Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eve of the First Sunday of Advent

Tonight is the eve of the First Sunday of Advent! Tonight my children are writing their letters to the Christ Child. They will promise to be good and ask for five of their Christmas wishes. He will leave a special Advent Bead Box, in which they will deposit beads every time they do a good deed. On Christmas Eve they will put the box under the tree as a gift to the Christ Child.

Here is a list of posts I have written in the past on Advent traditions we celebrate.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers
This is one of my favorites, as it details many of the traditions Europeans used to celebrate during Advent. We have adopted many of these as our own.

Kicking Off Advent: Our Christmas and Jesse Trees

O Little Chocolate House
I have been making this little chocolate house for a few special people every year since I was little.

The Miller Family Spreadsheet
(about how I organize all the Christmas-related tasks on paper)

Christmas Greetings
What do you do with your Christmas cards? This is what we do.

Complaining at Christmas Time
We are all guilty of it – and then we feel guilty.

My 100th post – a brief description of a typical night during Advent.

Holiday Decorating on a Dime (or Less)

For Goodness Sake, Shop these Real Christmas Stores
The top eight retailers that are using the word Christmas this year.

Painting by Piero di Cosimo
The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1490
Samuel H. Kress Collection

Friday, November 28, 2008

Standing All Alone in the Twilight

The day before Thanksgiving, I attended an after-school party at my children’s Catholic school. Only a few mothers were present, and I soon gave up on being included in any adult conversation. So I sat with my children and made chit-chat with their friends. Later a mother whom I was on friendly terms with came in. She had known the other moms for years and was my passport into the circle.

No sooner had I sat down than I was ready to leave. First the talk was about Black Friday sales, which I had no interest in. Then came the shocker.

“Have you and your daughters seen Twilight yet?” asked my acquaintance.

I knew this was the number one movie, a romance based on a series of books about vampires in high school, and that high school girls were crazy about the series. I never expected it to be a topic among Catholic mothers of middle schoolers.

“No,” I said, simply. The other mothers replied that they had seen it, or were planning to see it, and were reading the books along with their daughters. They found nothing objectionable, and even thought the stories to be “sweet”.

I was troubled, yet my tongue was mute. For one thing, I knew nothing I said would make a difference; they would just think I was weird, causing them to pity my daughters as being “overprotected”. The other thing is that I had not actually seen the movie or read the books. But I don’t have to try drugs to know they are bad for me; where there’s smoke there is often fire; and a wise man hides from trouble. I have taught my children how to spot literature and media that are wholesome vs. not. The symbolism of subject-matter is important in the quick identifying of the sheep vs. the goats in this arena.

Unicorns, for example, are a symbol of Christ, and many beautiful stories can be found based on them. I have heard that vampires are the antithesis of Christ. He gave His blood that we might live; vampires take others blood so they can walk the night. I have also heard that the first pornography was based on vampires; both are based on the degradation of the human body.

As Leticia Velasquez says in “Catholic Media Review”, “This is a phenomenon which Catholics must examine before embracing; anything that the Culture of Death embraces with such ferocity can't be healthy.”

Perhaps this is why I am not quickly embraced into social circles at the school. Half the time I stand there dumb-stricken because I have nothing to say that would be both honest and socially acceptable!

In homeschooling circles the opposite was true. During the peak of Harry Potter’s popularity there was big controversy over whether or not to let your kids read the series. Homeschoolers could agree to disagree on this. But whatever your opinion, it was respected.

In mainstream schools, there is a peer pressure among mothers that parallels that of the children they are raising. Different is weird and discouraged. Trying to live up to the golden standard of Catholic morals can put you in a lonely place.

Driving home, I was saddened by what had transpired. But then I was lifted up, as I thought of the friends I have found. I thought of the courageous stands they have made in their own circles, whether at work, school, or church. I thought of the mother who had questioned the movies being shown in kindergarten and donated a Christian video series as an alternative. I thought of the teacher at a Catholic school who was criticized for bringing up Obama and the abortion issue as part of a current events discussion in an eight grade class. I thought of the pro-life coordinator who is viewed as a radical by the religious education office at her own church. I thought of my own mother, who refused to give the devil a foothold into her home by allowing occult literature into the house.

And as twilight approached, I knew I was not standing all alone.

Venice Twilight by Claude Monet, 1908

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Golden Standard in Friendship

Tonight I am thankful for my dear friends who reach the “gold standard”, as described in the wonderful book of Sirach.

