Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making Peace with Mess

Each year on my birthday I pick a virtue to cultivate in the coming year. I take this pretty seriously. I start thinking about it about two months before the actual day and I give it some serious consideration in prayer. I start with a list and narrow it down little by little until I've found the one that feels right. For several years the virtue of Patience has made the top two and finally, this year it rose to the top of the list. The conversation I had with God in my head went something like this.

God: "I think it's time to work on Patience."
Stephanie: "That does not sound like fun."
God: "Right. But I still think you should choose it."
Stephanie (whining just a little): "Yeah, but, no offense, asking you to intentionally try my patience sounds like madness."
God: "Oh, because being impatient is working so well for you?"
Stephanie: "Touche."

I continued to pray about it and eventually came to the decision that this year would be the Year of Peace and Patience. Just before my birthday I discovered I was pregnant with baby #5. God has a sense of humour.

One of my major struggles as a mom is with mess. I am a chronic reorganizer. What can I say, my Grandma and IKEA share the same heritage. I am fascinated by the usage of space. I have a picture of a perfectly organized upright freezer I clipped from Better Homes and Gardens hanging on my kitchen bulletin board and I don't even own an upright freezer. It just calms me to look at it. The reality of my day to day life, though, is not quite as calm and organized.

It's been kind of a battle, dealing with my own feelings about cleaning and housework. There is a part of me that really wants to hold onto that idea that someday, in spite of my 5 small children, husband, father, cat and the plethora of friends who visit from day to day, my house will look like something from my House board on Pinterest. Everything perfectly placed and tidy with only strategically placed mess, a coffee cup perched on the coffee table (which I don't even currently have) and the throw draped over the arm of the chair. Like my mom's house or my grandma's house, both of which are lovely and immaculate pretty much all of the time. Don't get me wrong. We clean. We clean a lot. Daily tidies, daily chores, daily laundry. It's manageable, but it's far from perfect.

Lately the house has been a little to the left of lived-in. We're still in newborn territory with Miss Charlotte.

Gratuitous photo of my stunningly beautiful C-Monkey

We've had a college graduation, a remodel, a new job and an extra kid coming for the summer. I haven't totally figured out which way is up. As much as I know that is temporary, it's been bugging me lately and making me a little bit crazier than normal.

Yesterday morning I woke up in a bit of a mood. I was planning to keep things as simple as possible for myself. I woke up early hoping to get some time to pull myself together, only to have the Charlotte and Cheyenne wake up before I had my first cup of coffee. Deep breath. I greeted them both with a smile and a silent prayer for patience. As I've mentioned before, I am not a greet-the-day-head-on kind of girl. Soon after Isabella, James and Travis woke up and soon after that Gabe arrived for the day.

Gabe hadn't eaten yet, so he asked if he could make himself an omelet. Cheyenne and Isabella's ears perked up. They wanted to make omelets too. They'd make omelets for everyone and wouldn't it be great! We'd have a nice breakfast and they would do the work. I was reluctant. Kids cooking means mess and a messy kitchen was the last thing I wanted at that moment.

Another deep breath. I have been teaching them to cook for a reason. I want them to feel confident and capable. No. I want them to be confident and capable, and the way you become confident and capable is by getting in there and making a mess. It's not just the way you learn to cook. It's the way you learn to write. It's the way you learn to paint or draw or program a computer. It's the way you learn to ride a bike and it's certainly the way you learn to be a parent.

I asked myself if my goal was to have an easy day or to raise good kids. 20 years from now would I even remember today? Probably not. Would they? Well, maybe. I remember my earliest efforts at cooking, from my disaterous olive oil brownies to the first time I successfully made butterscotch. I remember the time I accidentally dyed my dog blue when an entire batch of icing spilled on him while I was making petit fors and I remember the look of respect on my home ec teacher's face when I told her I had made petit fors for extra credit. 20 years later I don't bat an eyelash at a complicated recipe precicely because my mom wasn't afraid to let me get messy. The same mom who now has an immaculately clean house. I guess there is a season for everything. I relented.

