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!


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.

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.



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.


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!