“A kind mouth multiplies friends, and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.
Let your acquaintances be many, but one in a thousand your confidant.
When you gain a friend, first test him, and be not too ready to trust him.
For one sort of friend is a friend when it suits him, but he will not be with you in time of distress.
Another is a friend who becomes an enemy, and tells of the quarrel to your shame.
Another is a friend, a boon companion, who will not be with you when sorrow comes.
When things go well, he is your other self, and lords it over your servants;
But if you are brought low, he turns against you and avoids meeting you.
Keep away from your enemies; be on your guard with your friends.
A faithful friend is a study shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be like himself.”

Sirach 6:5-17

If you don’t have a friend like this, start looking. If you do, recognize her great value and treat her as such.

Happy Thanksgiving !

Painting by Norman Rockwell

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Who Needs a Stud?

Are you tired of nagging your husband to put up some shelves in the garage, pantry, or closet? You don’t need a man to do this job for you. Any gal worth her salt can find a stud and get this job done in a jiffy. All you need for your working partners are your level and your stud finder.

Get yourself over to Home Depot and buy the materials to get started. Bring along the measurements of the height, width, and depth of the shelving you desire. Purchase two uprights for each set of shelves. Figure they will be about 18 inches apart to decide how many sets you will need. If you want to store really heavy stuff you will need double uprights. For medium weight stuff, a single standard will do. The standards come in zinc, brown, and white. How deep do you want your shelf? Pick out the brackets to go with your uprights. If you need to buy the actual shelf, those are available in pre-finished, pre-cut boards in white or brown. You would buy a ten-inch wide shelf to go with a ten-inch wide bracket. Make sure all the parts fit together properly.

You will also need a pencil, stud finder, yardstick, level, and screws, 1 ½ to 2 inches long. You can use a drill or Phillips Head screwdriver.

Starting on the left side of the wall, use the stud finder or the old hammer trick to find the first stud. This can be anywhere between 14 and 18 inches from the start of the wall. Make several marks down the line of where the first upright will go. If they all seem to line up, you should have found the correct location of the stud.

Now decide how far from the ceiling you want the upright to start. Remember if you are too close to the ceiling those slots will be useless. I decided on 6 inches for mine. Measure the distance down from the ceiling and draw a small straight line.

Take your upright and line it up with the stud marks. Put a level next to the upright and shift it until the bubble on the level is in between the two center marks. Do not use your eye or the ceiling as your guide. No building is ever completely level.

Drill a screw into the central hole on the upright first. Check to make sure the upright is still vertically level. Then put in the other screws. You will know you are hitting a stud when you feel and hear the screw twisting into hard wood.

Now find the next stud. Again, this can be between 14 and 18 inches from your first stud. Put the level horizontally on top of the first upright and draw a line where the top of the second upright should go. Repeat steps for installing the upright.

Repeat all steps until you have installed all of the uprights.

Now decide how high you want each of the shelves to go. Put the brackets into the slats and give a few downward taps with the hammer to install. On my shelves, I still have room for two rows of shelves on top; I need to purchase 8 more brackets.

Finally, put the shelves on your brackets and you are ready to go! I happen to have enough scrap wood in my shed that I can cut the shelves to fit and save myself some money. After I purchase the remaining brackets, this project will have cost me approximately $30.

Above is a picture of the standards I installed today, complete with the spiders on the ceiling, pencil marks, and a wayward hole from a mistake I made in finding a stud. From start to finish, this took 45 minutes. This is a great starter project because deciding where to make a hole is not the life-or-death decision it would be in your living room.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mental Clutter

Sherlock Holmes, the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, expressed an interesting view of the memory. Dr. Watson wanted to know how the detective could remember such peculiar details and make the intricate connections among them. He explained that the brain was like an attic. It only has so much room to store things. If any bit of information had nothing to do with his work, he would not let it in. If a bit turned out to be “clutter”, he had to throw it out to make room for new information.

From what I learned about the brain in my psychology classes, it seems to have an endless capacity for storing information. However, I have always thought this comparison of the brain to an attic space to be quite useful. If I can find a use for some new information, I invite it in. Otherwise, I block it out.

Friends are continually amazed that I could have passed the same stores hundreds of times without noticing them. Why would I? There are only several stores on the main route through town that have any use for me: the food store, Wal-mart, the library, Home Depot, the chocolate store, the post office, and the gas station. If I need a specialty store, I will look in the yellow pages to locate it. This enables me to go on my way without the distractions of extraneous buildings that are not on my list of errands.

I had been in one particular friend’s house a dozen times before I noticed the huge widescreen television that occupied a large portion of the den. I had to see it because we were watching a movie on it! “Wow, that’s some big TV you have here,” I commented. “How could you miss this monstrosity?” she questioned. I was there to see her, not her t.v.; therefore it didn’t register.

