Friday, March 30, 2012

Savoring Spring - Drought Survival 101

Come forth into the light of things, 
let nature be your teacher.  ~William Wordsworth
Saint Thomas Aquinas said that the virtue of prudence is "right reason in action."

I made a very prudent decision today to spend the school day outside soaking in all of spring's sweet splendor.  As Wordworth so aptly put it, nature is a most perfect teacher, the outdoors a child's favorite classroom.
The essence of today's experience outdoors wasn't just for fun or refreshment - it was for renewal.  Renewal of mind and body, renewal of hope...renewal of sanity.  I'll admit should an opportunity for spontaneity arise, an opportunity to set a match to my "to do" lists, schedules and plans, to abandon dirty dishes and piles of laundry for something more noble, I will seize it.
Unless you're a Southwest Kansas native or a die-hard Weather Channel devotee, you may not know that our area of the state is in a severe drought.  By severe I mean worse than it was in the Dirty Thirties.  It may not appear to be as severe, because our farming practices today are better than they were 80 years ago.  This summer is predicted to be as dry or worse than last summer, and I just can't wrap my mind or my heart around that forecast.  

(Ever optimistic, while we should be putting in a pool with a swim-up bar, we are instead planting a garden and getting the landscaping ready for flowers. I'm scolding myself as I type this.)

Many of us are still healing from the intensity of last year's weather.  Scalding heat and devilish winds sucked the life breath out of every living thing - and nearly every living being.  The effects of the oppressive weather was deeply etched in the faces and posture of every farmer across the area.  It beat them down right along with their fields. When the wind blows so hard for consecutive days that drifts of dusty thin soil creep up the sides of the house, and you wake up to the sound of sand pelting mercilessly against the windows, hoping it's the sound of rain instead, it is nothing short of exhausting.  
So, when days like today come around, it is more than prudent, it is essential to live outside.  To remind yourself what clean, fresh, new, happy, hope smells like, feels like and looks like.  And, then you have to absorb it all, deep down into your bones, and hope that it will be enough to last through the days of deeply dry forecasted to come.....enough to hold the belief that a rain will come, that it will come just in time, and sprinkle a little life back into our faith, back into our farms.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bookend Babies' Birthdays

Benedict and Charlie are my bookend babies, the oldest and the youngest of our family story - the life story we are writing for our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren.  However, if  the Good Lord in Heaven decides to squeeze another baby into this trailer house, (p-a-LEASE, Lord, squeeze in a sister!) then Mr. Charles will be lovingly moved to the middle.
We got the idea of the "book ends"when Charlie was born (catch up on that story here).  He and Benedict were both born in the same hospital in Garden City, and are just a few short hours from sharing the same birthday.  Benedict born just before our move to Kansas City, Charlie born just after our move back to Garden City.
Last weekend, we celebrated Charles' first birthday, and Benedict's 11th birthday, all in the midst of a big trip to Topeka for the State Wrestling Tournament (more about that to come!).  Before heading out the door, we had our traditional birthday breakfast with Charlie.   
His first bite of an ooey-gooey frosty-licious cinnamon roll was Mmmmmm-Gooood! Enjoy it while it lasts little buddy, because after this, it's back to the "fruit is dessert" philosophy.
How 'bout a side of brotherly love to go with that cinnamon roll?? A rare photo of calm kindness snapped just before the karate chops and limb-flailing ensued.
A few little gifts to enjoy while mom and dad pack up the wagon for our trip.
Yes, it blinks, lights up and makes nerve-wrecking noises, but when it comes to the first birthday, I'm a bit of a parental weakling.  The bright side of buying a gift that is made in China is:
a.) he will probably get bored with it before long
b.) a brother will most likely destroy it "accidentally" before I have to make it "mysteriously" disappear
c.) it will be recalled for toxic paint and choking hazards.
Granted, sitting around all day on his birthday watching Andrew wrestle was not Ben's cup of tea, but knowing the day would end with swimming and Famous Dave's BBQ helped ease the pain of sacrifice.  The boys have a built in Famous Dave's radar.  Keeping them away from it when we near any metropolis is like holding the hounds back on a coon hunt. 
We all get a kick out of watching the boys eat ribs.  It brings to the imagination images of our caveman ancestors.  There's no shame in flashing a saucy smile over a plate tasty BBQ!
Since my parents are now part-time Topeka residents, we loved that they could be a part of all of the weekend action.  They were an incredible help from offering up sleeping quarters for our tribe to lending extra sets of hands at the tournament and birthday party.
The great surprise for our family over the weekend was having our #1 girl (George's secret girlfriend), Elena, come from Kansas City for the birthday party. She is just like family, and has a standing invitation to be our resident nanny!
Birthday cupcakes for our little Charles.  I love seeing him celebrate right beside his big brother Ben.
Charles, you're about to discover a beautiful thing: you get your cupcake devouring skills from your mama!
A chocolate K-State cake for Benedict, towering with candles, and flanked by two younger brothers who took careful measures so as not to be tempted to help extinguish the flames.
It was you, dear Benedict, who set the flame for family alive in our hearts to burn strongly with desire for more - more children, more life, more love, more craziness, more Faith, more gratitude, more sacrifice, more JOY!  We love that you are leading your brothers in so many beautiful ways, taking those first steps through life, creating a pathway and reaching back offering a hand to help them along the way.  You are amazing, and we love you 11 years strong, and counting!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Youth Sports and Trophy Kids

