Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nature Walks with Young'uns



As part of our Charlotte Mason homeschooling approach this year, I've scheduled in some regular nature walks with the kids.  It's just every-other-Friday right now, alternating with our homeschool co-op's meetings.

So far - with the exception of one ill-fated trip through some uncharted and very hilly woods the day after a huge rainstorm wherein all my kids became truly convinced that we were utterly and irrevokably lost and all four of them began bawling in terror - it's been quite lovely.

After the aforementioned incident, I've learned to keep it small, and keep it simple.  So far, I've picked little patches of forest that I'm already familiar with near our home.  I live in Pennsylvania, afterall, so *all* the nature is forest.  And it's quite hilly around here, which means most of these forests also have a creek running through the bottom, which is awesome for exploration.

Each of the kids carries a backpack containing a nature journal, a pencil, a water bottle, and one piece of fruit to snack on.  I usually sneak a few tree or bird identification guides into the big kids' backpacks as well.  I wear the baby in the Ergo, outfit myself in what my husband calls my "combat boots," and off we go.


We just take a leisurely stroll down the paths we find, and I encourage the kids to notice certain little things I might see or hear.  But for the most part, they are much more observant than me.  It must come from being so close to the ground!  On even the most seemingly ordinary stretch of path, the kids can find plenty of things to keep them interested - spiky seed pods from a sweetgum tree, a decaying log, some ever-pervasive shelf fungus...

It takes a little while for me to get in the "mood" of the nature walk, so to speak.  But after twenty minutes or so in the woods, I feel myself starting to calm down.  To breathe more easily, and loosen upand just let go of my tensions.  It's truly rejuvenating for my soul, and I find myself longing suddenly to move out of the city and live a simple quiet life surrounded by the outdoors.

I've found it best to keep the length of the walk pretty quick.  Maybe forty-five minutes total.  That's short enough that the kids aren't too tired, and their curiosity hasn't been burned up.  At some point aferwards - though not always the same day, as I'd prefer - I have the kids draw a picture of something we saw in their nature journals, and then they dictate a little description that I write for them.



For all my talk of wanting my kids to approach science firstly through a love of nature and by using personal observations of the world, I know never would have built in the time for this in our schedule had I not been trying to give Charlotte Mason's education approach a fair trial.  It seems like such a simple thing - a short walk in the woods every now and then.  But I've been so amazed at the things the kids have noticed and learned, and the spark it has ignited in their minds.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reconsidering Liturgical Celebrations

A blessed Advent to all!  This is one of my favorite times of year, and I'm so glad it has come around again.

We just got back to town after a long Thanksgiving trip, so I haven't yet dug out the Advent wreath or Jesse Tree, or all the other great little treasures packed away in my Advent box.


But I did pull out my huge stack of children's picture books for the season.  I know some families like to wrap all their Christmas books in wrapping paper, and have the kids pick one to read each day of Advent.  Sounds like a nice way to space them out and build up anticipation and all that, but...."Aint's nobody got time for that" (as they say) around here.  Instead, they'll just sit in a stack in the basement and the kids will be able to choose what to read each day.  I counted up our books, and we have over forty!  Yikes.  Too many books for just one per day, so I'll be letting each kid take a turn to pick two books to read each day until we run out.

I've been doing some thinking about how our family should observe the Church's feast days.  It seems like a lot of the Catholic moms on the internet these days observe so many of the days in the Liturgical calendar with a special craft or fun treat for the kids.  You can find online for observing  ideas for even the most obscure of holydays.  For awhile, I felt like I needed to do that too.

I think it's great that there is a renewed interest in the observation of the Church year.  Based on the publication dates of some of the "classic" books on this topic (Maria Von Trapp's. Mary Reed Newland's, Fr. F. X. Weiser's), I suspect there was a similar cultural movement like this back in the 50s.

But after trying - and failing - many times to come up with and remember to do fun activities with the kids for each major feast day that came up, I realized it wasn't exactly what I wanted for our family.  Something about it all seemed forced, artificial.

This year's chocolate chip Rosaries on the feast of O.L. of the Rosary.  We don't let them eat the chips while we actually pray the Rosary, because that seems irreverent.  Tom keeps asking what's the point of having them do this.  I guess...because it's fun? [buzz cuts on the boys are thanks to the *lice* infestation we battled earlier this Fall]
The truth is, I was not personally handed on any family or cultural traditions for celebrating most of the the days in the Church calendar (the only exceptions are Christmas and Easter).  I'm not opposed to us forming our own family traditions or trying to recreate older ones which have largely fallen out of use for certain holydays.  But I think this needs to happen both gradually and somewhat organically.  I think we should concentrate on observing the feasts that are most important for the Church, then adding in a few that are important and for our family in particular.

