extraordinary days

Spring in Minnesota includes all kinds of weather. On Monday it was sunny and 66 degrees. In contrast, here is a view of our yard this afternoon: A1B8DB83-D469-4FDE-ADA0-434644ADDB6E

We aren’t surprised by snow days in April. We just roll with ’em – and remind ourselves that in a little over a month this tree will be filled with fragrant pink blossoms.

And we savor the memories from exactly a week ago, memories of hiking among the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona.

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More than one family member noted it was a pity that our trip hadn’t been for two weeks instead of one, but we fill this day off with reading, shoveling snow, playing the Lego game, vacuuming, baking, washing dishes, and finishing taxes. These things too can be extraordinary when we make them so.

for they shall inherit the earth

The first hand is eight years old.

The second is 11 years.

The exact age of the third hand? Only God knows.

No one bothered to write down the date that hand was brought into the world.

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“A lot of kids in my class say bad things about Somalis. I don’t tell them that I’m half Somali,” my 11-year-old said this evening. He mentioned the same thing last week.

I suggested he might considering pointing out to these kids that there’s a lot of variety among Somalis, that they no more deserve to be lumped into one category than any other group. His dad, who is Somali, advised him to let the topic pass without saying a word.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about living with a minority, it’s that many of them don’t buy into this idea of sticking up for yourself, of calling out the unfair treatment. It’s all about not making waves, about not upsetting people who have the upper hand – and just may use it against you if pressed. I have a feeling my boys are going to take their cues from their daddy on this one. Perhaps that’s best. Blessed are the meek.

things to do on a frigid day (or week)

The great polar vortex has descended on the Midwest and you’re hunkered down at home with the kiddos for yet another day so cold that school’s cancelled and outdoor play isn’t a real option. Make a list of all the household chores you’ve been procrastinating on and allow everyone to choose a task or two that they’d most like to do. This is how we got snow shoveling done right quick – my boys clearly prefer outdoor work to the indoor stuff. (Of course, they also took the opportunity to roll around in the snow before coming back inside.) Once you’ve got the work done – or at least made good progress on your list – go ahead and enjoy the rest of the day.

1. Make some aqua rocks. Just add a few drops of food coloring to a balloon, fill it with water, and set it outside. Once frozen, remove the balloon and enjoy the pretty shapes and colors (from the window).

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2. Write a good old-fashioned letter, and have your kiddos write one too. My boys wrote their one out-standing thank you note, and I filled up the rest of the space in the card. A letter a day is a good goal.

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3. Use this as an opportunity to bake. Choose one of those baking projects you never seem to have time for in a typical week. For example, make some soft buttered pretzels. (Ours were tasty, though not as photogenic as the ones on the King Arthur website.) Then, pull out those canned cherries that have been neglected in the back of the cupboard. Mix in some cornstarch and sugar and place them in a pie crust. Bake until your home smells wonderful.

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4. Play board games for as long as you like. Then make up your own games. If you’re so inclined, use your Lego bricks to inspire some intense role plays. Or just admire your kids’ Lego creations.

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5. Read. Finish up all those library books that are in your to-read stack. Then check out your library’s online resources. If you’re blessed with a library like ours, you may have even gotten an email touting their “Top Five Resources for Snow Days.” Read it in its entirety and choose one option to explore in depth.

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6. Put on some fun music and move to the beat. Everyone needs to get their wiggles out somehow.

7. Put everyone to bed early and let them sleep late. Wake up, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and repeat.

the gift of time

This year I decided to bake Christmas cookies to share with neighbors who live alone and probably rarely ever bother to break out the baking ingredients. (Who wants to bake for one person, really?)

The baking was the fun part; squeezing it in with all the other stuff we had going on in December was the challenging part. So I didn’t linger much as a rung doorbells and dropped off foil-wrapped parcels.

We got a note from one of the recipients, “I really appreciated the cookies, and they came at a time when I was feeling a little low!”

That got me thinking. Sharing homemade cookies is a small gesture. How much greater could it have been had I taken the time to sit down and listen to each person?

