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Every year you grow in loveliness and grace. Every year you surprise me with new growth, maturity, strength of character, humor and wit.

You are good company…

I am so very thankful for the gift you are to me and to our family. Thank you for your helpful ways, your nurture and care of others, for being such an awesome big sister, for watching my movies with me and shopping with me and for whipping up deliciousness in the kitchen.

You are amazing! Happy birthday, Sweet Elisabeth!

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We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Our culture is always on the lookout for new and better, but contentment can almost always be found in what we already have…who we are already blessed to know and love…in the rich experiences we have already enjoyed. And inspiration might already have been written down before!

Although I’m not the most consistent when it comes to keeping a journal, I do find that revisiting old entries is a delight, and often a surprise. As I have continued to seek vision and focus for the new year at hand, I came across this page from my journal and thought it would be fun to share my random, pell-mell thoughts on the atmosphere of home:

December 3, 2011

A lovely and nurturing home environment. A home that is neat and orderly, clean and organized. Filled with beauty, books, comfort and familiarity. Not overwhelmed with clutter, chintzy items of any sort, dirt or cobwebs. Smells fresh and sweet. Nutritious, home-cooked meals on the table. Schedule and routine yet with room for creativity, spontaneity and fun. Beautiful, soul-stirring music played throughout the day. Sink-in seating and cozy corners. Comfortable beds with clean, fresh-smelling linens. Most of our time spent “unplugged”. A vibrant learning environment. Color. Texture. Inspiration and encouragement. Words of love and instruction on our lips. Clean, neat, modest clothing. A healthy, green lawn to run around in. Flowers and plants well-kept and thriving. Outdoor seating with flexibility for meals out in the fresh air. Talents and gifts flourishing. Conversation abundant, interesting, intelligent and life-giving. An open air of hospitality, eager to bless others and offer refreshment and fellowship.
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Does any of this characterize my home right now? Some of it. Some days. But for me this run-on list of disjointed thoughts, dreams and hopes is more of a North Star of ideal home life. A battle plan. A call to action.

What does your ideal home environment look like?

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My sweet girls, after our lunch at the American Girl Bistro and dessert at the Cheesecake Factory

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All Faith wanted was lunch at the Bistro with her sisters (and a couple small things to open)

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The now familiar, traditional birthday breakfast of waffles, bacon and sausage, and juice

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Happy Birthday my sweet, exuberant, loving, smiling, hugging “Faithful” girl!

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Because after all, a boy needs a dog…

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Two years has flown by…what a delight you have been…what a blessing to our family! Happy Birthday, lovely Anna!

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David at Historic Williamsburg

…my life changed forever and for the better. The birth of your older sister started my journey of motherhood, yes. But you…

I quickly learned I didn’t have this thing down like I thought I did. I learned about limitations and the near boundaries of my fragile capabilities. I learned to pray…really pray. I found out I was that mom…the one in the store chasing down the toddler who just snatched the most fragile thing off a nearby shelf and bolted. The one I would have looked down on in my heart in the past with a haughty “I would never!”

You taught me so much about the lavish grace of the Father. How he could love me so much when I disobey so often. How he could be so delighted with me when I had broken so many of the Rules.

Because I am His child.

And you are mine…

Today you are a bright, charming, delightful boy. You are “good company.” Every day I see more of a glimpse of who God has made you to be…another page turned in the Book of your life. A captivating story, a hero tale, an action-packed thriller, a suspenseful mystery.

Today I celebrate you, and worship the God whose craftsmanship and wisdom takes my breath away.

Happy Birthday, David!

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Having a daughter is such a mix of talking and tears, sweetness and drama, giggles and ear-piercing shrieks. Or maybe that’s just my house and my daughters? And yet I wouldn’t trade a minute of it away for any amount of peace and quiet.

Yesterday we transformed our house into a “spa” so that seventeen girls between the ages of three and twelve could come together to celebrate Elisabeth’s 10th birthday. Since we are a large-ish family and especially due to the fact that all our birthdays save my own fall between the months of February and July, my children know that they may expect a special birthday party when they turn five, and again when they turn ten.

So as you may have already guessed, Elisabeth has been plotting and planning for this party for a long time. Years, even.

We tossed around many ideas as the day drew closer. But it was my mention of “let’s ask our friend if she would be willing to do fancy hairstyles, and we could paint nails, too!” that caused her eyes to light up and sparkle. We had found our party theme.

