Thursday, December 29, 2016

Another Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

On the piano is my cherished ceramic nativity set. It's the same style as the one my mom hand glazed many years ago, which was the same as the one her mother had. Colorful and shining, Joseph and Mary kneel in the stable next to a beautiful manger with a cherubic Christ-child, surrounded by quiet, clean, glazed animals.
Gazing at it, I slip into thinking the first Christmas was like that: perfect.
Perfect? To walk or ride 200 miles while nine months pregnant? To give birth in a stable?
Perfect? For the Son of God to sleep in an animal trough?
Yes, it was perfect. Perfectly imperfect. The King of Kings needed to descend below all things and take upon himself all our sufferings, so all of those seeming imperfections served higher, perfect purpose.
So you might say imperfection -- perfect imperfection -- is one of the most enduring Christmas traditions, predating even the gifts of the Wise Men.

What Made This Christmas Perfect?

Little Q using a sticky candy cane as a stylus on my phone
His joy and delight at seeing his Christmas Eve pajamas 
covered in construction vehicles
*  *  *  * 
The broad smiles and "Merry Christmas!" greetings when we went to church Christmas morning
That I had to spend most of the service wandering the halls 
because Little Q was too excited to sit quietly in the chapel
*  *  *  *
The joy of decorating gingerbread cookies together
The pile of dirty dishes that was still there Christmas morning
*  *  *  *
That the stockings didn't seem quite as full as last year
How beautiful the tree looked as we came down Christmas morning
*  *  *  *
That I missed the sale on what could have been the perfect gift
The joyful, unexpected, spontaneous hugs of appreciation the 
children gave each other after opening gifts


I don't plan on imperfection each December. Somehow or other, it always comes. Movies, books, and my Pinterest feed give me such unrealistic expectations for this most sacred of holidays. Each year is supposed to be perfect; the best Christmas ever. I think it is good to remember that one or two or ten moments of catastrophic imperfection doesn't wipe away all the peace, goodwill, and joy of this season. There is room for a little, or even a lot, of imperfection in the perfect Christmas.
Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Toddler Gift Guide: Consumer Reviews by a Two-Year and His Mom

My little boy just turned 2. With Christmas coming, I thought I would share a few of the birthday gifts he liked for those who might still be Christmas shopping for a young child.
Here are a few of the gifts he loved:

LEGO DUPLO Cars and Trucks Building Blocks
I've seen and fiddled with a number of build-a-car sets. This one knocks them out of the water. First of all, because all of the blocks fit between the wheel bump, toddlers don't have to find the "right" pieces in the right order to build a vehicle. This is truly a mix and match set. Most build-a-car sets I've seen are like puzzles--if you lose one piece, you might as well throw out the whole set.
What takes it to eleven is the parts that pivot: a ladder that articulates *click-click-click* as it is positioned higher or lower, a tow hook that can move back and forth, and a dump truck that really dumps.
I was concerned the blocks might be a little too hard for a two year old to take apart and put together, but after a few days he stopped asking for help.
With hours of play following a price tag of less than $16 (current Amazon price) this gift has had the most bang-for-the-buck of the birthday gifts this year.
Below is one of the many vehicles my two-year old has made without any help at all.

Brio Classic Figure 8 Set
There are cheaper train sets on the market, but if you want (and can afford) quality, Brio comes highly recommended, and the Figure 8 Set is a beautiful starter set. Q loves to sit either inside one of the loops or next to them and pull the train along the track. The magnets that connect the train pieces are strong enough to keep the train together with a little rough handling, but not too strong for a toddler to separate pieces when desired. Little Q has figured out how to connect track pieces, but it never ends up as a finished loop when he does it, so he frequently asks for help: "Hep. Hep."
Before Q got this train set, my husband pointed out one of the table train sets. No, thank you. This beautiful toy can be put in a shoebox in the closet when we want to play with something else. The table train sets would take up precious floor space all the time. It's a personal choice, but I definitely prefer the flexibility this allows.
The company recommends this toy for ages 2 and up. Brio is a Swedish company. Like other European toddler toys, small parts are consider okay at a younger age than they are by US standards. If your little one still chews and sucks on their toys, I would certainly recommend waiting for them to grow out of that phase before getting a toy with small parts.