I picked up a copy of the classic "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser and have been happily devouring its advice. There is a whole chapter devoted to "clutter"! What he means by that is verbal clutter - extra words that don't add any meaning to one’s writing. But he also, in his 30-year anniversary edition, adds the idea of psychological clutter, stressing the burden of extraneous thoughts on trying to get clean ideas out on paper.

This suddenly put in perspective something a writing friend had said about her clutter preventing her from being creative. As simple as I have tried to keep my mental processes, my physical attic is full. So are all my closets and drawers. I am one of those who “boxes” her clutter and puts it on a top shelf of a closet, under the bed, or in the attic.

As I open up a box, a flood of memories comes pouring out, as a droplet of gas enclosed in a small space will spread out to fill a whole room. Like the physical box of stuff, the memories associated with them have been compartmentalized into a small portion of my brain. I might think my brain is de-cluttered, but really I just have put the clutter away to be dealt with later. As I deal with each thing, I can process the idea that goes with it. My daily de-cluttering time thus has become part of my mental writing time, because it helps de-clutter me spiritually.

I have been imagining my house completely streamlined, with only a few beautiful things in sight, fitting the form and function of each room. Would such a house be boring? Would such a person be boring?

For Sherlock Holmes Fans:

48 of the 60 stories in The Canon of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are out of copyright and can be downloaded in text format at 221 Baker

Sherlock Holmes, the movie, will be released in 2009.

Kelly Mom's Advice for Breastfeeding Mothers

I just love this website and have it stored to my favorites for easy reference. Many times your general physician really has no idea about whether or not a medication prescribed for you is safe for breastfeeding. He or she will tell you to ask your pediatrician or ob/gyn. Very often, they are just guessing as well. So I always double-check at this website. She references primary documentation that you can read for your edification.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warning about this Sunday's Second Collection

Why should you return the second collection envelope EMPTY this Sunday? Read this revealing essay from the theological magazine "First Things".
Obama and the Bishops
By Richard John Neuhaus
I am printing out a portion of this article and enclosing it in my envelope instead of cash.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery

“The Story Girl” was L.M. Montgomery’s personal favorite among the books she had finished by the end of her residence at Prince Edward Island, according to her autobiography, “The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career”.

Set in the sleepy rural town of Carlisle, this is the story of a group of children who spend an unforgettable summer together. It is told through the eyes of Beverley King, who is reminiscing about his boyhood memories of the Story Girl and all the good times the children had together while listening to her stories.

Many of the stories were actual occurrences that had been rumored throughout the town of Cavendish, Lucy Maud’s early residence, and a certain fringe character named Peg Bowen, a mentally unstable woman whom all the children were afraid of, is the one real live person that Montgomery transplanted into her books.

I read a review on Amazon in which the reader wondered if The Story Girl was actually the young Lucy Maud. I doubt it, for while Sara Stanley, a.k.a. The Story Girl, was an excellent verbal storyteller, her written stories fell absolutely flat.

One could certainly find one’s young self in at least of the diverse lot of children who cast their lots together that summer. There is the beautiful Felicity, who knows how to cook lovely things but wishes she could be as interesting as The Story Girl. In turn, The Story Girl wishes she could do something useful, but fails every time she tries to bake. Cecily is all-around sweet and well-wishing. Sara Ray is dull but a good and loyal friend. Peter, the hired boy, seems to have much promise as a leader. Felix is chubby and sensitive. And Beverley does not tell much about himself – but he is an insightful story-teller with a great memory and a well-kept journal.

The tales are quite diverse in range: funny, sad, wild, scary. What they have in common is that they all have a captive audience when told by Sara Stanley. One could read the book for the little stories alone. But there is a larger story throughout, one of the personal growth of all the children. They learn about the importance of forgiveness, the silliness of grudges, the lost days given to fear. They also learn that pickles and milk might bring on enviably wild dreams, but are also quite poisonous to the stomach when taken together.

The story is timeless as a tale of the importance of stories in general, to bringing friends and family together. This book is well-suited to being read aloud to your children, given for their personal reading, or read by adults for pleasure.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Alpine Path by L.M. Montgomery

Alongside my daughters, I have been losing myself in the timeless stories woven by L. M. Montgomery for months now. After reading about Anne’s motherhood years, including the sad story of a son lost to war, I began to wonder how autobiographical Lucy Maud’s stories really were.