So I’m pondering what we as a family will do in the coming year to reach out more often to people who tend to spend more time alone than they’d prefer.

And since we’re talking about seasonal treats, here’s one that typically gets rave reviews when I share it:

Frango Mints

1 stick butter, softened

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 teaspoons peppermint extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 pasteurized eggs

12 oz. pkg semi sweet chocolate chips, melted

Beat butter and powdered sugar until light and creamy. Beat in extracts and eggs. Add melted chocolate chips and mix thoroughly. Pour into a buttered 8 x 8-inch pan, smoothing out the top. Chill overnight or until firm. Cut into small squares.

the beauty of a shared story

Parent-teacher conferences are as close as you get to a performance review for your parenting, my sister with older children used to say. If that’s case, my husband and I got two glowing performance reviews last week, one for each son. (Though I tend to agree with the sentiment that our children are not our report card.) Among the things I’ve thought about most from conferences was a comment our son’s fifth grade teacher said after she listened to him read aloud: “I can tell he’s been read to.”

I’ve been reading aloud since my oldest was an infant. It’s nice to have this affirmed, but the sad thing about her comment is the implication that reading aloud to one’s children seems to be an anomaly in this digital age. On more than one occasion when subbing, I’ve observed a child about whom I could say, “I can tell he’s NOT been read to.” It’s the child who can’t sit still for a story, the one whose attention is only sustained when there’s a screen in front of him. It’s the child who has told me, “I hate reading” and the one who has said, “Blacks don’t read.”

I read aloud to introduce my kids to stories they may not naturally pick up on their own. I read aloud because there’s a connection that comes from sharing a story (and I’m glad that people like Kate DiCamillo are talking about it.) One never ages out of listening to a story. This is why in our home we nearly always have a read-aloud book in progress.

numbering my days

Last Thursday the 11-year-old and his 8-year-old brother had been bickering, wrestling, leaping over laundry baskets, and skidding to a stop just inches before crashing into the table with all the houseplants. I love my children, but sometimes they’re easier to be around in small doses. “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested after dinner. It was sunny, nearly 70 degrees, and past the halfway point in October. Such beautiful fall days are not going to be around much longer.

“Let’s walk in the cemetery,” my husband said as we neared the hole in Elmhurst’s chain link fence. We turned in and made our way to the paved trail as our boys ran circles around us. Literally. It’s not easy to walk with someone running in front of you every few steps. This walk wasn’t making me less irritated, as I’d expected it would. I tried to focus on the positive.  

Then I tried distraction. I glanced to the right and read one of the gravestones: “Russell Fox 1905 – 1916.”

“Look, there’s a gravestone for Russell Fox – he only lived to be 11 years old,” I said aloud.

“That’s my age,” our older son said.

Did Russell have the same boundless energy? Did he argue with his brother hourly? Did his mom ever grow weary of his antics? How sorely she must have missed him once he was laid to rest… The circling didn’t stop, even though their daddy had asked them to quit running in front of us like that. I walked in a zigzag fashion to try to throw them off, but it only made them laugh more – and keep circling, sometimes around me, sometimes around their daddy, sometimes around both of us. I was glad that they were happy. How come I wasn’t?

“Let’s go look at the leaning tree – let’s see if it’s still standing,” my husband suggested. It’s the tree that defies gravity, leaning at such an angle you’d think it may fall any second. We talk about it – marvel at it, even – every time we walk through Elmhurst Cemetery.

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But then when we look at if from another angle, that same tree seems pretty normal. 

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It reminds me that things aren’t always as they appear, that the same thing viewed from different perspectives can look very different. Just like my boys’ circling game. It was fun for them. It wasn’t hurting anyone. They obviously had energy to burn – and they’d found an amusing way to do it, much safer than roughhousing.

