Did I already say that??

Immersion Blender - this little gadget is worth every penny when it comes to making creamy blended soups.  One year I tried blending hot soup in batches in a traditional blender.  Never again.  It took longer to clean up that mess than it did to make the soup.  Now, my immersion blended is always front and center at soup time.  

Pampered Chef Manual Food Processor - this thing can chop anything.  Well, not really.  But it chops all the stuff you need it to in the kitchen.  I use it most often for chopping fruit for jam and onions and peppers for salsa.  
nut chopper - soooo much better than smashing nuts in a plastic baggie with my rolling pin.  I first bought a nut chopper because my husband always reminisced about one his mom had when he was a kid.  Now my kids and I love it because it's an easy way for them to help out in the kitchen.  Boys in particular, love to watch rotary blades chopping things up :)

good knives - good kitchen knives make all the difference in the world.  (I use Henckels) Now, if I only knew the secret to sharpening them...  

a sifter - if you've ever tried to "sprinkle" powdered sugar into or onto anything by hand, you know how not pretty it is.  Sifters make perfectly powdery powdered sugar  :)

a zester - it's a small item, but it makes a huge difference when it comes time to giving your recipes a delicious citrus-y zip.  I used to not have a zester and I look back on those dark times and wonder what was the point of it all  ...  

We tend to zest a lot around here, but my two favorite things to use the zester for are jam (I've written before how all homemade jam can become gourmet jam simply by adding lime juice and zest - or lemon if you're lime-less) and these orange kisses - a treat I try to reserve for Easter brunch, but sometimes my self control gets the better of me and I make them a few other times throughout the year...

Orange Kisses at Easter.  So good :)

I love knowing that I "cook."  I love making healthy, delicious, and relatively "from scratch" stuff from my family.  (I really struggle with the "from scratch" thing actually... if I use whole wheat flour from the store but I didn't grow it and mill it myself, how from scratch is my finished product??   Anyway...)   This past weekend I started my yearly ritual of making dinners in bulk and freezing meals for the winter.  I'm so grateful for the blessings of modern conveniences and kitchen gadgets that help me get very close to fabulous in the kitchen :)

What are the kitchen appliances and tools you love to use in making every day food for the ones you love??

Monday, October 13, 2014

Get Thee To a Pumpkin Patch ... But Read These First! (Books. Lists. Love.)

It's pumpkin time!

Everyone knows that books about autumn and fall and pumpkins are a dime a dozen. Every author and wanna-be-author out there knows that once late September/early October rolls around, Americans are suckers for anything "fall" and an autumn-inspired picture book is sure to fly off the shelves.  (Mom feels guilty about treating herself to all those bookstore cafe pumpkin lattes, so she picks up the nearest "all about autumn" book for her child :) )

"Fall" sells. 

Right now it's mid October and "pumpkin" is the flavor/decoration/scent/book topic du jour.  You can scan the library book shelves for ten seconds and walk out of there with four dozen books about pumpkins.  People love pumpkins.  (I count myself among the pumpkin-loving throngs.)  I am sad to say though, that even though they are every children's authors favorite money-in-the-bag topics, not all books about fall and pumpkins are good.  

We've taken them all out of the library and the kids and I have weeded out the rotten ones and plucked the perfect ones.  Here's a list of our favorites. 

 Ten Fall/Pumpkin Picture Books 
(you should go out of your way to read)

 Too Many Pumpkins, Linda White
This is our very favorite-of-all-time pumpkin book.  Rebecca Estelle hates pumpkins but finds herself with quite a few of them on her hands one year.  She comes up with the best solution to her problem.  Such a fun story!  (we've taken it out of the library four years in a row now.  Maybe I should just buy it...)

 Strega Nona's Harvest, Tomie DePaola
Strega Nona's garden is neat and tidy.  Big Anthony's garden is a disorganized mess.  Come harvest time, what will they do with all they harvest??

How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?. Margaret McNamara
This is one of those sneaky books - the kind with a fun story and information.  You're a little smarter when you finish reading.  The kids in Mr. Tifton's class learn some interesting facts about pumpkin seeds and even practice their skip counting along the way!

The Very Best Pumpkin, Mark Kimball Moulton 
This is a sweet story - with lovely country-shabby-chic illustrations - about a friendship that grows alongside a twisty, winding pumpkin plant.

The Great Pumpkin Switch , Megan Mc Donald
Grandpa tells the story of of the year he and his friend accidentally spoiled his sister's prize pumpkin and how they "replaced" it :)

The Pumpkin Book , Gail Gibbons
Gail Gibbons strikes again - lots of information and fun and colorful illustrations.

From Seed to Pumpkin , Wendy Pfeffer
A great science book with information on the life cycle of a pumpkin plant that is completely accessible to younger children.

Why Do Leaves Change Color? , Betsy Maestro
Like the book above, this books has lots of information presented for kids to understand and apply in the natural world around them.

Every Autumn Comes the Bear , Jim Arnosky
I love Jim Arnosky's nature books for children.  In this one, we get to watch Bear (from a safe distance!) as he searches for the den in which he'll spend the winter.

  Possum's Harvest Moon, Anne Hunter
Possum is so anxious to celebrate the gorgeous harvest moon, but all of his friends are busy preparing for the cold winter ahead...  

*   *   *   *   *   *

Those are our favorites.  What picture books about fall are on your list of must reads? 
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