simple day-brighteners

The first cookbook I ever owned was Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls. Uncle Harold sent it to me in 1983, with the date and “Happy New Year” hand-written on the inside front cover. I read that book more times that I can count, usually flipping through the pages until something caught my eye, but I don’t think I actually made that many of the recipes. So I’m not sure why I had higher hopes for Melissa Clark’s cookbook and my own kiddos. Though the book hasn’t yet lured my boys into the kitchen, I’ve tried making several of the recipes and they’ve been well received. The savory Dutch Baby with Parmesan and chives was a favorite. We also thought the Cheesy Skillet Black Beans were a winner – even without the cheese – and Secret Ingredient Tofu was pretty good (though I reduced the amount of fish sauce in the homemade barbecue sauce slathered on the baked tofu slabs cause I know how my boys feel about fish sauce.)

My older son, though, has proved more interested in coming up with his own recipes. “I’m going to invent a salad,” our thirteen-year-old announced as I was preparing lunch Saturday, “one with two kinds of olives, lettuce, and cheese. Do we have any black olives?”

So here he was, the one who begrudgingly helps with meal preparation, pulling items out of the fridge and pantry of his own accord. Turns out there was no lettuce in the fridge, but baby spinach leaves worked splendidly tossed with his olive-brine and olive-oil dressing. It was a tasty salad, but the thing I appreciated most was the initiative he showed in contributing to the meal.

Another item that’s been brightening days is this cute mouse pad. It’s got a photo of a quilted placemat my sister Clair made for us over a year ago. It arrived a couple of weeks ago and has become my favorite mouse pad ever.

I’ve also been enjoying an angel wing begonia from a neighbor. Back in November, someone posted a request for houseplants on The response was so overwhelming that not only did the person making the request get all the offers for plants she could handle, but lots of other plant sharing took place as well. One kind grower gave me a clipping that I’ve managed to keep alive these past four months. I still have to figure out how to get it to flower, but otherwise it seems to be thriving.

art from lined paper

During Christmas break, we tried out author and illustrator Debra Frasier’s Paper Camp. The beauty of the technique in this stripes course is that you create your own patterned paper from regular notebook or loose leaf paper, coloring every other line with a marker. Once you’ve got a nice assortment of handmade striped paper, then you cut out some shapes to form a picture. The boys and I each made one:

The best thing about this class was that it opened our eyes to what can be done with scraps. In our second round, we created pictures with the bits and pieces, arranging and rearranging different discarded pieces from the first project until it looked like something familiar.

In one picture, we used scraps plus some tiny embellishments cut from an orange stripe:

After that, we tried out a few folding projects to make use of more of the striped paper:

Once the boys got past the idea that such projects are for “little kids,” we had a fun time creating together.

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).


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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)


on lemon pie and other writing quandaries

“How long does it take to make a lemon pie?” my fourth grader came into the bedroom and asked as I was lying there awake but not quite ready to get out of bed and face the new day.

“Oh about an hour – or hour and a half,” I said, thinking that it could vary quite a bit depending on whether it’s got a homemade crust or not. Are we talking about a pudding pie or a lemon meringue pie? I’ve never made either for a long as my son has been around so I wasn’t sure what he was thinking of…

“How about I say an hour? Is that realistic?”

“Yes,” I said, deciding I don’t need to help him over-think it. He returned to his spelling sentences at the dining table and I got out of bed.

Last year I’d read about an author that mentioned writing her first story of length in third grade. She had written a chapter a week using the spelling words she’d been assigned to use in sentences. It was a clever enough idea that I thought it worth passing along to my son. He wasn’t interested in creating such a challenge for himself, but I’d thought it couldn’t hurt to pass along the idea. Who knows whether he might take it up some day…?

When I came to the table with yogurt for breakfast he showed me the sentence he’d been working on, which included the phrase “hot lemon pie.” I told him lemon pie would probably not be served hot. He’d added the adjective to make sure the sentence met the 10-word length requirement, I knew, so I suggested a replacement.

Last month I’d glanced at his spelling sentences. Three in a row contained the word “vary” so I took the opportunity to point out that adding “very” to a sentence usually isn’t necessary. It’s an overused word, and more precise describing words are far more useful. (This was when he had explained that each sentence with a spelling word should contain at least 10 words. “Very” adds to the word count, at least.)

He’s struggled with writing ever since he’s been asked to produce his own prose. He over-thinks it, his teachers often conclude, at the expense of fluency. And every time I hear that it feels like sort of a déjà vu moment, taking me back to my own elementary school writing habit of sitting and staring at a blank piece of lined paper, wanting to writing but knowing that whatever I put down on the page wouldn’t be as good as it could be…knowing that I’d hate it and not want anyone else to read it.

It’s not easy to watch my kids struggle with the same things I used to struggle with (or still do). It’s unsettling to doubt whether my help is truly helpful. Yet it’s provided with the hope that he strives to improve, that in future assignments he chooses to think of a more precise word than “very” or that his imagination would be captured by the idea of weaving all the words into a story.



alphabet forest

Today is day 10 of our 12-day celebration of words at the Minnesota State Fair’s Alphabet Forest.