When I found that Montgomery had written her own story of her career, originally published in installments in a magazine in 1917, I just had to have it. I got my copy of “The Alpine Path: The Story of my Career” from Amazon and devoured it immediately.

I had just finished reading the Emily series and found that much of what she wrote about her own childhood had been expressed through the Emily character – much more so than in the Anne series. Anne was imaginative and dreamy, and also had some success in publishing stories while she was young, but she gave that all up when she became a mother. Emily was a born writer to the core, and delayed marriage did not keep her from being happy because she found complete fulfillment in her writing. Emily often wrote in her journal about climbing “the alpine path” to success in her writing career.

“To write has always been my central purpose around which every effort and hope and ambition of my life has grouped itself,” Montgomery writes.

Writers have always been told to “write what you know”, and Lucy Maud found that writing in the setting of Prince Edward Island, with characters that naturally sprung up out of the environment in which she grew up, came naturally to her. Many of the actual anecdotes were actually true, and were used most often in her favorite work, “The Story Girl”.

But the characters were always created purely in her own mind, with the exception of a woman who appears on the fringes throughout “The Story Girl”. “Any artist knows that to paint exactly from life is to give a false impression of the subject. Study from life he must. . .making use of the real to perfect the ideal. But the ideal, his ideal must be behind and beyond it all. The write must create his characters, or they will not be life-like.”

Early in her career, she made inroads by sending poetry to literary magazines. Only ten percent of what she sent were published. At this time, she writes, “I never expect to be famous. I merely want to have a recognized placed among good workers in my chosen profession. That, I honestly believe, is happiness, and the harder to win the sweeter and more lasting when won.”

Montgomery wrote “Anne of Green Gables” chapter by chapter, in time carved away from busy days at work as an editor. It was rejected by publishers several times, and the author was astonished by its worldwide success. At the time of its acceptance, she writes, “I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for mercenary ends can ever have.”

As importance as her work was to her, how modest she was about the quality of her writing! “Not a great book, but mine, mine, mine, something which I had created,” she writes when she receives her first copy of “Anne”.

The last few chapters cover some of Montgomery’s travels with her husband. Not much is revealed about their courtship or marriage, and the book leaves open a whole lifetime to be explored. The author was to write many more books after this mid-career autobiography.

This book offers great insight as to the workings of a great author’s mind as she is just beginning to taste the success of the fruits of her labor. It is a must for every aspiring writer’s bookshelf, or that of anyone who just cannot get enough of the stories by L.M. Montgomery.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Other Women: Envy or Inspiration?

“I’ve always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”
Gloria Vanderbilt

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

10 Positive Things to Tell Yourself When You Have a Cold

1. It could be worse.
2. It will not last forever.
3. Looking miserable will not help.
4. Nobody is going to feel sorry for me.
5. This is my chance to read a good book.
6. I get to take a day off – or at least work at a slower pace today.
7. Oh the things I will do when I am all better!
8. This is my chance to enjoy a new herbal tea – and lots of it!
9. Honey by the spoonful – yum!
10. Gargling is fun! Gargle a tune. Pretend you are at the beach and just went under a wave, swallowing lots of salt water…

Saint Elizabeth feeding the sick in a hospital. Oil painting on copper by Adam Elsheimer, Frankfurt am Main c. 1598.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ice Cream Party

After attempting to make ice cream by hand this summer, I had been on the lookout for an ice cream maker at a reasonable price for several weeks. Finally, I found the Rival Electric Ice Cream Maker on markdown at Walmart for $20. I scooped it up, thinking of all the money I will be saving on ice cream this winter!

Really, I am simply offended that the premium ice cream manufacturers would have the audacity to redesign their “half gallon” packages to contain only 1.75 quarts – and think we would not notice. They keep raising their prices and making their packages smaller. The King Kullen brand is the only option in the freezer that is still a real half gallon.

I also read that bargain brands are artificially fluffed up to a greater volume with air. So I am left not knowing whom to believe and what is really a good value. If I make it myself, I know exactly how much of what ingredients are in it.

I also thought this might make a good activity for my daughter’s birthday party in December. From reading the directions on the box, it looked like we could mix together the ingredients at the beginning of the party, and two hours later be eating it.

I purchased the ingredients for Cookies ‘n’ Cream yesterday. I figured we would give the machine a test run today. The kids had a half day, and I was picking them up from school along with a classmate of my eldest daughter. On the way home, I told them we would start mixing as soon as we got home, so that it would be ready to eat by mid-afternoon. If anything went wrong, I had purchased Blue Bunny Cookies ‘n’ Cream as a backup.