Half an hour later my kitchen was a shambles, but three kids had a great big W in their personal win column. It took me most of the day, between the fussy baby, the curious toddlers, the laundry and my own much-needed shower and nap, to get around to cleaning it up, but it was worth it. Long-term worth it.

Apparently patience, as I was deathly afraid it would, is going to require me to give up some control of the now for the good of tomorrow. It's going to mean the occasional batch of extra dishes on a day I really don't want them. It's probably going to mean taking a step back, sucking it up and recognizing that if this is the kind of thing I'm worried about, I am a lucky girl.  I could always offer it up for the suffering of someone with a real problem.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Exploding Soap

Sometimes it is challenging finding projects that work for a veriety of ages, but in my experience very few people under the age of 18 (40 for boys) can resist the words "hey, you wanna go blow something up in the microwave?" This is especially true if the words are spoken by an otherwise reasonable adult.

I saw this exploding soap trick on Pinterest the other day and I figured it was worth a shot. Ivory soap (it really does have to be Ivory) is super cheap and I always have some on hand. We put it in the microwave for a little over a minute. I set the timer for two minutes, but we watched it and pulled it out early.

I explained that this was a demonstration of Charles' Law, that the volume of gasses increases when they are heated. It works similar to popping popcorn. The air and the water in the soap expand when heated and cause the soap to foam.

After we microwaved the soap I put it in the food processor with some water, coloured it and added some essential oil. Cheyenne picked blue and peppermint, Isabella picked red and lavender and James picked green and geranuim.

We pressed the soap into cookie cutters and they each got their own little souvenier of our science project. It wasn't nearly as messy as it looks.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Great American Backyard Campout

Camping is not something I did as a kid. My parents are not the outdoorsy type. "Camping" in the Smith houshold consisted of a poolside room at a hotel with a cooler of your own snacks. That was what made it camping, you see, the fact that you didn't order room service. When I was about 9 years old my sister and I got to go to summer camp. I chose a pioneer themed camp. My sister chose make-up camp, where they learned how to make beauty products out of woodland plants. "You laugh," she told me, "but when they find me dead of exposure in the woods, I'll look fabulous."

The first time I ever officially went camping was on my honeymoon; just me, my cute new husband, my 1977 Dodge van (this was 2003),  the stars over the Arizona desert and my father-in-law. It wasn't as bad as it sounds. Granted I spent pretty much the whole first night afraid I'd be eaten by bears (because God knows, there are a lot of grizzlies in the desert, right?), but I woke in the morning and, much to my surprise, I had lived. We went hiking, ate popcorn from the campstove and explored some caves. It was everything I was hoping camping would be.

Then I had babies. Two of them at once. Then, shortly after that, we moved across country from Los Angeles back to Minnesota. No sooner had we gotten our feet under us than we had baby #3, who was followed almost immediately by babies #4 and #5. I am a hearty woman, my friends, but there are limits, and camping in the woods with two elementary schoolers, two babies and a three-year-old is not really an option right now.

When James was a newborn we participated for the first time in the National Wildlife Federation's Great American Backyard Campout. We loved it. It was the perfect balance of outdoor time and convenience for that busy stage of our lives. It's that time of year again and after some discussion, we decided to put together a team for next week's festivities.

The neighborhood we live in is practically a resort in the summer. Within a leisurely stroll of our front door we have two pools, walking paths, duck ponds, tennis courts, a volleyball court, a lake with fishing piers and canoe rentals, a beach, a picnic area with a fire pit and trails through the woods. There is no reason we can't have some camping fun right here.

We're still working out all of the details, but I have high hopes for this to become an annual event. I'm picturing hot dogs and s'mores and popcorn, fishing and canoeing and swimming. Maybe some letterboxing or a demonstration on how to use a pocket knife. We'll break out the fabric markers and some t-shirts and do some t-shirt crafting. We'll whittle something.