The very instant each one of our children is born, Steve rushes over to them, and through teary eyes counts fingers and toes, his instincts as protector and provider kicking in hard. Then, we lock eyes and laugh, as I wait for him to tease me about passing on my distinctly bent toes to our sons.  Yep, some of them do have bent toes, and crooked ears, but I'm not sure which ancestor to thank for those precious ears!

And, that's the story for so many of us.  From conception and throughout life we want what is best for our children - for them to be healthy, happy and whole. To be shielded from suffering, difficulty, short-comings and failures, bent toes and crooked ears.  

Sometimes we even want more for them than to just be their best self. We want them to be the best. Period.

Internally we're measuring ours against "theirs", we may not say it, but we are.  We are a comparative society, it's etched in our beings. First, we ask ourselves if our babies are rolling over, crawling and walking according to schedule. Then pretty soon, it's can they sing the alphabet, because the neighbor kids can. And, finally, are they top of the class, top of the team and on top of the world...because it sure seems like all the other kids are.

And if our kids are.....then we are too.

My oldest son, Benedict, would never admit to this (because he's getting to be a "big guy"), but he knows I'm absolutely crazy about him.  I know he's not totally annoyed by me since he still hugs me, and thanks me for making supper every night and opens the car door for me when we go places. Every day, I get to savor his goodness, feel the warmth of his innocent smile, listen to his humble insights on life and watch him grow into his true self with each passing day. God has given him countless undeniable gifts.
At the ripe old age of 10, he wants to be a hoop star.  Master and commander of the court.  But, he's not.  And, he knows it.  Steve and I decided early on to take an encouraging, yet laid-back approach to sports (our number one rule is to JUST HAVE FUN).  Since, both of us love sports, it's a lot of fun to watch our boys' own enthusiasm for athletics grow. Yet, sometimes it's difficult to watch the kids put pressure on themselves because they want to be as good or better than everyone else.  
It doesn't matter if he's good at about a thousand other things, it's basketball that he wants to be good great at.  I try to take his enthusiasm seriously but my ancient wisdom knows he has so much time, room and potential to grow.  All I can remember about my first years of basketball was dribbling the ball off of my big bent toe and shooting at the wrong basket - and he's already better than that, so what's there to sweat about??
Children's abilities change as they grow.  And, although after experiencing a season of personal disappointments, we tried to reassure Ben that he has a lot of time to grow in the sport, and that he shouldn't give up.  But, we could tell he was questioning our advice.  So, we broke out the reinforcements - Dairy Queen and story time. Steve shared with him the story of when Michael Jordan tried out for his high school basketball team and didn't make it. Yet, in spite of that singular disappointment, he went on to become an NBA Legend.  

Then, I chimed in with the a little factoid of my own - Mariah Carey was voted off of the Gong Show, but still became a singing legend.  I gained ZERO respect with that little reflection, and my son stared at me with a look that expressed utter confusion, and "Are you serious, Mom?," and "Just let dad tell the stories" all contorted into one.  Thank goodness I had a large oreo mint blizzard there to ease the rejection. But, I shook it off and made a secret plan to brush up on my college and NBA athlete stats and facts between now and next season.  Sa-nea-kay. Sa-nea-kay.