I got out the half-and-half and started reading the recipe in greater detail. I had already made several errors! Thinking that the “whipping cream” was for the top of the ice cream, I had purchased a can of whipped cream instead. Now all I had was milk and half-and-half. Oh well, it would have to do.

I also could not find rock salt. The closest thing I could find was course kosher salt. This was for the melting of the ice around the mixing canister. I also had not made enough ice. But we had set out to make ice cream and, by golly, we were going to make ice cream.

The recipe also called for some cooking, which the girls were not interested in. I scalded the milk, dissolved the sugar, and mixed in six cups of milk and the entire quart of half-and-half. This now had to be refrigerated for a half hour. The girls played a game of chess.

Finally it was time to use the machine. We poured the mixture into the canister, surrounded it by ice, layered with kosher salt, and set the mixer into motion. The girls crushed a bag of Oreos and ate another. They put in one whole cookie as a “prize” for whoever got it in the end.

After a half hour of mixing, I checked the mixture. It looked more like a milkshake than ice cream. We added the crushed cookies and let the mixer work for another ten minutes.

I opened the canister. “I don’t know girls. Do you want to taste it and tell me what you think?”

We all agreed it was yummy, for a milkshake. Our guest voted for eating it just as it was. My girls wanted to let it freeze for a while.

So I put the canister in the freezer for a half hour. This made it colder, but not any more solid. Our guest would have to leave soon.

I set up the table and made a proposal. We would use the Blue Bunny ice cream as the “primary” base for our ice cream sundaes and dribble our milkshake on top. We also had whipped cream, sprinkles, and cherries to add. This was agreeable to all.

I had a small cup of it and it was good – you could taste the real cream – and filling as well.

The girls piled their bowls high with all the ice cream and trimmings. They were not half done when they were moaning that they could not eat anymore. “Were your eyes bigger than your stomachs?” I teased them.

I wrapped up my kids’ bowls for after dinner. Our guest had nothing left but a black, liquidy mess of Oreo-milkshake.

After dinner, I checked the freezer. Part of the ice cream had solidified – the rest was still liquid. At 9:00 p.m. (mind you, this process had started at noon), the ice cream was starting to look as it should, with only ten percent of it looking melted. I will be sure to report on how it tastes tomorrow night!

As in my story about the garden bulbs that were eaten by moles, this day was all about the process. The goal was to do something together with my children, hopefully to produce something delicious. We did have fun, and we did have a good dessert. Things did not turn out exactly as expected, but that is all part of the learning process.

If we ever do perfect the art of homemade ice cream, they will never forget the trials and errors that went into it. And if we don’t? No big deal – I’ll just have to keep sucking it up as I pay for those overpriced, undersized containers of ice cream.

I am also still on the lookout for a good girls’ party activity.

The Rival Ice Cream Maker pictured above is available at Target for $24.99. Just read the instructions before you start!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Where Moths Destroy

We’re headed for a recession, the experts all said in the summer. Now they predict it will get worse, much worse, before things get better. Many have put their trust in Obama, thinking he will take care of their mortgages, car payments, medical care, and college tuition costs. For these poor people (and I mean this in the spiritual sense), they are bound to be sorely disappointed.

I picked up a copy of “Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl” as a Christmas gift for my children. This tale, set during the now-oft-mentioned Great Depression, shows how a family can get through difficult financial times. We missed it in the theatres this July. Amazingly, the one local theatre who ran it only gave it two weeks before removing it. So I am really looking forward to seeing it with my kids.

As I watch my children’s poor little college accounts dwindle in value month by month, I can just imagine how devastating the loss must be to those who have invested many thousands.

There could be a bright light at the end of this tunnel. We Americans have enjoyed physical comfort for so long, yet we crave more. Instead of being thankful for what we have, we complain about what we have not. Could the end of this be a spiritual revival for America – and the rest of the world?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."
Matthew 6:19-21

This resource about an online accounting degree may be of interest to people who feel like finances are one of their strengths.

Illustration: Misery by Fernando Pelez

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Teach Your Kids to FLY!

Thinking back to my childhood, I seemed to have been born with an organizational system in my head. My room was kept beautifully. All my collections were kept together in a way that made sense. If Mom asked me to organize the pantry, or Dad needed help sorting screws in the garage, I was all too happy to dive into the project and see it to completion.

An only child for 11 years, I was the definition of a perfectionist. This quality was of a great advantage in academics, and would have been the key to success in a worldly career. But in family life, where the tending of primary relationships is key, it is a hindrance.