Balance Bike
The jury is still out on this set of wheels, and may be until spring when it has more opportunity to be used. It's nearly impossible to find a toddler-size peddle bike, but a number of companies do make balance bikes. There are no pedals or training wheels. It's like a cross between a scooter and a bicycle that has gained a loyal following. Other parents have claimed that, while this ride on toy takes longer for the kids to get used to, it makes that transition to a two-wheeled bicycle a breeze, with kids as young as four learning to peddle without training wheels in one afternoon.
Based off of consumer reviews, we went with a Strider Balance Bike (one of the most expensive brands). We chose to buy this expensive bike used, and I'm glad we did. A few scuffs in the paint is completely worth it to save $50 on a toddler toy. If you just search for "balance bike" you can find other brands that have a cheaper price for their new bikes. Just be sure to read the reviews and compare.
Our fabulous UPS delivery man came to our door empty handed because the box it shipped in had a picture of a bicycle on its side, and he wanted to let us know before he left it on the porch where the kids might find it first.

Monday, December 12, 2016

What We Read at the Hospital

After we set-up the Christmas tree on Saturday, our family went out to play in the common area. It was sunny and around 52 degrees, which seemed inviting at the time. We ended up around the play set. Little Q was showing off how he could climb ladders without help (but with lots of spotting) and M had crossed the monkey bars once already.
She lunged from the play set and caught the third rung out. Another time she missed and landed on her feet. She went right back up to try again.
I turned back to Little Q, who likes to tease me by walking closer to the openings on the play set than he knows I like. It's a game. He holds the bars, leans back, and puts one foot out in the forbidden space off the play set. I clap-growl, and he backs off, laughing. He had all my attention when I heard a heavy sound behind me, followed by a faint whimper, and turned to see M crumpled up on the rubber bark. She had missed.
Cory and I were beside her in an instant, asking her again and again where it hurt, ready to help the moment we knew our touch wouldn't dislodge something broken. "My arms!" she finally articulated. "My arms hurt!" We helped her stand and walked her straight home (it wasn't far). She walked slowly, as if each step caused more pain. There was no question about it. She was going to the ER almost immediately. At the house I collected a change of clothes with wide sleeves, her purple fleece blanket, two picture books and my iPad.
Usually I have a rule: no one under the age of 12 is allowed to sit in a front seat when I'm driving. M has another year to go, but the front seats are heated, so I insisted she sit there. 52 degrees quickly turned from pleasantly adventurous to unpleasantly cold for her, and she was shivering. She whimpered when I accidentally brushed against her fingers, and I didn't dare slip her hands through coat sleeves, so we spread a blanket across her lap and turned on the heated seat for the drive.
In the waiting room she was shivering again and had rapid, shallow breathing. I hoped they would bring her a heated blanket soon. I pulled out the first book I had brought and began reading Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas. Once we finished that, I began reading Mad About Madeline* (a collection of all the Madeline picture books). I've found that rhyming couplets can be a soothing distraction to people in pain, similar to rocking back and forth and stroking their forehead. Madeline is completely written in rhyming couplets.

In the first story, our adventurous Madeline "sat in bed. Cried and cried. Her eyes were red." A doctor determines she has appendicitis and "in a car with a red light they drove out into the night." We are spared all the scary details of her surgery, but her 11 visiting friends are surprised to see a scar, along with toys and candy and a dollhouse from Papa. The final page begins with the soothing words "'Good night little girls. Thank the Lord you are well. And now go to sleep,' said Miss Clavel."
This isn't the only Madeline book with sickness and healing. In Madeline's Rescue, the adventurous little girl walks on the railing of a bridge and falls into the River Seine. "Dear Madeline would now be dead, but for a dog that kept its head." After warming Madeline up safe at home, the book focuses on the beautiful stray dog that rescued Madeline and comes to stay at their school.
Madeline and the Bad Hat is a story about the Spanish ambassador's lonely and mischievous son Pepito who lives next door. Thanks to a bad decision involving one cat and all the dogs in the neighborhood, Pepito is visited by the doctor and left in a four poster bed, covered in bandages. This isn't the end of the story, just a turning point. When we see Pepito next, he is well and whole again, and displaying his reformed behavior.
Reading picture books like that helps children realize that their terrible experience is just a page in their story and that they actually will get well soon and have happy things in the future.
By the time they moved her from her check-in room to the larger room they would set her bones in, we had completed the entire thick book, which had given her something nice to focus on, while she was trying to ignore the pain.