It doesn't fit my husband's stringent standards of "camping" as I will still be sleeping on an air mattress and I will be within walking distance of a professionally made latte, but I think it will do. Secretly I think he's even more excited for it than I am.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Overwhelmed by Awesomeness

This is no ordinary omelet. This is an accomplishment. This particular omelet was made by my almost 13 year old buddy Gabe, and it is part of the reason I did not have a blog post yesterday, in spite of my intention to blog everyday for at least a month. You see, I was overwhelmed by awesomeness.

Yesterday was one of those days that pass like a whirlwind and suddenly it's 10:00PM and you realize you never even managed to change out of your pjs. What? You don't have those days? Liar.

This is the first week of summer vacation in my 'hood and the house was filled to the brim with kids. We had cooking lessons (see photo above) and went swimming and smashed rocks with hammers to see what was inside. Kids showed me stories they've been working on and drawings they've done and discussed what might be the best way to combat zombies or demons. One kid even showed me the progress he's made in his online flight certifcation classes. Yes. Real flight certification. Like for airplanes. The kid is 13 and he'll be able to fly a plane before he can drive a car.

They "borrowed" a pocketknife* and built lean-tos in the woods. We hatched plans to make sand candles and a boat and a go-cart and a slingshot for water balloons and go hunting for fossils at a park near the river. We started a book club. Forts were made of blankets on the patio and the last of James' birthday cupcakes were consumed. They talked about how they will one day be pilots and authors and stand up comedians and build castles entirely out of sticks. Summer has arrived like a hurricane. I have no idea how I am going to manage this level of awesome day in and day out for three months and still manage to clean my house and buy groceries, but it's a challenge I am happy to face.

*Yes, we did have a bit of a discussion about that one and resolved that adults will be consulted on the use of knives and a refresher course on safety instructions will be given.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Family Tree History

Grandpa Phil

My Father-in-law rocks. In the nearly 10 years I have been married to my sweet, charming husband I have never entirely figured this man out. He is something of an enigma. On the surface he is your garden variety Crusty Old Man, but he is anything but ordinary. He's witty, sarcastic and aloof and he never agrees entirely with anything anyone says, just on principal. That includes himself. He can build anything from a few scraps of wood and some rusty old nails. I swear, he barely needs tools.

He lives on cigarettes and green smoothies and has an entourage of well dressed Southern women who pay him to fix their houses and lose to them at cards. He is a carpenter by trade and a gold and diamond prospector by hobby and he has more books than house. His best friend (outside of his well-dressed lady friends) is a retired emu-farming hobbyist with whom he agrees on nothing. Not politics, not religion and certainly not the rules of the card game they play, often into the wee hours of the morning.

Mr Nall's Emus

He unapologetically ignores birthdays and Christmas and all other major life events, but once in a while, for no reason at all, a package will arrive in the mail and you never know what will be inside; a flashlight, a set of clips in various sizes or interesting rocks. Once we got a book on raising milk goats.

 Several years ago, before James was even born, he sent us one such package. Inside was a story book he had written, complete with blanks where the pictures should be and an invitation to draw. The book was about his mother, who was a child at the end of WWI, and the day she met his father, who was 18 and heading off to war. I was smitten. How cool is that? The story started a flood of questions about Great-Grandma Anna, about WWI and about Grandpa Phil. Did Grandma Anna have brothers and sisters? Did Great-Grandpa come back from the war? What was his mom's name?

Zach called Phil to thank him and told him how interested the kids had been in his story. A few weeks later another package arrived; photos of ancestors going back to the Civil War, names and dates of ancestors going back, in some cases, to the American Revolution. Among these treasures, there was an interview of Zach's Great-Great-Grandfather James, who had fought at the siege of Vicksburg, by one of James' daughters. It was fascinating. He talked about trading coffee and cigarettes with the Confederate soldiers one day and the next day going out on the battlefield to fight them. He talked about running so low on supplies like paper that they printed newspapers on pieces of wallpaper. Reading these words, written by an actual relative, the History of the American Civil War was alive.