Have you known the experience of practicing something over and over and over with your child - musical instruments or spelling words or sports and then, when it's time for your little star to shine, they bonk?  Totally bonk?  And, in that moment, when the child runs left when he's supposed to go right, sings a solo during the rests and scores below average on those "all important" state assessment tests, the heat of pride rises to the cheeks, beads of sweat break out and all you can do is try to keep it together - for your child's sake and for your own.  I mean Heaven forbid that our children should miss the mark, or worse yet, make us look like we missed the mark in teaching them how to sink a 3 at the buzzer or sing the National Anthem like Celine Dion, or memorize their states and capitals in alphabetical order, inside out and backwards.
It's NOT easy to separate our kids' success from our own desire to feel successful as teachers and parents.  I know this, because I FEEL IT TOO! Their performance, good behavior and personal achievements reflect back on us, and when they're good, we feel good.  But when their behavior is bad, or their scores are low we feel embarrassed? Disappointed? Frustrated? Determined to fix it all up into something neat and shiny - like a trophy - a trophy child???

This is where the deep down gutsy love of parenting comes in.  A love that desires what is best for the other.  A love that desires for our kids to shine, but is not self-seeking or self-absorbed, or self-fulfilling. This kind of love is NOT the sunshine, rainbows and unicorns kind of fluff. (I'm thinking of those moms who sob all over their daughters when they get voted off of American Idol, reassuring them that they are the best singer in the universe.  Then they turn around and yell explicatives at the judges.  Puke.).  Nor, is it the "tough-love" that is so tough all it can do is focus on making the kid work harder and practice longer, thinking that one day they will "thank you for it."
Real love wants what is best for another. Real love for Benedict and his current journey in athletics does not involve my own personal passion for success, it involves my passion for the soul of the child.  A soul that needs to be nurtured with encouragement, not pressured with unrealistic expectations, delighted in, not disappointed with, free to be himself, not forced to be a superstar.

It is a lonely feeling for our children, for any of us for that matter, to go through life believing the lie that our only value and worth is in what we do, and how well we do it, and not in who we are as a dignified person made in the image and likeness of Christ.


Sadly, I can't help but observe this tragedy all around me, as parents berate their little children at athletic events and academic competitions as if the five-year old carries the weight of the world and all the happiness of its inhabitants on their shoulders.  


How can we teach our children to enjoy the freedom that comes from experiencing a hobby, interest or sport without that enjoyment hinging upon being the best, better than the rest??  Where's the life or liberty in that?
My hope for Benedict is that he will continue pursuing his passion for basketball.  And, one day as an adult, look back and decide two three things:

1.  He still loves the game, whether playing it or watching it.
2.  The experience of practicing and playing the game was worth every sacrifice, because he's a man of character, hard working, dedicated and free - free to play the game because it's fun, not because he's the best or the worst.
3.  Bent toes are cool.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Have a Shamrockin' St. Patty's Day!

One thing I love about being American, is that we will find any reason to celebrate darn near anything for any reason. Take Groundhog's Day for example.  Really? I'm still trying to figure that one out! Unfortunately, many of us don't know why we celebrate what we celebrate, but we're not about to be party poopers, so hey, why not join the crowd?

I have learned through the journey of homeschooling how important it is to teach kids to take time to think about life and all it's dimensions. I mean really think - contemplate would be a more appropriate term.  And, in contemplating, begin to discover, understand, and eventually give reason for what we believe, what we do, what we say and why.

Many of the holidays we as Americans celebrate have become so commercialized, that I think we've forgotten to ask ourselves where the celebrations began in the first place, and why it's important to recognize and celebrate their origins.  St. Patrick's day is a prime example.