And anyways, the best and most traditional way to celebrate the feasts is to attend Mass on that day, and pray the special prayers that the Church has chosen (as well as participating in the prayers of the Divine Office).

Conclusion: attending Mass with your family to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is better than eating tacos on that day just because she appeared in Mexico.  Or, baking a cake for the feast of St. Linus (a rather obscure Saint) because you have a son named for him is better than saying, "oh, tomorrow is the feast of St. Benedict!" (who you admittedly don't much much about, and have never had a personal devotion to) and scrambling to find  an excerpt about him to read the kids from one of their Saint books, and researching the various traditional ways different countries/monasteries have celebrated the day, and trying to throw a special dish together at the last minute with food items you already have in your pantry.  You know what I mean?  (though let me be clear - eating tacos as a way to observe a feast is not bad)

At Mass yesterday, the first day of Advent, the priest said some things in his homily that struck me.  Firstly, he was talking about our daily family prayers, and how we needed to ramp them up during Advent.  He mentioned a daily Rosary, referring to it as "the basics", that it was what we should all already be doing.  How many Catholic families are making the time and effort to fit in a Rosary every single day?  Are you?  How can you make it happen this Advent?

Father suggested, if families aren't already, to add in the prayer of the Angelus each day this Advent - saying it once morning morning, noon, and 6pm, if you're able.

Father also talked about the penitential nature of Advent, and how we should consider a way to make it more penitential in our homes. It got me to thinking about how rarely I offer any personal penances, or observe any fasts.  With the exception of the bare minimum required by the Church - fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from meat every Friday - I don't have a good habit of offering sacrifices.  (if you are Catholic, and are not consistently abstaining every Friday of the year, please be aware that this is required.  If you live in the US, you have permission to substitue a personal penance instead of abstaining from meat. We prefer to follow the traditional course.  I have heard it argued that there is greater virtue in performing a penance not chosen by yourself, one that is accepted from above out of obedience)

All this started me thinking of the Liturgical year again, and how there used to be so many more days on which fasting/abstinence were required - more stringent fasting rules for Lent, the Ember days, fasting on the eve of many major feast days, and so on.  We are not required to observe many of these fasts anymore, just as we are not required to observe most of the feast days on the calendar.  But if I want to try to revive the celebration of some of our favorite feasts in our home - Assumption, Our Lady of the Rosary, Epiphany, etc. - then I feel we should really be taking on more of the penitential days as well.

It just suddenly feels wrong to enjoy celebrating all the feasts without also sacrificing during the fasts.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A New Room for the Girls!

Popular decorating trends and countless searches of Pinterest and Google had almost convinced me that there was no way to have historically-accurate dark-stained wooden trim in a bedroom and still make it look fresh and feminine.  But I think we pulled it off!

ALL DONE!!

This project took us ages and ages to complete.  We began in May of 2015, when this was just "Stella's room."  Flora didn't even exist yet, and it would be awhile more before we knew she was a girl and would be moving in with her big sister eventually.  So then it began to be called "the Girls' room," and as there were now two people sleeping elsewhere in the house and waiting for their room to be ready, I was feeling more and more stressed about its lack of completion.  But it's finally done, thank goodness, and we did it all by ourselves, and I'm very satisfied with the outcome.

Before
The finish on the trim and doors was in rough shape.  The shellac varnish had darkened so much over time that it was almost black.  It had a lot of crazing and drips, and whoever had last painted the room had splattered drips of paint all over the baseboards which had then been absorbed in by the old shellac.




The walls and ceiling were both painted a very pale blue-gray color that didn't work at all with the warm wood tones, and made the room feel quite depressing.  The carpet was a similar blue-gray and covered in stains.



The ceiling fan/light fixture held only one bulb and just added to the dull dreariness of the whole room, and there were several areas of plaster in need of patching.


In Progress

Tom spent countless hours of his life removing the shellac with alcohol and rags.  Honestly, it would have been easier to just replace the trim completely, or perhaps to sand it instead.  But he wanted to preserve the original features as much as possible.

"before" on the left, "after" shellac removal on the right
Once the shellac layer was off, we were able to add some stain to darken the wood to a deep brown, and then we added many coats of polyurethane on top.  This whole process probably took up the majority of our time spent on this room.