I decided then and there that we needed to start learning about history from front to back, starting with recent history and working our way back. Treasures like these, people who can give context and voice to the events that made the world what it is today, are still around. My parents grew up in the 1950s and came of age during the Vietnam war. Zach's Dad grew up during WWII and our grandmothers were kids during the Great Depression. We have neighbors that lived in Eastern Europe and Greece in WWII and there is a nun at our church, about the same age as my parents, who grew up in Vietnam. Learning about Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages is great, and I know someday we'll have a lot of fun with that, but these people are here now offering a perspective that is invaluable.

Then, as we work backwards on the family tree, we can work in photos, interviews and stories passed down to us from those who have passed on. We can visit the sites where history happened and populate it in our imaginations with real people. People who might have known our Great-Great-Grandpa James, or our Great-Grandma Jennie.

The Big Girls at Historic Washington State Park, Arkansas

So far, the plan seems to be working. My previous efforts to interest them in history fell a little flat, but this seems to have ignited the spark. Spark, in my experience, is the main ingredient for learning. 

 P.S. If you are interested in a family history project of your own, Climbing My Family Tree has some great geneology journaling sheets for kids.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Just Do It

This past winter on our travels we stopped in Los Angeles and visited our long-time friends, urban homesteading rock stars the Dervaes Family.  

Many a night in the girls' infancy was spent at potlucks in this garden or sitting in their living room listening to whoever happened to gather there playing their instruments and singing. As I have mentioned before, I love people who do things, and the Dervaes' certainly fit that bill. Their suburban backyard is a jungle of edible plants populated with chickens, ducks and goats. Every year they produce thousands of pounds of food, which they sell at their front porch farmstand. They host teas in their garden and sell coffee, pastries and ice cream on their patio.

 It really is such a beautiful and unique lifestyle they have and it all started because they decided to do what they could with what they had. Then, little by little, they tweaked the things that didn't work, tried new things and when things got tough, stayed open to changing direction. I have been really inspired by their example. I am not a patient person. They are a good reminder to me that sometimes starting small can grow big, big things.

This spring, the kids decided they wanted to start a vegetable garden of their own. They had grand dreams of an urban oasis similar to the Dervaes. My initial reaction was to remind them that we live in a townhouse and the reality is we will probably never have a goat or a back-porch cafe. I had to stop myself. Why am I throwing up obstacles before they even begin? Why am I so tempted to point out all of the ways we can't be the Dervaes' and, in the process, limit what it is the Griffith kids can be? Why do I want them to be afraid to dream? I took a step back and decided that instead of creating my own obstacles with a list full of cants, I'd let them see what we can do. What's the worst we could end up with? Tomatoes? That hardly seems like something to be feared.

Cheyenne looked at seed catalogs and the University of Minnesota Extension website. She wrote to my friend Diana, an accomplished gardener, and asked for advice on growing tomatoes in pots. She learned that tomatoes need calcium and that eggshells are almost entirely calcium. Diana reccomended saving them, crunching them up and mixing them with the soil. She learned the difference between a determinate tomato plant and an indeterminiate tomato plant and which varieties of tomatoes work best for which applications.

We ordered seeds and planted seedlings, which were sadly killed when the cover was left off of their greenhouse and the wind dumped them out. Lesson learned. We went to the farmers market and started over again with new seedlings and renewed determination.

This is the result.

They call it Saint Fiacre's Vegetable Patch after the Patron Saint of gardeners. I think it's a nice start. We've even got a few small, green tomatoes forming. Time will tell if they are committed enough to this dream to keep growing it, but you never know until you try.

Where in the World is Poppins San Diego?

Grandma Pam, affectionately known as Poppins for some reason no one entirely remembers, is quite the traveler. Pretty much every week she packs up her suitcase and heads off to somewhere new to meet, as she calls the clients of the software company she works for, her New Best Friend.