What began with hair and nails quickly snowballed into a spa theme complete with facials, makeup, and goodie bags for each girl filled with a hair clip, lip gloss, nail polish and a bath bomb.

Yeah…it was involved.

And I didn’t mind one bit. It was a pleasure for me to plan, bake, clean, prepare and set up for this pretty, sparkly, special occasion. Elisabeth is such a help to me and has become such a delightful companion. She works hard here at home, helping with Anna and the other children, doing her chores and school work, and really just being my right hand. I can trust her to throw a last-minute meal together, help with setting up when we are entertaining, get younger children ready to leave the house, and on and on the list goes. At (almost) ten years of age, there is a dwindling list of my tasks here in our home that she has not yet mastered. And so I wanted her to know how very thankful I am that she is a part of our family!

So here are some snapshots from the day.

The picture above and below are of Martha Stewart decorations that I found at a local discount store. What would usually cost an arm and a leg was just a few dollars and definitely added color and sparkle to the day. They also happened to be just the colors of pink and blue that we were using for the party.

Beautiful tulips. Lovely and very affordable at this time of year!

If you are a “regular” here or over at my mother’s blog, you may know that we have agreed to put on a dessert reception for my brother’s wedding. For me, to take on such a momentous project involves ideas, brainstorming, and PRACTICE! Birthdays and church events have been the perfect opportunities to test my new skills, but this birthday party was my first real success. Colors, taste and technique all came together beautifully and the girls were thrilled with the results.

The cupcake wrappers are made from scrapbook paper with a die cut that fits my small Sizzix machine. The cake pops were made using a special baking pan (I am not a fan of the crumbled-cake-mixed-with-frosting-rolled-by-hand cake balls…too sweet and too much work!), dipped into colored candy melts (and a tablespoon of Crisco!), and then coated with sprinkles or drizzled with a contrasting color. To display them, I popped a half sphere of floral foam into a round tin, covered it with white tissue paper, and then stuck on a few paper flowers (the kind made for scrapbooking or card making).

Sweet Elisabeth, thoroughly enjoying her special day!

Seventeen lovely ladies, all dolled up (and sugared up too!). My husband took one look at this photo and said “Wow, that’s a lot of little girls!”

Personally, I love homemade occasions. There is an added dimension of meaning and beauty to the day that simply can’t be found at Chuckie Cheese. It’s certainly true that it’s more work, and I’m not sure I even saved much money, but there’s just something about making the house sparkle, pulling out special dishes, putting on music, arranging flowers, and setting things up “just so” for guests that satisfies something deep inside my mommy-heart. Watching Elisabeth flutter between the basket of favors, the antique ironing board which served as a buffet for the cupcakes and cake pops, and the “spa” stations, taking a moment here and there to glance up at the lovely decorations, her eyes sparkling with expectation, made every minute of preparation worth it.

Note about cake pops: I found this ragingly popular little treat to have a steep learning curve. I spent a lot of time researching the process and decorating ideas online and in a couple of books. I don’t plan to do a step-by-step blog entry on how to make cake pops, but I will share a few key tips. If you use a cake pop baking pan or appliance, make the cake batter more dense by adding an extra egg, a box of instant pudding mix, and by switching out the cup of water for 3/4 cup of milk. When placing sticks into the cake balls, dip them first into melted candy. Use a double boiler to melt candy or chocolate, a moderately small one where the top pan can be easily tilted for dipping. Mix in Crisco, about a teaspoon at a time, until the consistency is runny enough to easily drizzle but thick enough to coat. Do not use white chocolate, it is fussy and clumps easily. If you color white (vanilla) candy melts, use oil based candy coloring. Freeze pops for at least 10 minutes before decorating. When coating the pop, cover a little of the top of the stick so pop will remain secure when candy hardens. Tap stick gently against edge of pan to shake off excess candy while twirling to keep coating even. If applying decoration, allow coating to harden for a minute or so first so that the weight of the sprinkles, etc. don’t drag the coating off. A cake pop decorating stand (or two) can be very useful to allow pops to harden completely (Wilton makes a sturdy and inexpensive one). The best book I found for decorating ideas and clear instructions was “Crazy for Cake Pops” by Molly Bakes. And yes. Bakes is her actual last name. Her book was the best because it lists sources and websites for all supplies and decorations, has the best variety of shapes and styles, and had beautiful pictures for every idea listed.

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A friend asked me recently what kinds of gifts I seek out for my children for Christmas. And while such a list will have much in common with my recent post of Homeschooling with Sensory Integration Issues, I thought it would be fun to toss out there.