Choosing Books for a Child's Hospital Visit
1. Choose a book that your child would have enjoyed if they were a couple years younger. A young adult may prefer middle grade novels, and elementary kids may relax best with picture books.
2. Choose books with happy endings. Children's literature is famous for happy endings, but there are a few tearjerkers to watch out for.
3. Try books with a healing theme. Older children may enjoy The Secret Garden. The Madeline books are great for younger children.

To finish M's story: yes, she did break both arms. Yes, they are healing nicely and she won't need surgery (a specter raised at the ER, after three failed attempts to set and cast her right wrist).
Yes, she missed school for a week. Once the swelling went down and her fingertips were less sensitive, she regained a lot of her independence.
Yes, she will get better. Her cast is scheduled to be removed two days after Christmas. It will be okay.

*Note: Mad About Madeline seems to be out of print and replaced by the nearly identical A Madeline Treasury. Some reviewers note that there is a typographical error on page 300 of this edition (in Madeline's Christmas).

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Christmas Sunday Advent

This month I reread the merry little christmas project. One thing the author encourages is to write a Christmas "to don't" list. The first thing that came to mind was elves. There will be no elf on my shelf.
The second "to don't" took a little longer to form in my mind. Here it is: daily advent calendars
You see, I've tried and failed with so many different advent calendars over the years as a mom. Paper chains, magnets on muffin tins to name a couple. I guess I'm too tired at bedtime to do them consistently. And don't get me started on some of the daily advents I've seen on Pinterest: decorate sugar cookies today, take the kids sledding tomorrow, go caroling on Thursday.
Really? Who has that much time on a weeknight?

I wanted an achievable way to enjoy Christmastime, and I wanted it to involve happy times as a family and the true meaning of Christmas.
That's when I had my idea for a Christmas Sunday Advent.

There are four Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas (not including Christmas Day). If I could make an advent that only needed to be done four times during the month, my chances for success increase exponentially. For us, church gets over at noon, leaving us about eight hours of I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-myself family bonding time. Perfect.

Christmas Sunday Advent

I love the flashing Christmas lights.
The shows and parties are delights.
Better yet are days of rest,
For family time is always best.

Each Sunday until Christmas Day
Let’s meet beside this tree to pray—
For peace on Earth and in our hearts
Begins at home—that’s where it starts.

A gift like this, expect to see
Underneath the Christmas tree.
Look inside and you might see:
A puzzle we can put together
A family photo book to treasure
A small token of the reason
For the joy we have this season.

Some might be old, some might be new.

The real gift is time with you.

The above is a poem I wrote to attach to a gift bag or box the children can find under the tree the first Sunday after Thanksgiving.

If you prefer, you could wait until the first Sunday in December, or until there are only two Sundays left. Your kids don't have to know that I did it for four Sundays.