Mom is a software trainer and former teacher, so teaching is a hot topic of conversation when we get together. We've thought for a while now that we needed to come up with a way to tie in her travels with the kids' geography studies. I was originally thinking something along the lines of the Traveling Gnome meme, but my mother is not going to haul a garden gnome from city to city with her already fully packed luggage. She'd be down with the sentiment of it, but the reality is that those things are bulky.

Instead we decided to do Where in the World is Poppins San Diego? Remember Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? It's kind of like that but with a software trainer grandma instead of a gang of criminal masterminds.

Everyday she posts another clue to her whereabouts, usually along with a picture, on her facebook wall for the kids to see.

Clue #1

California has often been referred to as the breadbasket of the world. In fact the California Department of Food and Agriculture notes that California is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and agriculture commodities. Some of the leading agriculture commodities in California are dairy, grapes, almonds, walnuts, various varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables. Over 400 different crops are grown in California. Where I am going is known for asparagus. (which the Poppins loves...YUM)

Clue #4

With the aid of maps and internet searches, the kids research the answers and attempt to pinpoint Poppins' whereabouts for the week. When they have guessed correctly, they get to put a pushpin in our wall map.

It's been quite a hit, not only with my kids but with my mom's friends. I think geography is one of those subjects where adding a bit of relevance to a lesson is really important. I remember looking at map worksheets with fake locations (What street is the school on? Spring Street or Main Street?) and wondering why I should care. I can only imagine what kids who have watched their parents get turn-by-turn directions from their iPhone GPS are thinking when faced with similar assignments.

Our own travels have gone a long way towards sowing the seeds of relevance in this particular subject, but this project has kept that enthusiasm growing. Even my mom and I are excited about it. It has taught both of us a lot of facts we might not otherwise have known and added a sense of adventure to her weekly travels.

The skills they are learning go beyond just reading a map. For one thing, they are learning to sift through a pile of information and figure out which bits of information are relevent for solving the problem and which bits of information are not. That is an extremely useful skill in a world where information is flung at you 24/7. They are learning how to research and how to apply deductive reasoning to make an educated guess.

So any guesses on where she is?

Fairy Gardening

Recently on a visit to a local gardening center we discovered their beautiful Fairy Garden section. It was lovely. Nestled in amongst flowers and greens, pretty fairy dolls have their tea at wrought iron garden tables, sit on old stone walls and play in front of quaint thatched cottages. We were immediately enchanted.

Then I visited the Fairy Garden supply shelf and turning over the price tags I realized that this could be a very expensive hobby. From hundreds of dollars for the thatched cottages to $20 for the wrought iron table and chairs and $15 a fairy, the expense, it seemed, would add up fast. Still, it was such a sweet idea I couldn't resist. I bought a pot, some gravel and some plants and figured we'd fill in the blanks from there.

I decided we'd use the fairy dolls we already have. We got these fairy dolls earlier this winter from Michaels or Jo-Ann (I can't remember which) for about $7. I think we may have gotten two of them. One tube of fairies another of mermaids and minotaurs and other mythical creatures.

My children, who I think are part fairy on their father's side, collect things in their pockets. Pretty rocks, marbles, shells, broken bits of jewlery. These things live in the bottom drawer of the linen cabinet, hidden from the world, so this seemed like a good opportunity to liberate some of those treaures and put them to good use. We made a throne for the queen out of shells...

a lake for the mermaids out of marbles...

and statue of Mary from a broken necklace and a geode.

The total cost of the garden was about $30, most of which was for the pot and we will reuse that from year to year. The greenery and flowers can be swapped out and the garden can be outdoors or brought indoors as a houseplant. The kids love it and have played with it almost everyday. New features are added as new treasures are brought home in pockets or made out of houshold materials.

As an added bonus, I hear that kids who play in the dirt have healthier immune systems than kids who don't.