Especially where my children are concerned, I approach gift giving with intention and purpose. The season’s popular and trendy plastic toys rarely have any bearing on my selections. Throughout the year, I collect such treasures as will serve to open their eyes to beauty and wonder, feed their minds, and cause their hearts and souls to blossom. Perhaps you have never thought a Christmas gift could serve such a high purpose, but it can! By keeping to such a high standard, I attempt to place before my children all that is bright and lovely, good and delightful, thought-provoking and excellent, for the purpose of raising intelligent and imaginative young men and women who are rich in soul and well equipped to proclaim the gospel to a dark world.

Necessary but Novel

Clothing: Perhaps something a little nicer or less “necessary” than my typical purchases throughout the year. A pretty dress for the girls, fun shoes or slippers, cozy fleece sweatshirts for the boys, fuzzy bathrobes, sweaters, and of course outerwear such as coats, snowsuits, boots, hats, mittens, scarves, and gloves.

School Supplies: Pencils, pens, erasers, pencil cases, fresh notebooks…and again, maybe nicer or more novel than our August run to Wal-Mart.

Educational but Exciting

Books: Of course! Books always feature prominently under our tree. We purchase books throughout the year, but Christmas selections tend to be special…beautifully illustrated picture books, sets of a classic series, bright and fun books on a subject such as science or history. Even the baby gets a classic board book or two! A child’s first Bible makes an excellent gift. For an older child, a study Bible or commentary might be appropriate.

Art and Craft Supplies: Stockings bulge with sets of quality colored pencils and drawing pencils, packages of modeling clay, cray pas, crayons and chalk. And for under the tree? Sketchpads, easels and rolls of paper, paint sets, smocks, bead sets, mosaic kits, model magic, sewing kits, and various craft kits.

Music and Musical Instruments: CD’s! We try to seek out wonderful and inspiring music for our children to listen to…classical, folk music, scripture songs, and learning songs are favorites.¬† “Band Box” sets (for example, a drum with shakers, bells, rhythm sticks, and a triangle), an acoustic or electric guitar, sheet music, a harmonica, and any range of real instruments that a child might take interest in, though such a purchase tends to be a major one and is less likely to be something we choose as a Christmas gift.

Educational Toys and Supplies: Science kits, Geosafari, educational software, flashcards and activity cards, puzzle and activity books (mazes, word search, crossword, paper airplanes), instructional books and kits (how to draw, how to do oragami, cookbooks, historical paper dolls),¬† board games, magnet sets, a microscope or telescope, and a host of various toys and gifts that could fall under the banner of “learning”. What we tend to avoid from this category: toys that light up or make lots of crazy and artificial-sounding noises (or really that require batteries at all).

Museum Memberships: Science Museums, Art Museums, Living History Museums, Children’s Museums…a gift the whole family can enjoy throughout the year! These are also great to hint at to family members who might be looking to give your whole family a special gift instead of an individual gift for each person.

Playful and Practical

Classic Toys: Wooden building blocks, wooden train sets, dolls and doll clothes (American Girl is admittedly a favorite in our house. Barbie is…ahem…simply not), pull-toys and other classic baby toys for the tiniest around the tree, a dollhouse with furniture and people, tinker toys and lincoln logs, a kaleidoscope, etch a sketch, magnadoodle, marbles, matchbox cars, trucks, pick up sticks, kites.

Imaginative Play: Dress up clothes, play kitchens (we have selected durable wood over garish plastic), play food (again, we try to choose delightful cloth and wood items over plastic, though well-made plastic¬† fruits or vegetables have certainly made their way into the mix), play dishes (I found a wonderful set at IKEA made from real stoneware), magnetic dress-up dolls, doctor’s kits, playmobil and lego sets (examples of plastic toys that are freely welcomed in our home!), a child-size table and chairs, erector sets and other building sets (one of my boys particularly likes the sets with lots of parts and bolts and screws with clear, comprehensible instructions for making multiple creations).

Staying Active: Sports equipment such as balls and gloves, bikes and scooters, and skates.

Real-Life Stuff: Tool sets, cooking utensils and equipment, items for a teen girl’s “hope chest”…all excellent examples of gifts that aren’t “toys” but are real and useful and yet still thoroughly fun to receive as a gift.

Plugged In

Electronics: MP3 players, watches, clock radios and cd players, digital cameras and walkie-talkies are all electronics that have found a place under our tree. As children get older (perhaps much older!), gifts such as a new cell phone or laptop may become appropriate.