Now, I am not Irish, but when we moved to Kansas City, which has an incredible Irish culture, I decided for myself that somewhere in my 100% Czech and German heritage there must have been an Irish influence.  Even if only in the realm of ales and lagers.  
Beer appreciation is programmed in my genetic code.  I can't help it!  This is my St. Patty's Day party hat.  Bottle opener included!
Before moving to the farm, we LOVED attending the Irish Fest and St. Patrick's Day parade every year.  And, without a doubt, in our home, after Christmas and Easter, it's the boys' favorite holiday to celebrate.
Here's how we do it!...
In the classroom, reading a great story about the holiday we celebrate is essential.  We love Joyce Denham and Diana Mayo's Patrick, Saint of Ireland.
Tomie de Paola's illustrations are wonderful in his book, Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland.
Last year we made a collage of various aspects of Irish heritage including a map of Ireland, (which we colored and labeled), the Irish flag (made with the boys' handprint) and a list of Ireland's literary giants (Yeats, Wilde, Joyce and C.S. Lewis) and excerpts of their work.
You can find a brief history of Ireland's flag here, as well as an explanation of the color and pattern.
While the older ones work on their collage, Henry will have fun making this hilarious orange Leprechaun Beard, which I found on Pinterest.  Now, I just have to find a hat!
Then, my little bearded buddy will be ready to go on his "lucky gold hunt", just one of hundreds of ideas I have found on No Time For Flashcards.
My wee-little shamrock-sugar, Charlie, will be donning this sweet number from Shopantsypants on Etsy.  I can't wait to see him in it!
Traditions are often the most memorable when they are marked with celebratory food.  My boys don't exactly come running to the table over corned beef and cabbage, but they love this recipe for Irish Beef and Guinness Stew.  
The stew is wonderful served with a platter of hot Blarney Biscuits which include a good wish for everyone attending the dinner.  You can write traditional Irish messages like, "May the wind be always at your back," or you can personalize them.  For example, "May all of your friends be as kind as you are."
Save the best for last - DESSERT!!  These Shamrock Shakes from Catholic Cuisine are perfect!  We didn't quite follow the recipe, instead threw in oreos, peppermint extract, vanilla ice cream, a dash of green food coloring and milk, then topped it off with whipped cream, green sprinkles and chopped up peppermint patties.  YUM!!
I like to dress up our buffet for various holidays.  Using some old scrapbook paper, ribbon and card stock, I made this banner with free printable letters from Martha Stewart .  The "Oh so lucky to have you." quote from Pinterest was printed on card stock and placed in an old frame.  Simple!



Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lessons From Living in a Small Space

Small space living for a family of seven is no small feat.  Sometimes Steve and I feel like Gandalf the Grey hanging out in a mini dwelling of the Shire (minus the plush foliage) with 5 little Frodos running around.  The Frodos totally dig the Shire, it's cozy for them, but mama Gandalf thinks perhaps just a few more square feet might be nice....
When we first moved into our temporary home, I wasn't just the Queen of My Double Wide Trailer (that's an old country tune - for real!) but, I was the queen of optimism.  No garage? No problem!! No basement?? No biggie!!  Anyone can make a tight space work provided they can fill their imagination with mental portraits of their future palace, right???
Well, as time has ticked on, my little portrait of optimism has shriveled up, right along with the grass and flowers in my yard. Oh, if only you could hear my inner tantrums - especially when the muddy boots and Wranglers are spilling out into the hallway from the laundry room (which is slightly bigger than a shoebox), or I have to reinvent the inner workings of a closet just to make room for toilet paper and school supplies. 
This is no joke - the proof is in the pic! Behold, my ultra-talented husband, unleashing his power tools on the living room coat closet. Poof! It is now a second pantry!
Here are his apprentices, our Frodos - finding new use for the excavated coat closet rods.

After my tantrums subside, guilt and reason kick in, turning up the volume on the little voice in my head that chants, "Quit whining, you little mortal!" GRATITUDE. GRATITUDE FOR EVERYTHING. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
A couple of summers ago, we went to visit the true “Little House on the Prairie,” the Ingalls' family Kansas homestead just west of Independence. I like to visit this snapshot occasionally, because it screams, "Small space? You, Susan, live in a small space?" Umm, uhhh, errr....
But, the REAL gut check here is this:  Every situation and circumstance in our life is allowed by the Father to teach us something.  The questions is, do we want to learn, to be stretched, to grow??  Our "small space" dwelling has indeed taught me a great deal....

Lessons Learned From the Shire:

When it comes to planning and designing our home, I have begun to understand the distinct difference between need and want.  Some spaces/rooms in the home truly need to be spacious i.e. the laundry room/mudroom and the kitchen (a.k.a mom's office. No joke.). Do I want a sleeping porch and a library and a music room and a craft room? Yes!  Are they necessary? Nope.

