Monday, March 31, 2014

Weekly Book Post: Mindful Parenting and How to Live in the World


Last week I read two more books that encouraged mindful living: Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race and How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy by Hugh Prather.

The first book is a mix of information on brain research and psychology, recommendations for common stressors, and then techniques and exercises for mindfulness suitable for various different ages.  I found it to be a reasonable, "middle path" in its recommendations, and to be practical and easy to understand.

A quote from the book:

But there is only so much you can control from the outside.  No matter where you are, there will always be stressors, and if you don't have the tools on the inside to manage the stressors in your life, your external environment becomes irrelevant.

Prather's book is a meditation on choosing happiness through mindfulness and gradual enlightenment.  It is about happiness from within, not dependent on external circumstances.  I found parts of the book very thought-provoking, and a few practical ideas for keeping my focus on my intention throughout the day.

A quote from the book:

True happiness is flexible because it is geared to an inner state that can be controlled and not to the world, which never can be.  There will always be interruptions, and this must become unimportant.

Both have been good resources for my continued journey to a more enlightened and mindful inner self.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A schedule/organization that is working in our homeschool (for now!)


Since I've been on sabbatical from my work, our homeschooling has had enough time to mushroom until it is now taking up most of my day.  Obviously this cannot be sustained once I go back to work (office hours, meetings, etc!), but I think we have been laying some good groundwork for building better habits:

1.  Assignment sheets, adjusted weekly as necessary, and the habit of looking to their sheet to see what they will do, and highlighting it when they are done.

2.  Weekly supply lists for me.  I can't tell you how many times we have sat down to do a science experiment and then had to stop when I realized I needed grape juice or something that I didn't have.

3.  Piles.  When I set out the books the night before in piles (one for each child and one that is the stuff they do together), there is no time wasted trying to find the math book the next morning.


4.  Themed Days of the Week.  Mathematical Monday, Traveling Tuesday, Wild Card Wednesday, Thrifty Thursday, and Fine Arts Friday - something fun and different each day of the week, and realizing that we can't do Everything Everyday - there is Just Too Much To Learn!  We go crazy and never have time to engage with anything In Depth.

These things are working well for us, right now, and I hope they will be helpful as we move forward into new routines and schedules.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Our Spanish Program


We have been doing Spanish for our foreign language for several years, but haven't really made much progress.  For what it's worth to others, here are the things we have tried:

  • I did Sonrisa Spanish with the kids when they were very young, and I liked their preschool level program very much. The lesson plans are fun and engaging, but they are definitely meant for a teacher who is more fluent in Spanish than my 3 quarters of college spanish more than 15 years ago made me.  Moving forward into elementary school, I knew I needed more help.
  • Next we tried Rosetta Stone.  It's stirling reputation gave me high hopes, but right away it was clearly too difficult for my daughter.  So I switched her over to Hooked on Spanish. Made by the Hooked on Phonics folks, it blends computer lessons, readers, flashcards, and some simple games to play.  It worked well for my daughter, meaning that she had fun and learned a few basic Spanish words.
  • Meanwhile, I kept my son doing Rosetta Stone.  I soooo wanted that to be the answer for us: all-inclusive, self-paced, independent, with a good reputation.  If I could just plug my kids in to the computer how easy would that make my job?  But my son didn't enjoy it, and it didn't seem to be transferable learning - when we tried to do a bit of Spanish as a family he just froze up and wouldn't even try to speak at all, or said he didn't know the words (even the ones I knew he was doing in Rosetta Stone).  So, that wasn't working for us.
  • We are doing Puertas Abiertas with both kids now.  It is a complete program with video lessons, worksheets, audio exercises, and a very easy to follow facilitator's guide that lets me give instructions in spanish even with my beginners level spanish.  I love it!  Unfortunately, there is only one level of this program, so as soon as we finish this we are back on the hunt for another program that will work for us, but for now ... this is a good one.