Since I'm only trying to create four more magical days in December, instead of the 12 or 24 required by most advents, I can afford to put more thought into what special thing(s) might happen. Remembering that the goal is family time and remembering Christ, here are a few ideas that fit well in a gift bag or small box:
  • Advent Candles, 1 per week (search Pinterest for some great ideas)
  • Candy cane tie (boys) or hairbow (girls) for church/parties
  • Books to read together
  • Board Book of the Christmas Story
  • Puzzle (200-500 piece suggested for school age and up)
  • Printed Coloring Pages
  • Instructions or supplies for parlor games, such as Christmas Charades or Christmas Pictionary
  • A toy nativity set
  • DVDs, such as Mr. Kruger's Christmas
  • Family photo book (new or old)
  • Family photos, unbound
  • Christmas craft kits
  • "Tickets" to a church choir performance
  • Cookie mix, sprinkles and frosting bags

One of the tricks to making this cheap and easy is to get into the garage boxes without the kids seeing. I've pulled out the toy nativity set, cookie cutters, a DVD, and a Hallmark Christmas book that has a recording of the Grandparents reading (since we took the batteries out before storing, it still works beautifully).
At the craft store I bought a couple 50% off craft kits. There were a couple Christmas ties at the thrift store. I printed Christmas charade cards to cut and put in an envelope. I'm almost done creating an 8x8 photo book of the last two Christmases.

Below find links to see what we specifically put into each Sunday Advent bag/box, and how the kids reacted to it:
[to be updated weekly, beginning on or shortly after Sunday, November 27th, 2016]

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fall Food Storage Recipes

I love fall.
I love the colorful leaves, the cooling air, the cozy sweaters, and the food.
Fall is naturally a harvest time. A time to gather food and clothing for the long cold days ahead. While I don't have a garden to harvest this year, I have found myself rearranging cupboards, trying new recipes, and filling the can rack and the freezer, with the hope to establish a three month food storage.

Three Month Food Storage
These are foods that our family eats on a regular basis that can be stored on the shelf or in the freezer (my interpretation), for at least three months. For example, in my freezer are bags of broccoli, French beans, cherries, garden burgers, and so forth. There are spices, pasta, oats, and flour in my cupboard. My can rack has black beans, navy beans, chick peas, olives, pumpkin, tomatoes, pineapple chunks in juice, and a few other fruits.
On a typical day, I will be combining short-term foods, like eggs and fresh vegetables, with items from my three month storage to create meals. If we empty the checking account and produce bin before payday, if we get snowed in, if the baby has a fever, if I just can't make it to the grocery store, I know where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are coming from. I feel at peace knowing I can make soup and bread for my family tonight. Dinner can be stretched for unexpected company when cans of fruit become a side dish in a serving bowl, or frozen vegetables are steamed in the microwave.

Fall Flavors
Back to school makes me think of peanut butter and jelly. September is time for apples, and it wouldn't be October without pumpkin. On a blustery day, a hot bowl of soup is heavenly.
Of these recipes, the most requested has been the Peanut Butter and Jelly Breakfast Shake. Full of protein, calcium, frozen cherries, and sweetened with jam, all this needs is a side of toast. My four boys love it.
Our most versatile recipe is Oatmeal Pancakes. We've been known to eat pancakes for dinner.
These are all recipes I look forward to making again and again. Enjoy!

Fall Food Storage Recipes

  • Oatmeal Pancakes
  • Applesauce Syrup
  • Apple Pie Oatmeal
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Oatmeal
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Breakfast Shake
  • Black Beans and Sausage (with Rice)
  • Pumpkin Sausage Soup
  • Lentil Harvest Soup--see a video for Alton Brown's version
  • Sweet and Savory Pumpkin Hummus
You're welcome to share as many copies as you would like, provided it's for noncommercial use.
If you try these recipes, please comment to let us know what you liked or didn't like about them. Any other suggestions for cooking with fall food storage are welcome, too.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Ready . . . Or Not, for Conference

During the April 2016 General Conference, our family had a "camp-out" in the living room. For October 2016, I'm planning a harvest-party theme, mostly because I just put up the fall decorations this week. I love the leaf garlands I bought at a craft store several years back, when they were 40% off. For this weekend, I've tucked-in the Lego temple our family built this summer (from a kit by Brick 'em Younger).

I also have an early pumpkin on display. Since I knew it would rot long before Halloween, I went with a conference themed design. I can't decide if the attempt at a temple is tacky or awesome. It really didn't carve well, which is why I embellished it with metallic Sharpie.
I'll be bringing in our 2 foot by 4 foot adjustable-height table to put in front of the couch for art supplies, doodle books, and maybe some building toys.
I had been planning for months to print up some photos from this summer of our family visiting Temple Square. It hasn't happened yet, so it probably won't . . . which is not unlike most of the conference activities on my Pinboard. C'est la vie.

