Last Day of School

We officially kicked off summer with Annie and Jack’s last day of preschool in June and Annie’s class party at a park. We surprised them afterwards with ice cream for lunch at our favorite ice cream shop to celebrate a job well done.

The party was both fun and just as nuts as you’d expect when 40 or so preschoolers and their little siblings gather in one place (the morning and afternoon special ed and Spanish-speaking classes all celebrated together).

Mrs. G!

We’d never planned on public school for our kids but ended up there via a roundabout course for Annie. Her special ed classroom, teacher, and district this year were true gifts, rare even in the special ed world. We couldn’t have imagined a better learning environment for her. She attended class in a simple, peaceful room with a near-magical teacher, two great aides, and just 6-8 special needs students. On most days one or more therapists for speech, occupational therapy, or physical therapy also worked in the room. The teacher firmly believed in emphasizing play and outdoor time over worksheets and formal academics (as do we) and Annie grew by leaps and bounds. The school bent over backwards to accommodate our concerns and desires as parents. She only went for half days four mornings a week, the bus picked her up from our driveway, and her class spent lots of time integrated with the small classroom for native Spanish speakers next door so they had typically-developing role models. We couldn’t have imagined a better year for her than with this particular teacher in this particular program with this particular class. It also gave us a small community of parents and kids where our family was “normal.” Not only did Mrs. G shower our daughter with extravagant love but she constantly encouraged our family throughout the year. Praise God for the Mrs. G’s of this world!

Jack did preschool at home via the same battered Alphaphonics book my Mom used to teach me, huge library lists (especially the “Our Favorite Picture Books for….” monthly recommendations on Read Aloud Revival), lots of outdoor play, work at home, and the wonderful hands-on curriculum A Year of Playing Skillfully. We take a Charlotte Mason-ish approach with stacks of quality books. He loved his park district basketball class in the fall and enjoyed plenty of play with neighborhood kids and the kids at church. He especially loved any play that involved sensory work for his hands: tracing in shaving cream, water beads, making playdough, sculpting clay, painting, making arctic “snow”, etc. Jenny and Josie joined in on much of the preschool play though we don’t worry about any academics at their age.

In the fall we’ll attempt a new Special Ed kindergarten class for Annie, and, hopefully, a homeschool co-op for Jack. The first one we’d chosen disbanded for the year so we’re still figuring out our options. One of the nice things about living in this generation is that educational choices are flexible. When I was being homeschooled there was very much a “homeschoolers vs. the world” mentality, in large part because “the world” was constantly attacking homeschoolers and their right to educate their children as they saw fit. You were A Home Schooler, or A Public Schooler, or a Private Schooler and most viewed crossover between camps with disapproval. Decades later and homeschooling is relatively normal and familiar. In our family, and many I know, attitudes toward education are flexible. Homeschooling may be ideal for all kids one year. In the next year, private school or public school or a co-op may best suit the children’s and family’s needs. We are lucky to have options!

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Zoo!

A relative hosted a wonderful party at the zoo this month, complete with VIP passes (which the kids thought were very cool) and crowd-free after-hours access to animals.

Clearly this bear knows the right way to handle hot weather. We were jealous.

We arrived early to look at the rhinos, primates, and bears with family, then headed over to the party for up-close encounters with an anteater, giant tortoise, hawk, and parakeets.

You can just spot some reindeer antlers in the upper left corner of the picture. They were terrified of the tortoise and stared in bug-eyed horror as the Attack Rock crept toward them before bolting to safety.

Everyone loved feeding the parakeets. The zoo provides feed sticks and the birds swoop down in flocks for dinner. We were especially proud of Annie who had to leave with Grandma because she found the noise overwhelming, but pushed through her fear and came back in to try again while I carried her. By the end she’d relaxed enough to enjoy it and stand on her own.

After interacting with the animals everyone rode the zoo tram over to dinner, then headed to the dessert tables and took a couple of rides on the carousel.

As we left The Man and I talked about how far our family has come. We tried to attend this event two years ago but a quadruple meltdown sent us home before the party even started. Special needs don’t just disappear. However, the kids’ overall maturity and our ability to equip them for stressful situations is so much greater now! With preparation we can do a big multi-step event like this as a family. We can stay out past the kids’ bedtimes once in a while. We’ve also learned a lot more about special needs and supporting our kids. Little things like reviewing the schedule, bringing a stroller as a quiet retreat (even when a child is “too big”), carrying a kid to encounter something new and unnerving, choosing to skip some available activities, or stepping away from the loud dining table to eat alone near white noise can head off meltdowns or sensory overload before they even start.

We came home exhausted, but are already looking forward to next year!