Movies: We love to watch movies as a family and are always on the lookout for quality, family-friendly films that are well-produced and contain good acting. We don’t care for sappy or overly-silly movies. Movies are an intensely visual and stimulating experience…so when I sit my kids down in front of that screen, I am intentional about what they are viewing. Some of our favorites are films where a literary classic is brought to life, such as an Austen or Dickens novels. Do we let our children watch these films even though children aren’t the target audience? Absolutely! Think outside the box when it comes to what your children watch, and you will train their tastes and appetites for movie-watching for a lifetime! However, gifts of DVDs under the tree tend to be more geared towards children. Favorites? The Narnia Series, Anne of Green Gables, Babe, Nim’s Island, Dolphin Tale, Charlotte’s Web (live action version), Stuart Little, and Wind in the Willows.

Is this list comprehensive? No. Does this mean I’ve never bought a cheaply made plastic toy for my children? No, of course not. But I think you get the idea, and I hope this list either encourages you to keep giving your children gifts of quality, beauty and usefulness, or inspires you to begin! A don’t think that making such choices necessitates spending a lot. I can promise you that it doesn’t! Some tips for keeping cost down:

Shop throughout the year. Keep a big opaque bin or box away from where your children will nose through it and place gifts in it whenever you happen to find them, even if it’s the day after Christmas!

Shop thrift shops and consignment stores.

Look for clearance and sale items.

and…most importantly…

GIVE. THEM. LESS. STUFF! Keep the message of Christmas clear by resisting the urge to obscure it with piles of stuff, much of which is likely to break before the following year’s Christmas season begins. They might not like it at first, but you will be training their hearts to be satisfied with less, to appreciate what is of real value and beauty, and to keep Jesus the focus of your family’s celebration of the season.

Happy Giving!

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I love lists…

And you say “oh, yes, so do I!”

No, really, I love them. Making them, putting them up, checking them off, staring at them, reading them, looking at other people’s lists…ad nauseum.

I have ordered a new homeschooling curriculum and have been spending some time online trying to wrap my mind around how to jump in and start using it. As I have done this, I have encountered many helpful websites. And on many of those helpful websites, I have found…yes! Lists!

Which got me to thinking about some of my own lists of “favorites” or “hints and tips”…and, since every blogger needs a muse, I figured it made for a good idea for a new series. A series of lists.

Here’s my first:

Our Top Favorite Lunches

(keeping in mind that we adhere fairly closely to the Feingold Diet!)

 

1. Bean Burritos

We make these in the George Foreman grill with removable plates, in the omelette plates. You could also use a panini press, a toaster oven, or a skillet. We keep it simple, filling flour tortillas with rinsed black beans and a couple tablespoons of shredded cheese. I use a small dab of butter in the plates for the first batch. You could add to this, sky’s the limit: chopped onions, herbs and spices, salsa, veggies, etc. Serve plain or garnish with sour cream.

2. Bagels and Cream Cheese

Always a favorite. We use sprouted wheat bagels…take your pick of a plethora of flavors and styles, both of bagels and cream cheeses! My children occasionally like to have butter or peanut butter on theirs instead.

3. Crackers, Cheese, and Fruit

Endless possibilities here. We have one brand of crackers that we use regularly because of dietary restrictions, but the availability of so many textures and flavors, and different varieties of cheeses, makes this a go-to lunch that they may never tire of.

4. Boxed Macaroni and Cheese

We use Annie’s…the purple box. My children prefer my baked version, but I’m so thankful to have at least one “prepackaged” lunch option to use with a special diet! Other “pasta” related lunch ideas that have graced our table are: buttered egg noodles, pasta and spaghetti sauce, and chicken alfredo.

5. Sandwiches

Another category with limitless combinations…breads, fillings, condiments. It’s fun to get creative here! My children recently had a sandwich made out of leftover waffles and cream cheese…they loved it! Anything goes here, from the old standby of PBJ to a special treat of tea-time finger sandwiches or a burger off the grill.

6. Baked Potatoes

A comforting hot lunch for a chilly day. We have done potato skins with bacon and cheese, broccoli and cheese potatoes, and I hear a popular favorite out there is to top ’em with chicken curry! My mother-in-law will make a meal of potatoes for my kids and put out whatever she can dig up in the fridge…they have topped their potatoes with shredded carrots, chopped green onion, even celery! My tip: spread the potato with a little butter and some salt, regardless of topping, with the possible exception of chili and cheese.