What have you used?  Any good ideas for the next steps for us?  What about French?  My son wants to study French, too.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Happy Spring!


Happy First Day of Spring to you all!  I am soooo glad to welcome Spring back into my life.  The sun, the green, the flowers, the birds, the bees, the frogs are all most welcome.  The flies and fleas are less welcome but unavoidable and so while I do not roll out the welcome mat and sing for them, I am going to try and accept their place in the interdependent web of life.

We had a lovely nature walk earlier this week, and saw many signs of spring:



Now we have a lovely sunny day here (the forecast may say 50% chance of rain, but I choose to ignore that), and other than practicing musical instruments I am going to have the kids do their whole school day outdoors working in the garden.

Yay for Spring!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Weekly Book Post: Hands Free Mama

I've just read Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters by Rachel Macy Stafford.  There is also a blog of that name.  I absolutely recommend the book to folks like me, that is to say to moms who are prone to taking on too much and trying to be too "perfect".

But first, I had a few immediate reactions to some aspects of the book that might trouble some readers:

  1. The author is very clear that she believes in God and is comfortable using language such as "God-given talents", or "what God wants from me".  I know many readers who are put off by any mention of religious language in a book like this, but I would note here that Stafford's mentions of God are always personal and do not play into her advice to others.
  2. This is also pretty clearly a story of privilege.  Obviously, only some moms have the option of putting everything else to the side to focus on their kids.  If the phone and the To Do List are for work, you probably shouldn't just forget about them or you'll soon be looking for a new job.  But, once again, I don't see Stafford trying to say her way is the only good way.  She is telling a personal story, with tips and exercises for you to use to reflect on your own personal story, but the implication isn't that we all need to live exactly as she does.
  3. And, lastly, this book is all about the Mamas, and doesn't talk too much about what Dad is doing in this picture (let alone any other possible family constellation).  As many have noted, there is a very fine line between reassuring moms that they are important as moms and leaving moms holding the bag all alone for everything that needs to be done and every sacrifice for family and children.  Some good thoughts on that issue here (long, but good) at Raising Faith.

With all that out there, now I'll say that I really, really liked this book.  I would - almost - add it to my "life-changing" shelf, but the verdict is still out on whether or not it does change my life.  But it's safe to say that it was the right book for me at the right time with the right message, and that I was deeply moved by it.

Rachel Macy Stafford starts off by describing herself during her "distracted days" as being that woman who was praised for her ability to "do it all" and took great pride in her busyness.  Then she had a moment of epiphany, or as she describes it a breakdown, and was brought to a screeching halt by the realization that she was missing something - she was missing profound connections with other human beings, she was missing the beauty of sunsets, she was missing chances to love.

As she says in the book, she was "managing life instead of living it".

So she decided to go Hands Free, and for the rest of the book she tells stories about that journey and its challenges and rewards, and gives little prompts for reflection and challenges for others to try and put this practice in effect in their own lives.

(One big practical idea she mentioned was creating a "life list", or a sort of mission statement for your own life calling, and then using that as a guideline for what to say "yes" to and what to say "no" to, in order to not get overcommitted.  I am a huge "list person", so this idea appeals to me and I'm working on my list right now.)  

The book will not appeal to everyone (see list of problems above), but if you are either a similar or a sympathetic soul to the harried do-it-all supermom of suburbia, I would put this book into your hands.

"There will never be a finish line.  But there is something far better.  Every single time I let go of distraction to grasp what really matters, I am embracing life.  And life will embrace me back."

--Rachel Macy Stafford

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Post: Too Many Books!

A tower of books and book bags!

It's been too long since I did a weekly book post, and now I have too many books to talk about.  Since I am on sabbatical from my church work, we've been dedicating a lot more time to our homeschooling and I also have more time to read whatever I want since I finished all the work up for religious educators credentialing ... and the result has been that we overwhelmed the limits on our three library cards.  I've also had to resort to always bringing the rolling cart to the library, because I pulled a muscle in my shoulder carrying all our books out one day.