While Tom was working on trim, I kept myself busy refinishing a lot of furniture.  We bought two similar dressers on Craigslist.  Tom sanded them down and cut off the silly country-style decorative elements from the bottoms.  I then painted the "bottoms", and stained and poly'd the tops.  I painted a lovely ornate (plastic!) mirror I picked up at a flea market and have had sitting around for a few years.  I also acquired (on Craigslist, of course) a nightstand which I repainted and put new drawer pulls on, and a bedframe for Stella which I repainted.  And we're super bad about remembering to take "before" photos of anything, sooo.....you'll just have to trust me that what we did made a huge improvement!

I also asked Tom to add some decorative elements to a bookcase we already owned - he put a case and a crown, and some piping along the sides.  Then I re-painted it a girly pink-and-white.

before

after


We ripped up the carpet to find some nice hardwood underneath.  As you can see, it needed to be refinished.

We decided to do it ourselves - so we rented the huge sander with all the sanding disks, bought the fancy floor polyurethane and applicators, and spent a couple weeks working on that at night after the kids were in bed.

My verdict on DIY floor refinishing: a lot more expensive than I expected, and WAY more work than I wanted to do.  I definitely want to hire a professional to do it if we ever refinish another room (the trick will be convincing Tom to agree!).

applying polyurethane on a hot and sticky summer night

Tom replaced the ceiling fan with a nicer one that holds more lightbulbs.  He also switched out all the off-white outlets and lightswitches for brown ones, and I stained some wooden outlet/lightswitch plates to match the trim.

I patched up the walls extensively, repainted the ceiling in a flat white, and after much deliberating over the appropriate wall color, chose to paint them lavender.  I bought some pretty white floral fabric from Jo-Anns and sewed some curtains for the windows.


After

Stella's bed

Flora's crib

Flora's dresser

Stella's dresser

Stella's nightstand

the rug whose finding and deciding-upon required hours of my life to be wated away in internet searches, and threatened the peace of the spousal relationship in our household

done at last!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Our Thrifted Kids' Mass Set

For years, I've been wanting to get a nice little Mass set for the kids.  I have long had dreams of my boys, in particular, playing priest, and asking me to sew them some sweet child-sized vestments like Pope Benedict did.  So far, neither of the boys have shown much interest or inclination, to be honest.  But maybe if Tom shows them how all the vessels are used and what everything means, they'll get a little excited about it?

For a long time, I had my eye on the gorgeous set at My Father's House  (it says it's not available for sale now, but you can still see the photos.)  I can't recall the exact price, but I know it was way out of the budget.  Maybe $160?  I had to give up on it, because it was just sooooo much money for something I wasn't even sure my kids were going to use.

I decided instead to activate my thrift-shopping superpowers, and start the long slow hunt for items that would work in a kids' Mass set.  I wanted the bare minimum needed for a Traditional Low Mass.  So I wasn't holding out for the incense implements, etc. which would be required for a High Mass.  I've been keeping an eye out for items for about two years now.

The one item - though not a strictly necessary one, I believe - that's been holding me up for the past year from finally completing the set (by my estimation) was a ciborium (a vessal which holds the Eucharist).  I needed something metal, roughly cup-shaped, with a lid.  Not many non-liturgical items look like that!  Finally, at Goodwill last night, I FOUND one.  It's some Paul Revere reproduction piece, according to the etching in the bottom.  I was thrilled, Tom and I high-fived in the aisle, and there was much rejoicing!


We have: a crucifix, two candlesticks, a chalice, a ciborium, a paten, two cruets, a bell, and also a shell-shaped dish in case the kids want to play "baptism" - haha.

The one part I still don't have are all the necessary altar linens.  Never having served at the altar myself (a fact I am now, in retrospect, very happy about), I have never actually seen any of those linens up close,.  All I've seen are my little line drawings in my missal.  So I'm going to have to get some clear descriptions from Tom, and then I can start trying to acquire what I'll need.  I'm sure a lot of them can be made from re-purposed thrift store finds as well, and any that can't be, I will sew.

Is there anything else I forgot??

I know having a Mass set is not a guaranteed way to encourage my boys to consider the priesthood, but at the least, I'm hoping all my kids will get a clearer knowledge of what the priest is actually doing up at the altar during Mass, and the meaning behind it all.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Our Homeschool Year

I haven't paid a visit to my blog in quite a while.  My best excuse for it is because we've started up our homeschooling year, and I've found myself with much less time.

"back to school" 2016
Sly is in "first grade" this year, so I wanted to get a bit more serious about his schooling.  After spending the early summer in an excited frenzy of reading and listening to anything I could get my hands on about Charlotte Mason, I decided to give her approach a whirl this year.  We're almost perfectly following Mater Amabilis, which is a free Catholic Charlotte Mason curriculm.

Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that a CM approach was pretty light and fluffy, and not as rigorous an education as I was looking for.  But how wrong I was!  Many of the books we're reading are ones which I would have thought too advanced for my kids' ages, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how much they are picking up and understanding.


Last year, I pieced together my own curriculum, and as the year went on, I just kind of dropped things here and there as I was developing the classic "homeschool burnout."  Since I had no one to answer to but myself, I had no trouble just ditching parts that took too much out of me.  I think (hope) this year will be a little different.  Because I'm following a plan put together by someone else, I feel more obligation to stick to it (though I think I may drop some of the geography lessons...because that part feels really thrown together to me).  Sticking with this curriculum also forces me to incorporate some subjects which, while worthwhile, I may not have made time for otherwise - things like artist study, poetry memorization, or nature walks.

Our actual school time is close to two hours per day.  That gets stretched out, though, because I try to shoo the kids outside for short breaks in between some of our lessons.  The past few days, Sly has been insisting that he keep working right through with no breaks at all.  He says he prefers to save up all his playtime for one solid chunk at the end.  But I've noticed that his focus has been really slipping.  His brain needs to take those little breaks.  So I'm going to start insisting on it, even if I have to push him out the door whining and crying.

I set things up so that we only do our normal lessons Monday through Thursday.  Fridays alternate between going to our homeschool co-op, or taking a nature walk.  And we've already fit in a couple additional "field trip" days to a special Divine Liturgy at an Eastern church, and a visit to a fort from the French and Indian War.


Stella is only four, so I'm mostly just casually trying to get her to learn her letters and the sounds they make.  Linus is almost two-and-a-half, which I have found to be the magical age for potty training.  So when the big kids started school, Linus began "potty school."  I'm just taking a very slow and gradual approach to it.  Having him sit on his potty a few times a day, and seeing if anything happens.  And reading our all-time favorite book for potty training, Ian's New Potty.  And Flora is six months old, so she mostly fusses during school time until she's ready for her morning nap, and then Mommy rushes to try to finish up the rest of the school lessons so that maybe she'll have a tiny bit of time left to fit in some baby-free chores before naptime ends.


It's been an adjustment for us all.  It's been hard on the kids to realize that they can no longer play with their good across-the-street friend during the mornings, and that Mommy is likely going to turn down most offers for morning playdates and outings because she really needs to get serious and make sure "school" happens most days.

And it's been tough on me to have to give those things up as well.  We're just not morning people in this family.  We can't get up early enough to get lessons out of the way and still have time to go anywhere in the morning.  So hanging out with friends, trips to the supermarket and other errands have to get pushed to other time slots.

It's kind of like I've taken on a part-time job in addition to my already full-time job of mothering and housekeeping.  I need to remind myself constantly to be responsible and just get it done, and not be tempted by every possible excuse to push lessons aside until the next day.  I figure, if the kids were in public school, they'd have to show up every day, and they'd stay there until mid-afternoon.  At least we have more flexibility and free time than that!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mothering Days

A few days ago, the kids and I really needed to get out of the house, so I took them to the local Game Preserve.  There's a pond with ducks and geese, a couple caged peacocks, and a bunch of buffalo in a fenced pasture.  I'ts not as exciting as the zoo, but it's free, and it's a nice way to kill a little time on a summer day.

We had brought a bag of stale bread to feed the ducks, as one does.  As soon as we stepped out of the van, the Canada geese spotted us with our bag of bread, and they came swarming.  First four, then eight, then sixteen....they were just multiplying every second, waddling over and surrounding us.  I doled out a piece of bread to each kid.  But the geese got greedy, and when Stella and Linus weren't able to break off pieces quickly enough (or hold their bread up high enough), they both started to get bitten!  Geese are mean creatures.



Poor Linus started crying, and clinging to me for dear life!  Then Stella followed suit It was such a chaotic scene, I couldn't help laughing.  And then we tried to get away, and all the geese were chasing behind, while Linus cried and cried.  I know it makes me a terrible mother, but it was definitely the funniest thing I've seen all month :-)


*****

Speaking of being a mean mom, I've started to make my kids clean their rooms completely every day after "nap time"!  (I always put nap time in quotation marks, because no one ever actually sleeps.  And I don't even have the energy to enforce a true "quiet time" since they are on the third floor and I'm just not going to drag myself up there every five minutes to make them be quiet.)