Weaning myself away from perfectionism was a process that took several years, and many major life changes. Marriage was a first step, birth an important second. However, I was still cleaning my floors every day when my first child was a newborn. It took a second child to make me tired enough not to care so much. Spic-and-span changed to clean-enough.

I first heard about FLY LADY when I started homeschooling. A quite vibrant young mother with several children told about how Fly Lady’s system had gotten her in control of her house and her life. I was skeptical, thinking everyone needs to come up with her own system of organization.

Hearing about setting timers was a real turn-off to me. After constantly wearing a watch through my twenty-fifth year, I found that the ability to go without one was like taking off one’s fetters. I could appreciate the minutes and all the lovely baby things that could be encompassed within them.

In hindsight, if I had followed Fly Lady’s tips during my homeschooling years, I would never have gotten into the spot I am now in. While my main living areas are in good order, my drawers and closets are filled with unsorted collections of things (“clutter”).

My most organized friend congratulated me on all the strategies I have been following to keep clutter at a minimum in the common living areas. I blushed reading her e-mail, wondering what she would think of my garage. In my post, I was focusing on my successes so I could push forward with the improvements needed.

My biggest problem is with my children’s rooms. I barely have the time to check if they have made their beds, and they get out of control really quickly. Fly Lady has a section just for kids, to make cleaning fun and doable. I just loved her Student Control Journal. I printed out three copies, put them into binders, and presented them to the children. They pored through them, set the kitchen timer for fifteen minutes, and went through the zone of the day. I could not believe what a difference such a short time span could make.

My friend thought I must have been processing something mental, and I denied it. But really, this all came on immediately after hearing the election results. I watched a show called “Neat” (on The Fitness Channel), in which a book lover had to narrow her beloved books from four shelves to one. I immediately went to my bookshelves and filled a box with books to donate.

A week later, I am still in de-cluttering mode, fully aware that I am trying to process the enormous implications of the election results for our country. I had been so anxious about it – and was managing my mental let-down through cleaning and sorting.

I can see how constant cleaning could be a coping mechanism for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that is why I am begging people to take this system with a grain of salt. If your home is in total disarray, you need a system. If just certain areas are in disorder, hit those areas – but do not let it take over your life. If everything is in relatively good order, please do not start wrapping up your sheets with ribbons Martha Stewart style. Take your kids for a walk and enjoy the wildly divine order of nature.

FLY stands for Finally Love Yourself. If you want to teach your kids how to FLY, you need to teach them balance. They need to respect their home and environment, but also feel free to be messy and creative and unfettered by time restraints. For everything there is a time.

And for everything there is a season. For me, the pendulum had to take me further center. It had to swing a little farther to the left for me to get there. Life is a constant ebb of change requiring us to focus on our ultimate goals and constantly adjust our schedules, habits, and expectations to follow God’s will for our paths.

Painting above: Renoir's "Charpentier and Her Children"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Elizabeth’s Slow-Cooked Lamb Stew

Imagine coming home from an after-school activity to find your house filled with the smell of freshly cooked lamb. The table is set and dinner is ready. Was your husband home? Did your mother come to visit? Did your fairy godmother come to your rescue? Is this a fantasy or can it possibly be real?

Once you become comfortable with the idea of crock-pot meals, such a scenario is quite possible – and it is what keeps me sane during the cross-country season. I set the table, prepare the meal, and turn the crock-pot on low before I leave the house.

To prevent fire hazards, I always use the low setting, never use too much liquid, always check my cord, plug into a GFI-protected outlet, and make sure nothing flammable is in the surrounding area.

Coat bottom of 4-quart crock-pot with olive oil.
Layer 1.5 pounds of lamb neck stew meat on bottom of pot.
Sprinkle rosemary, thyme, and cumin (go light on the cumin) over the meat.
Cut up one red onion and layer it on top of the meat.
Sprinkle the onion with salt and pepper.
Cut 8 potatoes in quarters; layer on top of the onions.
Add 1 cup of orange juice, slowly covering the potatoes.
Add 2 cups of water.
The water will just cover the meat. The potatoes will cook by virtue of the steam. If they are completely covered with water they will be soggy.
Cook on low until fork tender, about 4.5 hours.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Meet Lucky, our new adopted rabbit. He is a dwarf rabbit, about five years old. Our children are so happy to have a new rabbit to love!

I thought Lucky was such an apt name in so many respects. I found him online just 11 minutes after his owner had posted him, the night after Peach died. Our kids were so distraught that I knew they needed someone else to fill that new void in their hearts.

The family took about a week to decide that we were the ones; they said they had a “gut” feeling about our email. They brought him over to our house today and said they no longer felt they had to worry about him. He was welcomed by all the children, and Bear as well.