Yes - I got a library related injury.  Reading can be dangerous!

Fortunately, a friend reminded me that I could get an institutional library card as a homeschooler, and that has been a huge help.  Now I can have 200 books out at a time, instead of only 150.

And we've had some good ones!

Picture Books

As my children get older, we could leave the picture books behind us, as I know many people do.  But what a loss that would be!  Picture books pack a dense punch, with the ability to fit content, lyrical poetry or prose, and amazing art all into one slim volume and one sit-down snuggle on the sofa.


We read two this week that have been getting a lot of attention and awards:

We Are Stardust and Locomotive.  They were both lovely, but Stardust was especially amazing with the best illustrations I've seen in a long time.

Reading Out Loud


We are currently reading A Dog Called Homeless as our family read aloud, and it is lovely.  Told from the perspective of a grieving and lonely child who is seeing her dead mother appear to her in the company of a real stray dog, this is a dose of magical realism and a reminder that friendship and love can transcend barriers.  The writing is deceptively simple, in a lovely reflective way.

Audio Books

We've just finished listening to The Book of Three in the car.  I had forgotten how funny that book is!  It is always good to revisit a book you read in your own childhood, now in the company of your children.

My Reading

Cloud Atlas has been occupying most of my reading time.  It is a really good book, but at times it was good in a "look at how clever/brilliant/skilled the author is" sort of way rather than in a "I'm so engrossed in this story" kind of way.  I was very impressed with it, but it took me a long time to read.  Post-modern fiction built like a stacking puzzle will do that to you!

As a brain-palatte-cleanser, I binge-read Insurgent (the 2nd book in the Divergent trilogy) in less than 12 hours.  A good and pretty straightforward action-packed young adult novel.

Meanwhile, there is a huge pile here for me to keep on reading!

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Lego Movie and Creative Non-Scripted Play


We got to see The Lego Movie, and wow - it's Awesome.  It is not just another cheesy Clutch Powers, but is instead a truly creative and fun movie with something for all ages to enjoy.  My husband and I especially appreciated the loving nod to the old 80's Legos sets, the ones we had when we were kids.

And The Lego Movie is anti-consumerist!  The bad guy is "President Business", who hates the messiness of everyone doing whatever they like and being whatever they like and changing things, and finds the solution to all that change in crazy glue, which he plans to use to freeze all of the Lego Universe into pleasing formations that will never change again!

The heroes are a rag tag bunch and one out-of-place "nobody special" generic construction worker mini-fig.  Creative building from whatever is on hand, rather than obtaining some new cool set, is what is held up by the movie.

It's perfect for all the kids who have big buckets of mixed up Legos to play with, with no script to guide how those pieces "have" to be used.

Of course, they still came out with new movie themed sets that are on the store shelves now.  My kids saw those and thought they were weird.  "That's against the whole point of the movie!" my son said.

I love it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Doing Lent as a Unitarian Universalist

The three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all have times of fasting and self-denial (Rosh Hashanah, Lent, Ramadan), and self-denial also features in Buddhism and Hinduism in different ways.  (If you want to think more about all that, try this.)

But I'm not any of those religions - I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  And UUism doesn't have a tradition of intentional self-denial or a time to intentionally re-focus your life.  Why we don't probably makes perfect sense if you look at the evolution of our traditions (part of the whole point was that both Unitarians and Universalists held up the idea that people were good, as opposed to the Calvinist ideas that are decidedly more pessimistic about human nature), but understanding why this is so doesn't change the fact that I feel drawn to some sort of fasting as a spiritual practice.  And, strictly because I come from a Christian family, if feels most authentic for me to adopt a modified practice of Lent (in other words, it would feel like cultural misappropriation to me to try and adopt a Jewish or Islamic practice, when those traditions are further from my understanding and are not present in my family).