The “tipping tree” was still standing. Shortly after we passed it, another gravestone caught my eye. It was inscribed with Psalm 90: 12 “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

“Numbering” my days means I should recognize how few there are – and spend them well. It means I should savor this moment, spending a beautiful fall evening with people I love. Our kids are happy and healthy, thriving at school, and a blessing to our home. They make life much more interesting, even fun most days.  

Tips to Get Your Kids Talking about School

The following is an article I wrote for my sons’ school newsletter.

One way parents demonstrate the importance of education to their children is by talking with them about school. Some children volunteer information about school readily, while others need a bit of encouragement to get them sharing. Following are some suggestions for getting the conversational ball rolling. It may only take one question, or it may take a few, but once your child gets started, hold off on additional questions for the moment and let him or her direct the conversation. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Sometimes it can be as simple as asking your children to tell you about any artwork or take-home papers that come home in their backpacks. I often ask my kids to reread Scholastic News (ignoring any protests about already having read it) and then we use that as the basis for a discussion.

Use books as conversation starters. Pick up a book about school from the public library and read it together. Even upper elementary learners benefit from being read to. Picture books are “everybody” books – don’t let your bigger kids tell you otherwise. Some good books set at school that we’ve read recently include Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser and A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson.

Model talking about your day. Tell them something that happened to you today and then give your child a chance to share. By talking about your interests, challenges and joys, you are providing models of what you’d like your kids to share with you.

Ask specific, open-ended questions. Try out some of the ones below if you’re looking for new ideas:

What book did your teacher read aloud today?

Whom did you sit by at lunch?

What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?

Who made you smile today?

What is your teacher’s most important rule?

Which person in your class is your exact opposite? How or why?

Tell me something you learned about a friend today.

What did you do at recess?

How would you rate your day on a scale from one to ten? Why?

What was the hardest rule to follow today? Why?

What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?

Whom do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet?

When did you feel proud of yourself today?

What challenged you today?

 

 

 

 

a snack and a poem

Recently I pulled out a box of alphabet crackers and suggested each person write a poem using the letters on his crackers. (We’re finding creative ways to avoid summer slump in our household.)

So my ten-year-old got the letters G, L, A, V, W, P, and M. He used each one to begin a line of his poem:

George

Limped

Away and then a

Vulture with a club

Whacked him on

Purpose. A typical

Monday for George.

 

paying attention on purpose

Earlier this month, we went camping at Lake Byllsby Regional Park. Our ten-year-old started lobbying for leaving the campground once breakfast was over that first morning. He didn’t want to spend another night in a tent and told me so in as many different ways as he could think of. (One thing this boy has going for him is that he’s persistent. Just like his daddy.) When it started feeling like nagging, I said firmly that we’d reserved our site for two nights and had no reason to hurry back home. I wasn’t going to debate it further.

We walked along the trail past the hydroelectric substation, looking for the source of the sound that had lulled us to sleep the night before. Soon the waterfall came into view, and a bridge to cross over it. We stopped for several minutes on the bridge to watch the water rushing downward, turning the turbines as it tumbled over them and continued on its way. A smaller falls off to the left had algae growing behind it, its brilliant green especially pretty in the morning light. Then we turned to admire the work of an orb spider. “That would make a great picture,” my son said pointing at a web glistening as the sun hit it at just the right angle.

“I don’t know if we could capture it that well with our camera,” I said, considering the limitations of our small Cannon Powershot. “Let’s just enjoy it right now.” We studied the web glistening with dew drops for a few moments more and then continued our walk.

For that short period at least we were fully present in the moment.  We were practicing mindfulness, a term introduced by the psychologist in the family. Mindfulness is about keenly observing and appreciating where you are and what you are doing right then rather than (if even just in your mind) rushing to the next thing. Paying attention on purpose is a skill I need to develop right along with my kiddos.

Many opportunities to practice mindfulness have come up since that camping trip, including

Being in a house so quiet we can hear the clock tick

Spending an evening with nieces and nephews at camp

Watching the boys skip rocks on Lake Superior

Picking the day’s harvest from our community garden

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Biking home from the library together

Touring the governor’s mansion (with less than enthusiastic kids in tow)