New Books Finished in 2016

Catchup post – since I skipped summing up the year between my 2015 and 2017 book posts I thought I’d jump back and fill in the blank. I’m a list checker and the gap was irritating me ;). In 2016 I read 41 new-to-me books – very low for me. We started the year with kids who were 3, 3, 1, and a baby and the first half of the year was intense. We house-hunted and purchased a home in another state, prepped our home for market, went through the process of showings and closings, prepared to move cross-country, had some really nasty illnesses, temporarily lived in a hotel, moved cross country, had some more awful illnesses, weathered a major spike in special needs issues, and gradually settled into our new home. It was good year, but certainly not a relaxing one for lots of deep reading. I’ve marked favorites in each category in bold.

CLASSICS

  • Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

FICTION

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson
  • The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
  • The Revolving Door of Life (44 Scotland Street series) by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • Father Elijah by Michael D O’Brien

NONFICTION

  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic by Ruth Reichl
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Sally and Nathan Clarkson
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
  • Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow by Gregory Keck and Regina M Kupecky
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
  • My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas
  • Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

CHRISTIAN

  • Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim’s Journey to Christ by Nabeel Qureshi
  • Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
  • Give Me This Mountain by Dr. Helen Roseveare

MYSTERIES

  • A Great Reckoning (Inspector Gamache Series) by Louise Penny
  • Firestorm by Nevada Barr
  • Liverty Falling by Nevada Barr
  • Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr
  • A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
  • All Shall Be Well by Deborah Crombie
  • Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie
  • Mourn Not Your Dead by Deborah Crombie
  • Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

CHILDREN’S/YOUTH (READ-ALOUDS MARKED WITH AN ASTERISK)

  • All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
  • Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke*
  • Hooray for Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke*
  • Good Luck Anna Hibicus by Atinuke*
  • Have Fun Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke*
  • Stuart Little by E.B. White*
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson
  • North or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson
  • The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary*
  • Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House #1) by Mary Pope Osborne*

(There were other read-alouds, but they weren’t new to me so they’re not on this new books list)

 

New Books Read in 2017

I’ve tracked my reading since I was 15. In my teens and early twenties I wrote all new titles (re-reads and picture books don’t count) in a small blue notebook. These days I use Pinterest and write an end-of-year summary. I missed summarizing last year’s reading here. This year’s total is 78 books, up significantly since our days of four kids aged two and under! While the exact number of books read isn’t significant it’s a good indicator of a balanced life for me with time for personal development and relaxation. This year I read fewer classics than usual, mainly because I’ve discovered so many great current reads via the What Should I Read Next podcast and the Read Aloud Revival podcast. This year’s reading tended toward lighter and fun vs. longer or more heavily theological or intellectual books. I had a few specific areas of deliberate exploration. I wanted to read more books by African diaspora authors, some Australian mystery novels, finish all the novels written by the Bronte’s that I’d yet to read, and read more (read: any) poetry than I have in recent years. Mysteries made up a solid chunk of the reading, as did memoirs and autobiographies. I also read a lot of chapter books out loud to the kids, but only counted them if they were new to me. I’ve put my favorites at the top of each category in bold, and a few notations as applicable when a book crossed categories or met one of those sub-goals. If I strongly disliked a book I’ve noted that as well.

CLASSICS

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (African American)
  • Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (DISLIKED. Oh my word…all THAT for THAT ENDING? I don’t feel bad about all-caps loathing because the author is long-dead.)

POETRY

  • What Work Is by Philip Levine
  • The Last Shift by Philip Levine

NONFICTION 

  • The Connected Child by Purvis and Cross (truly outstanding if you’re an adoptive, foster, or special needs parent)
  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir in Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen
  • Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini
  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
  • Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
  • Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet (an unusual book, but a fun time machine)
  • Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography by Stan & Jan Berenstain (like Peet’s book, a visual and imaginative treat)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (African American)
  • A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell
  • At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider
  • A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
  • The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • Earthly Pleasures: Tales from a Biologists Garden by Roger B. Swain
  • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
  • Say Goodbye to Survival Mode by Crystal Paine
  • How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind by Dana K. White
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
  • Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson (Disliked. I thought this was very weak for a Bryson book. Interaction with locals is often the highlight of a travel book but this was just an extremely crass litany of what he ate, where he stayed, and how the weather behaved)

FICTION

  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
  • The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyase (African)
  • The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  • The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
  • The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (African American)
  • The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

MYSTERIES

  • A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders 
  • The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
  • The Likeness by Tana French
  • The Dry by Jane Harper (Australian)
  • A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders
  • A Cast of Vultures by Judith Flanders
  • Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie
  • Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series)
  • The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (Australian)
  • A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (African/African-Australian)
  • Kissed a Sad Goodbye by Deborah Crombie
  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King