He came with a cage that can easily be carried in and out of the house. We will keep him mainly indoors, but bring him outside with us during good weather. His previous owner had also given him vegetable scraps, so we can continue that practice. I had felt sad every time I threw away the pieces people find inedible but that Peach had loved to nibble on.

“Bunny!” my two-year-old announced as soon as the family had gotten out of their car with Lucky. They knew right away that they had found the perfect new “Home for a Bunny”.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Elizabeth’s Anti-Clutter Techniques for Larger Families

We have had a few rainy days, leading me to spring into my fall de-cluttering. I immediately hit my worst hot spot, the home office, where I have many piles of paper to sort through. I packed up forty-three books in genres I no longer read, and which I have no desire to pass along to my children.

While there, I picked up a few books from the library on de-cluttering. I skimmed through these during commercial breaks, while watching the evening news with my husband. I really learned nothing new. But I did discover that I could skip whole sections because many of the zones in my house are clutter-free! I decided to pat myself on the back for that and proceed with what needed to be done.

The most painful books to give away were a set of four “Story of the World” books by Susan Wise Bauer. These had been a rare brand-new purchase I had made, with the intention of incorporating them into my homeschooling curriculum. Even after I had enrolled the children into school, I always thought I would supplement their education by reading these books to them. A few years later, I had still only gotten halfway through the first book. A good homeschooling friend of mine who is using this series was a happy recipient of these. While painful, it was also the most fulfilling book giveaway I had made.

While sorting through school papers in the kitchen this morning, I discovered that I actually have several systems in place that I have incorporated over the years. I found none of these tips in books or magazines, and several are unique for larger families.

1. Have a ready-to-go center at your front door.
In the coat closet by the front door, I keep a baby bag stocked and ready to go at a moment’s notice. My keys and pocketbook are kept on a coat rack, which is installed on the wall. There is a small table with one drawer, in which I keep all my coupons and one-day-store passes. I remove expired coupons on a regular basis.

2. Keep a clutter basket in your kitchen.
Junk drawers are useless, but kitchen clutter does happen, especially with a family of six. Everyone knows they can feel free to toss in miscellaneous small objects in the basket. Once it gets half full, I can carry the basket around the house and put things where they belong.

3. Keep multiple tools together.
I think large families should be exempt from the “keep one each” rule most expert organizers tout. If you cook and bake with your daughters, for instance, you will need several of the same kitchen tools. If father and son like to build together, they will need more than one hammer and screwdriver. Just keep the same types of tools together.

4. Support your local library!
Once a season I fill a diaper box with books I know I will never have use for again. I bring it to my library and receive a donation slip.
I also have made friends with the children’s program director, who happily takes off my hands empty baby jars for use in storing paint and other craft supplies.

5. Jesus told his disciples to keep only one coat, and give away the second.
This policy prevents clothing clutter from every happening. If I buy a pair of jeans, I donate one pair. One pair of black shoes in, one pair out. When I store clothing to pass on to the next child, I make sure to keep only half, and donate the rest.

6. Use a pad rather than scraps of paper.
I keep all of my lists and idea on little yellow pads so I can always find them. Once I use my ideas to write out a post, I tear out the page and throw it out. When cleaning out my pocketbook, I know all the folded-up yellow pages are shopping lists that I can throw away.

7. Keep a school and art work collection box.
With multiple children, it is absolutely impossible for me to sort through all the pages that come in a daily basis. I have the children empty out their folders into a box. On a weekly basis, I can go through the box and sort the papers I want to keep into appropriate folders.

8. Get everyone to put their own laundry away.
I fold laundry in one of two places, depending on where my toddler is at the moment.
If I fold on the dining room table, where the children do their homework together, the children are told to put away their own piles before doing homework.
If I fold on my bed, they have to put away their piles before going to bed. I must put away my own pile before climbing into bed.

9. Pin-up visual reference clutter behind kitchen cabinet doors.
For easy reference, I know which cabinet to open and find any of the following:
Doctor and business cards
Calendar of birthdays and anniversaries
Sports schedules
First-aid poster
A Mapquest of our area (in case someone needs directions to our house or gets lost on their way)
Often-referenced recipes
Important church numbers, cut out from the church bulletin
Postcards from a loved-one who travels often
Health articles for inspiration
Inspirational quotes
School and class numbers

10. Create “way-stations” for things to be put away.
By the garage door I might put a pile of things to put away in the garage. When I fill up the dog food bowl, I take the pile in with me.
At the bottom of the stairs is a pile of things to be brought up, and vice-versa. Everyone is trained to “not waste a trip”; they must bring the things up or down, and then deposit them in the rooms of their owners.