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Our shaded oasis is all about literacy development, supported by amazing authors and beautiful books. Countless children and other diligent denizens have won words and completed an Alphabet Forest game card in order to earn a blue ribbon.

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Hundreds of volunteers have helped provide the one-on-one interaction with learners of all ages that Debra Frasier envisioned when she designed this shaded oasis for fair goers.


It’s been humbling to lead the whole endeavor. I’m thankful for lots of guidance and support from a committed core group, some of whom have helped keep this place going for eight years. It’s a marathon of a job, that’s for sure, but the positive feedback we’ve gotten has made it all worthwhile.


home cooking

Aunt Betty has a stack of grandma’s recipes. She’s been hanging on to them since her mom down-sized and moved out of the house, I think. The thing is, none of them seem to be the recipes for the things that grandma made the most. Those were the recipes she carried around in her head, I’m guessing, and some of them were never recorded. So when I asked Aunt Betty for grandma’s bread recipe she sent me one that was close – it had the same ingredients that grandma used to use, she’d written – but it wasn’t the exact recipe. I pulled it out Saturday morning and made that whole wheat bread. By the time the smell of baking bread was coming from the oven, I was half done frying the bajiya that we were taking to the community garden potluck.

“Why are you making bajiya for the potluck?” one son asked.

“They said bring a food that represents your ethnic background,” I explained.

“That’s not my ethnic background,” he said. Neither of our boys are fond of bajiya, fritters of ground black-eyed peas spiced with turmeric and coriander.

“Yes, it is. You’re half Somali,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s not your ethnic background,” he said.

“It’s the one I married into.”

Grandma Wolters did pass along some of her cooking skills, though. Perhaps the first thing she taught me was how to make homemade frosting. She’s the one who taught me how to make gravy too. There was never a recipe we referred to for either one – it was a little of this and a little of that until you got the right consistency and the right quantity. Taste and adjust as needed till it’s just the way you like it. That’s actually how I make most of the foods I grew up eating. But I’m an adventurous eater and crave variety more than anything. So I collect recipes too.

When I first asked my husband how to make bajiya he wasn’t even certain what the main ingredient is, but I found a recipe for it online. Now I make it sometimes for company and sometimes just for us. “It reminds me of my childhood,” my husband has said.

I sometimes wonder what foods my sons will remember from their growing up years. And what foods they’ll know how to make from memory… In case they ever change their mind about bajiya, the recipe will be right there in my recipe box.




lessons from a visit to the farm

Your grandpa’s farm can be a rather intimidating place when you’re six years old and have spent most of your life in the city. But you’re a good sport about it. Not long after you arrived last Monday, Rojo the dog knocked you over a couple of times and left a scratch on your face. So you had reason to want to stay in the house, but your mom sent you back outside with your brother and cousins, reminding you stay close enough to one of the bigger boys who could make sure the dog didn’t knock you over again.

You learned that pigeons get little mercy when they disturb the barn insulation as they’re trying to build a nest. So you got to witness your cousin and uncle shooting some of those birds with a BB gun.

You thought the hay mow, which is essentially off-limits to the dog, would be a good place to hang out. It was, until your shoe got stuck between two of the hay bales somewhere and no one – not your cousins, brother, uncle, aunt or mom – could find it. You learned, as it turns out, that looking for a shoe in among the bales of hay isn’t that much different from looking for a needle in the haystack. So you had to take the sock off the foot with no shoe, and you decided that totally barefoot was better than one shoe off and one shoe on.

While in the hay mow, you got a good look at a cat skeleton, which no one else seemed to want to touch. Apparently you thought it was worth picking up – and swinging around a few times (perhaps to prove YOU weren’t grossed out by it). Nothing like a brief overview of cat anatomy in a natural context.

After the shoe was history, you figured out how to climb to the top of the stack of round bales in the hay shed. You seemed to think that was a good perch and even when your brother decided to find something else to do, you were happy to sit up there and take in the view from 20 feet up. “I know how to get down by myself,” you boasted.

I think it was fair to say that you’d learned a lot that day – the kind of learning a kid gets during summer break.

sharing a feeling

Last week I was subbing in a preschool classroom. Annika was one of the five kids at my table for small group work. Though the other kids had scattered to various play areas after finishing their worksheet, she lingered at the table. “Today after school, I have to say with Nana, but I want to be with my mom,” she said.

“Is your mom working?” I asked.

“Yeah, and she comes back after dark,” Annika said. “She spends a lot of time with her boyfriend. I don’t get to be with her that much.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” she responded.

“Maybe you should tell your mom that,” I suggested.

“I already did,” she said.

“And what did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘Oh, I do spend time with you,'” Annika told me.”But I want to be with her more.”

We sat together for a few moments, that sweet five-year-old and I, each thinking our own thoughts, sharing a similar feeling. I wished I could make it better for Annika. I wish Annkia’s mom realized that her little girl isn’t going to be little for long, in the grand scheme of things, and that she should savor every moment.

The only thing I could offer this little girl was a listening ear – and perhaps a story. “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.

She brightened. “Go get one you like from the bookshelf,” I told her. She came back with the colorful I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and we let the silly, sing-songy story distract us for a bit.