CHRISTIAN

  • The Life-Giving Home by Sally and Sarah Clarkson
  • He Gave Us a Valley by Dr. Helen Roseveare
  • Catholics and Protestants by Peter Kreeft
  • One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (Disliked. If you like Voskamp’s blog writing – sort of stream-of-consciousness, ethereal, gushy – you’ll like this. However, I really have to grit my teeth for that kind of writing so it was a slog for me. I did really like individual parts and her theme of thankfulness and awareness of God’s gifts)

YOUTH NOVELS

  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson
  • Dandelion Fire by N.D. Wilson
  • The Chestnut King by N.D. Wilson
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood (listen to the audiobook, the narrator is fabulous and we laughed so hard we cried. Highly highly recommended. The next two books in the series are fun but not as strong)
  • Half Magic by Edward Eager
  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (African American)
  • Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood
  • Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (African American)

CHAPTER BOOKS READ TO THE KIDS

  • Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat
  • Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
  • When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
  • Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
  • A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

The following books don’t count toward the total. They were read-alouds to the kids (mainly the twins) but either I’d read them in the past or in the case of a couple, I thought they were too short to count toward this list even if they were chapter books. It’s still fun to record what we read together though:

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (this is the first book I remember my Mom reading aloud to me. I loved it then and it’s special to have my kids, especially our son, fall head over heels in love with it now.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
  • Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (The Man read this one and they LOVED it)
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo (this one’s so simple even the toddlers loved it)
  • Pirates Past Noon (Magic Tree House #4) by Mary Pope Osborne (The kids like this series…I find it almost unbearable to read aloud)
  • Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (I don’t have a date so it’s possible we finished this in late 2016, not 2017)

 

Jenny Turns Three

Jenny turned three earlier this month. Barnes & Noble sent her a coupon for a free birthday cupcake so we kicked off her celebration early with a mother-daughter trip to the bookstore. She was a little bewildered at first but warmed up to the idea after her first bite of chocolate cupcake. Reading (and her shoes) are her great loves so we gulped down stacks of books in the children’s area along with time at the train table. She basked in the undivided attention and beamed the whole time.

In our house the birthday kid picks the food for the day and wakes up to a decorated dining room. We started her actual birthday with donuts for breakfast plus squeezie packs of applesauce. Individually packaged anything is a big treat around here because Mom and Dad are cheap! After breakfast we hit a favorite park to burn off all that sugar energy.

We ordered pizza for lunch on the way home, and at the last minute called my Mom and asked if she wanted to stop by for lunch with us. Annie does not do well with crazy days or big events but we were glad Grandma could stop in for an hour to make things a little bit extra special. Jenny loves Thomas the Train so we had Thomas plates and some of our trains out on the table for decorations. Easy-peasy. Our oven’s been on the blink so the cake came from a local French bakery. It was fabulous. I hope our oven breaks again for the next birthday to give me an excuse! Unlike last year, when she couldn’t yet chew, she knew exactly what to do with her cake and ice cream this time!

Jenny loved her gifts – her new schoolbus and Daniel Tiger trolley were big hits. This is the first time we’ve done party favors. We’d hoped they would distract the siblings from the birthday kid’s toys but not surprisingly, since they’re only four, four, and one, they were hard to pull away. We eventually shooed them up to nap to give Jenny a little predator-free time with her new toys before bed.

After the kids’ naps, afternoon snack, and a little time playing in the yard we took a long family walk. The Man and I actually had a dinner to attend that night (we forgot that date was Jenny’s birthday when we penciled it into the calendar) but it’s just as well since at that point all four kids had taken in just about all the birthday excitement they could handle.

We left a screen-less window open during our walk and came back to a surprise: a chickadee in the house.

A few days after Jenny’s birthday some relatives were able to meet up at a local ice cream shop for a last-minute low-key family party. It was the simplest party – singing Happy Birthday and eating ice cream. Completely relaxing and fun. The kids ran around in the warm weather, the adults got to talk, and who doesn’t love ice cream? It’s an ideal birthday celebration for Annie to attend, too, as she (and her parents) didn’t have to deal with the stress of gifts. She has a hard time even when the gifts are for her. Skipping them at Jenny’s party let all of us relax.

We loved our time in the Army, but after so many years away it’s a treat to have so much family nearby – the Man’s dad and step-mom, his sisters, two sets of my grandparents, my parents, and one of my brother’s with his wife and son all live with an hour and a half of our home. We even get to see the Man’s mom from Canada more frequently since she’s only one flight away now instead of an extended trip with two flights and layover. The Man’s side of the family was too busy with school and work to be able to meet up during Jenny’s birthday week (his own twin sisters had their birthday that week too) but it’s still great to have them close enough for afternoon visits, holidays, or quick weekend trips.