So I will be observing Lent, starting tomorrow on the traditional Ash Wednesday.  The point of this, for me, is to practice self-denial, self-restraint, and self-control, or as Simple Mom beautifully wrote, "Say No, to Yourself". It's all about a pause to make sure that I am living the life I choose to live, in accord with the deepest callings of my heart, and not just living a life of unthinking drives.  Matt Kinsi had a nice perspective on Lent and UU's when he called this the triumph of ego over id.

I have done Lent in the past, and given up sugar, which at the time was a real addiction for me.  I wasn't sure I could do without it, and I was a cranky bear at first.  But it was liberating to realize that I did not need sugar, and that I actually felt much healthier and had a clearer mind without it.  I have a healthier relationship to sugar to this day, finding that I can partake in moderation but also can go without.

This year my husband and I will be giving up wine, and actually all forms of alcohol (with an exception for St. Patrick's day).  We will confirm to ourselves that we do not need to have a glass of wine in the evening to unwind.  We will spend this time practicing more intentionality in how we relax and how we unwind.  I'm glad we're doing it together, too, and this might be a great time to be more intentional in how we relate to one another as partners as well.

We will be donating the money we would have spent on alcohol to a clean water charity (World Water Day is in March too, and that seems like a nice coincidence).  Turning Wine into Water.

Self-denial.  Self-control.  Reflection.  Renewal.

It's all perfectly timed for this season, isn't it?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ten Things I Learned in February


I'm writing this for the link-up over at Chatting at the Sky, which you might want to go check out.  I'm intrigued by this idea of a monthly post that reflects back over lessons learned during the previous month - so let's give this a whirl!

1.  Change is really hard for me.  I'm a creature of habit and routines, as much as I also have to be adaptable and flexible in my schedule, and big lifestyle changes can just put me into a tailspin.  This isn't really a new learning, but rather a lesson that keeps coming back to slap me in the face all over again.

2.  I Love my job.  Being away from it for an extended period of time doesn't actually feel restful - it feels stressful!  I filled February with a week of angsty self-pity, a week of crazy de-cluttering and cleaning my house, and then by the last week of the month, and the 3rd for me on sabbatical, I sort of hit a stride of just living in a more relaxed way.  It's still a work in progress, though.

3.  The vagaries of February weather can either drive you crazy or you can find a way to go with the flow.  Really, it's remarkable how much the weather affects our lives, and must be constantly taken into account.  I'm also keeping an eye on the temperature and trying to guess the last frost date, because I have a rose to prune and seeds to plant.

4.  My relationship with my husband needs to be a higher priority for me, and for him.  I need to have more time with him, as adults, no kids, and it needs to be more fun than just the weekly business meeting of "what's on the calendar, who's going to do what, what issues have come up that need a decision".  It makes me super cranky when he spends all his recreational time off without me, but I am going to have to be very proactive and clear about that if I'm going to get couple time anywhere on our calendar.

5.  I learned how to take a screen shot of something I was working on, to be able to post it as a jpeg to a blog post.  It's not rocket science, but I'd never done it before.

6.  My children seem to need more sleep than they used to, and to have more trouble falling asleep at night.  I see a shift toward needing to sleep later in the morning, unless I want cranky bears.  Everything I read about youth sleep patterns tells me this is normal, however, so I just feel blessed that we have the kind of flexible life that lets me let them sleep.

7.  I found the right way for me to read poetry and integrated that into my morning routine this month.

8.  I learned some distressing things about Amazon's employment practices, and decided to try and wean myself off of purchasing everything through them.

9.  A friend pointed out to me that as a homeschooler I could get an institutional library card, letting me have 50 more books out at a time - and that has been a lifesaver!  I also realized that I need to always take a book cart on wheels with me, as a couple weeks I had so many books I hurt myself carrying them all.  The library is my favorite resource and we are reading up a storm around here!

10.  Reading Hands Free Mama, I discovered the inspiring and practical idea of a life list, and have been working on crafting my own life list.  I hope that having a sense of clear purpose will help me decide what is important and what can be a lower priority in my life.