This last tip is similar to one I found in the book , LIGHTEN UP! Free Yourself From Clutter (HarperCollins), by Michelle Passoff. Rather than being stuck on everything going straight to its home, she suggests everything be put on its right path to its final destination. You can find out about her books and sign up for her tips at

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What to do now?

I have been giving a great deal of thought to the issue of what to do as a Pro-Life advocate in a country which will now be led by a President and Congress that is largely pro-choice.

President-Elect Barack Obama comes to this position with a great deal of emotional baggage. Perhaps he perceived himself as a burden on his mother and grandmother; else why would he see a child as "punishment" for a mother with an unintended pregnancy?

My thought is that it is possible to change his heart, if he hears enough personal stories to persuade him otherwise. If every mother wrote to him her own personal story of motherhood, and why she is against abortion, I do think it could have an effect upon him. I think people should start writing to him now, as he collects his thoughts on his first actions to take when he is sworn into office.

You can reach Senator Barack Obama at:
713 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

A hand-written, heartfelt letter is always the best, but any contact is better than none at all.

Monday, November 3, 2008

So You Call that Fasting?

When you see the meal I prepared for dinner tonight after I told you I would be fasting and praying for the election, you might say, “So you call that fasting?”

Catholic rules for fasting are very well laid out, and allow for one to have two square meals. They are even allowed to be delicious! Meat and dessert are forbidden on fasting days. I usually make fish, which I love, and subsequently I hardly feel like I gave up anything. (Until later, when I normally would have dessert.) For the kids, I will make a dessert that I don’t like. Tonight I made “Funfetti” cake from a mix. As I am what my husband calls a “cake snob”, only enjoying angel or chocolate cakes made from scratch, this is not a temptation for me.

Tonight we had salmon, rice with onions, steamed organic broccoli, and salad with my own homemade dressing. This vinaigrette is loaded with so many healthy fats and proteins that it could qualify as a meal in itself. This also helps in maintaining a fast, as you remain satisfied for much longer.

Elizabeth’s Baked Salmon with Rice

This method works for any fish. Coat the fish and the bottom of a glass pan with olive oil. Sprinkle the fish with a paprika, onion, and salt-based fish seasoning. (In the salmon pictured I used Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Salmon Seasoning.) Cover dish with foil; this locks in the moisture. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until fish is flaky through the middle.

Bring to a simmer 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water (my family requires 2 cups of rice with 4 cups of water). Add onions and seasoning. I like to use the same seasoning that I used in the fish. Cover and turn the heat down low. Cook for 15 minutes. Rice should be soft and should have absorbed all of the water. Turn off the heat. Mix up the rice and re-cover for 5 minutes. This helps the rice to be fluffy.

I usually serve this dish with a steamed green vegetable, such as asparagus or broccoli.

Elizabeth’s Fennel Parmesan Vinaigrette

Whisk together or shake in a jar:

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon grated Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon flax seed (either whole or milled)
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and ground black pepper to taste
Add 1 cup olive oil; whisk or shake until smooth.
Refrigerate in glass container.

(I used an old olive oil jar to both mix and store my dressing.)

Note: As this dressing contains no artificial emulsifiers, the oil will harden in the refrigerator. This is easily remedied by either taking the dressing out 15 minutes before using, or immersing the bottle in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes. Shake well.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Life Without Peach

Slicing a pepper, I thought sadly how I normally would save the vegetable scraps for the bunny. Peach would no longer need them. I saved them anyway, and threw them into the grass for the wild bunnies that scamper through our yard.

My nine-year-old’s immediate reaction to Peach’s passing was the most intense. My eleven-year-old’s was less so, but the sadness is more lingering. She still talks about Hoppity sometimes. “No other bunny could ever replace Peach or Hoppity,” she said.

My seven-year-old son did not show his emotion on the surface but I comforted him anyway, and there were some tears welling up in his eyes when he said goodbye.

Our toddler asked after the bunny today when she saw the empty cage. We repeated to her that Peach had gone to bunny heaven.

We finished the main portion of the swing set today. The swing side is not yet anchored – we will leave that final portion for tomorrow – but the rock wall and slide were able to be traversed. Hence there was much laughter for a good portion of the day, with tears interspersed here and there.

We had to tend to some of the more mundane and morose duties of a pet’s passing. We cleaned her cages – one for inside and one for outside. We put the food and other supplies away to save for the future.

Talking about getting a new bunny next spring gave them hope for a new life to care for, and eased their suffering some.