Our sweet Jenny had a great birthday week. What a joy this kid is! We’ve loved watching her growth and emerging personality this year. She is the easiest, sweetest, most happy-go-lucky kid and completely skipped the terrible twos. We often joke that it’s a good thing she wasn’t our first child; we’d have thought we were wonderful parents, not realizing that if you’ve had one child you’ve…had one child. I think the results of parenting are about 25% parenting effort and 75% whatever personality your kid popped out of the womb with! This year Jenny has progressed from a very quiet laid-back baby into a more boisterously cheerful toddler with a zany personality. She likes to crack jokes and run in circles around the house singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” at the top of her lungs. I could count her tantrums on one hand. While she’s a sinner like the rest of us and sometimes tries to snatch a sibling’s toy she’s also incredibly kind and tender-hearted. When she sees a sibling crying she’ll often take off like a shot and return with their favorite toy. She’ll hug and pat her baby sister when she’s upset (a gesture the baby sister does not always appreciate!) and is quick to share. She’s very sensitive to other’s emotional distress – even a sad page in a picture book will make her cry or bury her face. She’s also very sensitive to correction from us and will sometimes burst into tears when we tell her “no” – not because she’s mad, but because she’s sad to have displeased us. Her favorite things on earth are her shoes and reading books, closely followed by cars, bikes and strollers, slides and swings, puzzles, baby dolls, and Daniel Tiger. She graduated from feeding therapy two months ago. After almost three years of therapy she can finally eat normal foods and drink from a cup like the rest of the family. That was her last therapy, and she’s otherwise very healthy and completely typical for her adjusted age – pretty amazing for a kid born 3.5 months early! She’s started hiking on her own legs a lot this year and is incredibly wiry and strong. She’ll do pullups on the park equipment for fun, and is constantly climbing up the fridge or onto the counter to get at the (forbidden sink) or swinging from the underside of the table. We call her the tree frog. She’s a snuggler and especially loves cuddling in on my lap with Josie for the little girls’ end of day story time. She loves playing with her big brother and sister, especially riding bikes around the house with Jack and reading books or singing with Annie. She’s highly social after an initial burst of shyness and often makes friends at the playground and charms guests. What a gift this sweet girl is to all who know her!

 

Campfire Nights

The Man often comes up with fun variations on our regular routine. I can get into “systems mode” where I keep doing things the same way just because change sounds exhausting. Habits are helpful, but only when they don’t keep our family from better things. Case in point, The Man came home from the grocery store a couple of weeks ago with hot dogs and fixings and suggested we let the kids roast hot dogs over a campfire for dinner. My internal monologue went “Gah! It’s so much extra work! We have to haul everything outdoors. We have to build a fire. The kids always try to climb into the fire so it’s stressful for the parents. They’ll smell smoky and need baths. I just want to have a routine dinner and put the kids to bed so I can get some rest!” Externally I said “Okay.” He was right, of course. The kids were over the moon with joy, and we all had a great time. They’ve matured a great deal since last fall, so we did not spend the entire time chasing children off the edges of our fire pit.

After dinner we invited our next door neighbors over for s’mores. Like us they are Christians, have four kids and do a mix of private school and homeschooling. We love chatting with the parents. Their teenage son mows our lawn, their teenage daughter sometimes babysits for us, and their younger two happen to be adopted just like our kids. The twins worship the ground they walk on. Jack (4) frequently tells us that he will marry their youngest daughter when he grows up.

Asking folks over for s’mores by the campfire is my favorite form of hosting friends. There’s no advance tidying, no food to prep, and after you gather up the chocolate wrappers and put away the chairs cleanup is done. My other favorite easy hosting option is breakfast or brunch. We stick with a simple meal like waffles cooked at the table, fruit salad, and bacon or sausage cooked in the oven (switched to eggs when we had Muslim friends over, of course!). Baked french toast would be another great option. Our kids are often in their best moods in the morning, and everyone likes breakfast foods. In addition, guests don’t have to wait around for an hour and a half when we transition straight from dinner to bedtimes for cranky little kids. Welcoming a mom for tea or coffee is another easy one. This summer we’d like to make a big batch of lemonade and cookies or watermelon and just have neighbors over to chat on the porch. What are your favorite simple ways to be hospitable without over-complicating things?

We repeated the meal a week later and plan to continue the fun over the summer. We’d like to add in other campfire cooking options like dutch oven/foil packet meals or bratwurst.

Back at the Mound

My Mom watched the kids last week so we could get out for a hiking date. We love to take our kids hiking but sometimes it’s nice to go at an adult pace without stops for every pebble, leaf, and mud puddle! The woods are a spring fairyland right now. We stopped for coffee in the quiet little farm town near our home on the way back. It reminded us of our early married days in San Antonio, TX when we’d often leave first thing in the morning, drive into the Texas Hill Country, eat a picnic lunch somewhere on the trail, then meander back home in time for dinner and evening reading or a movie.