7. Soup

From a can or grandmother’s recipe, another steamy meal to take away the chill. Leftover soup from last night’s dinner can make a hot lunch a quick and easy possibility! Our favorites include my recipe for Loaded Potato Soup, my mother’s Vegetable Beef Soup that she learned to make from her mother, White Chicken Chili, and Middle Eastern Lentil Soup. Add a piece of crusty bread to make it just perfect!

8. Eggs “and”…

Toast. Bacon. Fruit. Muffins. Top ’em with cheese and chopped tomato, or go all out and make a full omelette. I tend to whip up a large skillet of scrambled eggs and serve them with buttered toast and a piece of fruit. A good lunch for little Hobbits.

9. Pancakes or Waffles

Another breakfast option that finds it’s way to our luncheon table. I will sometimes make these if we have a group of kids over for lunch…always a crowd-pleaser. Plain or dressed up with fruit, nuts, and/or chocolate chips, topped with syrup, whipped cream, fruit compote or preserves…another basic idea that can be tweaked to offer a new and fun meal experience. My favorite? Pancakes with pecans, chocolate chips, and dried cherries, topped with fresh whipped cream. Mmmm…

10. “Snack Lunch”

This is one of my kids’ favorites and makes a frequent appearance in various forms at our table. Popcorn, buttered rolls, graham crackers, veggie sticks, rolls of lunchmeat, string cheese, cheese slices…you name it. And always a piece of fruit. It takes me all of three minutes to line up paper plates and toss on two graham crackers, a string cheese, and an apple or a clementine, but you would have thought I’d offered Happy Meals all around, they get so excited! Individual yogurts would be good here, too.

11. Pizza

I make my own. My children like Veggie Pizza with Garlic Oil, Carmelized Onion with Goat Cheese, and Loaded Baked Potato Pizza. However, at lunch time when every minute is at a premium, it’s a safe bet that our favorite cheese pizza with tomato sauce will be dished up, piping hot! Grab some store bought dough or make your own, top with pizza sauce or marinara sauce, add a layer of grated cheeses (I mix parmesan, cheddar and mozzerella), and sprinkle with a dash of salt on top. Bake at 500 degrees for 10 minutes for a traditional or thin crust, lower the temp and bake an extra couple minutes for a deep dish pizza pie!

12. Leftovers

Whatever we had for dinner the night before. Bean and Rice Casserole, Chicken Pot Pie, a pasta dish, etc. Especially after holidays or a party, we tend to pull out what’s in the fridge, heat it on up, and enjoy it a second time.

 

What are some of your favorite lunches??

 

 

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Elisabeth at Old Sturbridge Village when my brother and his girlfriend paid us a visit…

 

Nine years. I can’t believe it. My Elisabeth Grace.

I was one of those young mothers. Reading voraciously all about the “right” way to raise a child. Stacks of books on Christian motherhood and “wise” parenting. Internet and magazine articles on infant health and development, organic baby food, toys that stimulate brain activity, baby-proofing. By the second trimester I was already conducting in-depth researching on homeschooling and basically had my little “bun-in-the-oven’s” life mapped out for him or her.

I thought I knew “What to Expect”. I thought I knew what this child would be like.

Elisabeth has proved to be a delightful (though at times challenging!) surprise. She doesn’t think or reason like I do. She doesn’t (always) like the same colors or clothes or movies or books that I like. She is “Other”.

And this is a good thing.

Her father understands her. They are most shockingly similar to one another, and when I push myself past my fog of selfishness, my desire to have a “mini-me” for a firstborn daughter, I can recognize the delight that this girl brings to her Daddy, as well as to so many others that she has formed close friendships with.

Elisabeth loves to write long letters to friends. She has pen pals all over the country, from California to Colorado, Indiana to Virginia. She loves to read cookbooks, taking stacks of “grown-up” culinary tomes up to her top bunk and pouring over them with an appetite…literally. This willowy bean-pole of a girl loves to cook…and eat! She can pack it away better than just about anyone in the family, going forkful to forkful with her Dad on family feast days. Wish I knew her secret!

She loves the domestic arts. Sewing, needlework, scrapbooking, gardening, taking care of babies. She is a lovely little homemaker in training and many days I catch a glimmer of the amazing woman she will become.

Today is her day. She has requested special meals and snacks, which will keep me in and out of the kitchen all day. Here is a picture of her birthday breakfast…Bacon Egg and Cheese Bagels, Fruit, Tea and Cupcakes (thank you Grammie for the princess cupcake kit!).


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