Small dwelling spaces have a way of excelling the development certain virtues in adults and children alike, namely patience, humility, self control and consideration for others. When you are elbow to elbow and cheek to cheek at varying degrees throughout the day, you have to put your best-self forward, like it or not. And, when the best-self doesn't shine, there's no room to hide.  It's "I'm sorry" or else, as Henry likes to say, "Shame on you!" 

Because there is little room to hide in the home, not only can I always hear the boys, but they are often in my field of vision as well.  While this can at times be overwhelming to my central nervous system (aye, yi, yi!), there are SO MANY precious moments that I get to see....them being themselves - funny, tender, helpful, strong, decisive, industrious, problem solving.  I would miss a great deal of endearing interactions among them if we were all in different places at different times throughout the day.

The trailer house is a fearless DIY decorating experiment. Every domestic dollar has to count, because I've got my eye on the "prize" and we are saving up for our dream home. With this mindset, I've found (hoisted) endless ideas online -  everything from how to create storage with old wine crates to embellishing a room with forgotten scraps of fabric.  This trend of creative repurposing is what I LOVE about the blogging culture!  So many incredibly talented individuals have responded to the economic crisis with creativity, generosity and enguinuity. 
Here's an example of my first fearless DIY. I love the custom mural trends, particularly in kids rooms, that are so popular right now.  Not wanting to give up on the idea due to budget constraints, and knowing that paint can always be painted over, I took a deep, bold, brave breathe and painted my own tree mural with left-over paint and clearance samples from Home Depot.  
The picture frames hold photos of Steve and each of the boys holding Charles in the hospital shortly after his birth.  Charles loves to look at these, they make him smile with great joy, which helps me overlook all of the imperfections!
Needless to say, Charles' nursery isn't the only room that has undergone my indecisive paint wand! The living room is on it’s second shade of green, and the classroom walls will soon be delivered from a deep red to bearing the shade Seattle Seamist (what else do you paint your living room when you're in the middle of a drought?).  Shhh, don’t tell Steve (uh, because it's a surprise?)! 
A small home has brought about the help and support of family.  My mom is has a very keen sense of domestic order and beauty.  She helped me fashion a changing table for Charles' nursery (a small alcove off of the master bedroom) out of a desk my sister loaned to me, and showed me how to salvage two shrunken curtain panels with fabric scraps and ribbon.  Steve's parents have also helped us with lawn and garden projects and heard my plea for a garage, which is also now in place!
While I live by the law of catch 'em doin' good and bein' good, so as to praise and encourage as often as possible, we all know that parents also have to face the the not-so-good events and actions that take place in the home with the intent to teach and correct.  Well, let me tell you, there's nuthin' like standin' at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes, watching one kid out the window digging for worms in my flower bed and hearing another kid exit a silent bathroom (forgetting to flush and wash hands) .  I can crack down on all that business, both at the same time, without pausing the peeler! No one escapes mom's radar from her kitchen office!
When the walls close in, the inhabitants head out for work, for play and even for school. Bring on the blustery, sandy, blow-you-over-across-the-prairie-with-the-tumbleweeds wind or on an exceptionally rare day of rain or snow, and we will brave the elements just to be outdoors.  
A small home has stretched my definition of friendship.  Before moving to the farm, we had a large home in Olathe, and we never thought twice about having guests over for any and every reason under the sun. With a change of environment, welcoming others into our home isn’t always easy - we don’t have a basement for the kids to go play in, or a roomy kitchen or deck with a view to entertain guests in while the food is being prepared.  I simply have to hope and trust that guests are coming to see us, to get to know us, to spend time with us. Our home is important, but it isn’t everything.

We live in a world that anticipates the next best thing, the next upgrade, the next big idea, an irresistible "gotta have it."  And, yet, there is something to be learned and appreciated in the here and now. Likewise, we would be amiss to forget what is to be gained from examining the past....before the life of bells and whistles and Pinteret and HGTV....  

I hope that you find what it is you are looking for, hoping for and dreaming for in life, and somewhere along the way discover the faith to acknowledge the purpose of the present, because there is something valuable for each and every one of us there, too.