Ever since the never-ending renovations started on Stella's room over a year ago, we've had the three biggest kids all sleeping up on the third floor together.  I send them up there for a couple hours every afternoon, because....well, I need it for my sanity!  Needless to say, the rooms become a huge wreck every day.  I was wearing myself out trying to tidy every few days, and keep the third floor rooms somewhat presentable.  But I've decided that if the kids can make the mess, then they're ready to learn how to clean it up as well!

Ten minutes before the end of naptime, I tell them it's time to start cleaning.  They let me know when they're ready for a room inspection, and then I go up to take a look.  I'm pretty ruthless - I think it's the best way to be, so they learn to do a good job.  They can't have even a little scrap of paper left on the floor, or a single sock under the bed.  When they're a little bigger and more capable, I'll start having them make the beds as well.  The first week of room cleaning was slow going.  They didn't know the most efficient ways to tidy up, and kept calling me up to check when there were still a bunch of little things scattered around.  But they're getting quicker and better now.  It's become expected, so there's no complaining about it.  They just get it done.

*****

Yes, I feel like I'm slowly figuring out some tricks in this parenting business...For example, today at Aldi, I decided to try taking two shopping carts instead of one. I pushed the cart with Linus and Flora.  Those two usually ride together in the cart, so I'm forced to pack all my groceries around Flora's bulky car seat.  But today, my big almost-six-year-old Sly pushed the other cart containing Stella and all the groceries. It worked out so well. Three of the kids were strapped in, and the other one was busy with an important job. So there was none of the usual monkey-ing around or reminders from me to stay with the cart, stop hiding behind boxes, etc. It was all business - and so much more efficient than usual!




Monday, July 18, 2016

My Favorite Children's Musicians

I truly enjoy listening to children's music.  Probably more than my kids do.  Pretty much all of the kids' music I consider "good" is actually folk music, which might explain why I love it so much.

That said, I almost universally dislike when children themselves are singing the songs.  The little voices just tend to sound so whiny!  I prefer an adult singer with some simple but well-performed accompaniment.

Here is a list of my top recommendations for children's artists:

1. Nancy Cassidy
This is the woman I grew up listening to!  I have mega nostalgia when it comes to her albums, and still know every song by heart.  They were originally released by Klutz.  Each album historically came with a lyric book so kids can follow along (we had the cassette tapes growing up).  I'm not sure if the newest version of the cds comes with these, but I'd bet you can find them on eBay.  She has a great voice, and it's easy to sing along.


KidsSongs
KidsSongs Jubilee (my favorite)
KidsSongs 2


2. Raffi
I never heard of Raffi as a child.  How is that even possible?  I feel like everyone else my age grew up with his music.  Now I know I was really missing out!  We now have a ton of his albums, and I love them all.  He's quite a prolific artist!  Here are all the ones I can definitely recommend:



Singable Songs for the Very Young
Baby Beluga
Rise and Shine
One Light, One Sun
Everything Grows
Bananaphone (one of the kids' favorites)
More Singable Songs
The Corner Grocery Store
Raffi's Christmas Album
Raffi Radio (Tom and I have been known to put on the song 'Coconut' even after the kids are in bed just because it's so enjoyable)
Let's Play

As I was compiling this list, I discovered that he has two new albums I've never even listened to!  It genuinely feels like I discovered a goldmine, and I just declared to Tom that Sly and Stella will each be receiving a Raffi album for their birthdays next month :-)

3. Elizabeth Mitchell
She's a newer artist than the others I've mentioned. I first heard her lovely voice at a friends' house, when she put on an album for her children.  Elizabeth sings a lot of modern renditions of traditional folk songs.  Her stuff is probably the easiest to find at your local library.



You Are My Sunshine
You Are My Little Bird
Little Seed (my all-time favorite - all the songs are covers of Woody Guthrie songs)
Sunny Day

4. Peggy and Mike Seeger
A sister and brother duo (their half-brother is Pete Seeger).  I only have one of their albums (so far!), but I've been loving it.  On this, they are singing the entire collection of folk songs their mother Ruth published in one of her several song books (see it here).



American Folk Songs for Children

I recently found another of Ruth Seeger's books at a library book sale, and it's a sweet collection of songs.  I've seen that the siblings recorded an album of these as well, and I'm looking forward to hearing it sometime.

5. Making Music Praying Twice
I really like the idea of this program, intended to teach music and rhythm (and a bit of the Faith) to young children.  The song selections are pretty good, though I'll say that the singers' voices/singing style is sometimes not my favorite.  But it's a great intro to some simple, fun songs for kids.  I've heard my children singing songs off these albums more than any of the other ones, even though I've played them less times.

Making Music Praying Twice Family Edition


***

Who are your family's favorite children's artists?  I'd love to give them a listen!


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