I think we've got that covered.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

100 Things to Learn Before Adulthood: Circuits

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -Robert Heinlein

When Zach and I started having kids we started making a list of 100 things we wanted our kids to know before they left our house. The list ranged from common, practical things like cooking a meal, writing a letter and washing laundry to fun things like playing Euchre, programming a computer and paddling a canoe.

I am a big fan of skills. I have vague, but fond memories of time spent with my great-aunts as a little girl making Swedish sausage and canning raspberry jam, and happy memories of creating big, extravagent feasts with my parents. I admire people like my father-in-law, who can build houses and cabinets and bunk beds and people like my Grandpa Frank who, when their prosthetic thumb proves inadequate for banjo picking, can fashion themselves a new one that is equal to the task. I don't expect my kids will leave here able to build a house or a body part, but I would like them to have the basic knowledge necessary to be resourceful, contributing members of the community.

There is nothing Zach enjoys more than playing with electricity, so naturally it is high on his list of things he wants our kids to learn about. In service of that goal, I ordered us a set of Snap Circuits. Basically, snap circuits are like electronic legos. They snap into place without any messy soldering (a skill the kids are learning separately) and engage them in hundreds of projects including creating an AM radio, wiring a burglar alarm and voice activated lights.

We started out with the smallest kit, the Snap Circuits Jr, but will be moving on to the larger kits, which include a computer interface that works as an oscilloscope and spectrum analyzer.

Even James was a fan. So far they have done three of the 100 projects, so it's something we'll get a lot of fun out of.

Another project we have on the docket for the summer is Squishy Circuits.  We learned about this project from the big kids' favourite podcast, Make Magazine's Sylvia's Super Awesome Mini Maker Show.

Squishy circuits are basically electrically conductive playdough developed here in the Twin Cities at the University of St Thomas.  Cheyenne is excited to have a chance to use the pink LEDs she got as a gift from the manager she has befriended at Ax-Man.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Family, Flavour and Fun

I was inspired to write today's post by a friend who was considering whether or not to have children and was concerned, as a lot of people are (I was), about losing her sense of identity in her kids. I can totally understand that. Parenthood often looks from the outside like a form of slavery. Diapers to change, children to chauffer, laundry to wash. All things fun and interesting relegated to the back burner in favour of mundane domestic tasks. And of course, there are days like that as a parent, although I had days like that before I was a parent as well. Maybe without the diapers, but then I've had customers, clients and coworkers who all but expected me to wipe their bottoms too.

Before I had kids there were qualities I highly prized in myself and in others.

My humourous, spontaneous, adventurous husband

Humour, spontenaiety, creativity, adventure, just to name a few. I had interests and passions and hobbies that filled my days with curiosity and intrigue. I surrounded myself with fun, interesting, people and did crazy awesome things.  I can't tell you how many times when I was pregnant with my oldest I heard someone say, "Well, you won't be able to do that once you have kids" or "You had better kiss that good-bye." I refused to believe it. Eight years and five kids later I still refuse to believe it.

Kids eat passion for breakfast. They really do. They gobble it up like candy at Christmas. Nothing in the whole world motivates children the way passion and enthusiasm do. They are wired for it. They need it like they need air and water and the more you give them, the stronger they'll grow. Like a well-tended garden, they'll give you back at least as much as you've put in.

The things I love and the things my family loves have become the flavour that makes our family unique. Before I had kids my days were interesting, now they are meaningful: the memories we are making carrying who we are and where we've been into a future I am helping to create with my own two hands. My identity isn't lost, it's expanded. My experiences are made richer by having people to share them with.

I'm not saying parenthood is for everyone. Clearly, it isn't. What I am saying is that it isn't a prison sentance. Sure there are challenges, but in my experiences challenges are where you discover who you are, not where you lose it.  Like anything in life, it's not all roses and butterflies and it's not all misery and sacrifice. 80% of it is what you make of it and the other more challenging 20% is what it makes of you.