What Our Family Is Eating Conference Weekend
A Rough Plan Subject to Change

Note: where we live now, the first session of General Conference starts at noon (lunchtime).
Breakfast: Come what may and love it
Lunch: Hamburgers/Garden Burgers; Pickles; Orange Cranberry Naked Juice; Baked French Fries; leftover pre-made Oatmeal Applesauce Craisin Cookies
Snack (between sessions): Slow Cooker Applesauce with Graham Crackers
Dinner: Cory, K and T will eat at the social prior to the Priesthood Session at the Stake Center.
Pasta with Sausage and (Red) Pasta Sauce for everyone else.

Breakfast: Apple Pie Oatmeal*
Lunch: Pot Roast with Vegetables; warm slices of Homemade Bread with Jam; Sauteed Cinnamon Butternut Squash; Apple Cider
Snack (between sessions): Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins
Dinner: To be assigned

*This recipe is among a group I created for using my Fall Food Storage. I'm hoping to finish the recipes soon and post them for everyone.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Family Reunions in Three Weeks

This summer, for the first time in years, the children and I flew out to visit our extended family. As part of our experience, we were able to attend three different family reunions in about three weeks. I thought the comparison of the three might be of interest to those planning a reunion themselves.

The Camping/Water Park Reunion
We drove to Downata Hot Springs in southeast Idaho (after flying into SLC). Idaho is a somewhat central location for my mom's side of the family. The family had reserved a group campsite for two nights. A few people drove up with a camper or RV. The rest of us slept in tents, except for my parents, who fit a queen-size mattress in the back of their pick-up. They're awesome like that.

The only planned activity for this reunion was the small waterpark at the resort (an extra fee). The waterpark consisted of a large pool with a couple slides and toddler pool, two big waterslides, and a splash pad for young children. Having such a small waterpark was perfect for a family reunion, because it was almost impossible to lose anyone. In fact, the line for the two big slides went along a chainlink fence that bordered the field for our group campsite. The family members who weren't interested in water time were able to socialize under the covered pavilion and wave to those going up to the slide.
The best thing (for me) about this reunion was watching my children play with my cousins' children. It seemed like the cousins became instant friends with anyone their age. They didn't even need an introduction.

The Destination Reunion
The second reunion was for my dad's side of the family. Instead of being centrally located, everyone flew or drove out to the Seattle area, where my parents live. A few people stayed in my parents' house. The rest stayed in local hotels. Everyone met at the house for dinner and socializing.
The biggest event was a scenic drive. I should note here that my children were the only children at this reunion. We stopped at beautiful Deception Pass, where some people bravely walked across the high bridge, then hiked down to a small beach. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at Fort Casey, which is a decomissioned fort right on the water (Puget Sound). Then we drove onto a ferry, which took us across the water.

We made it back to the house in time for barbecue pork, which had been simmering in the slow cooker. After dinner, we all watched the memorial video for my nephew who passed away earlier this year.
The beauty of this reunion was the novelty of the area to all of my dad's family, which lives inland, around Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The temperature of Seattle summers was a pleasant change for them, and the novelty of seeing the ocean, evergreen forests, and driving onto a ferry made it feel like a vacation for them. At least, I think it did.

The Backyard Reunion
The grand finale was a reunion held in a single afternoon and evening in the large backyard of my husband's parents' house.

With five sisters who all live within driving distance, it was expected that this would be an event, even if one of Cory's sisters wasn't an event planner by profession.
Everyone was told to bring a side dish, but hamburgers and a gourmet s'more bar were provided.

In addition to the pre-existing play set (recently repaired)  was:
  • A bubble station
  • Lawn Yahtzee 
  • Lawn Kerplunk
  • Crayons on the paper-covered tables
  • A frozen t-shirt contest
  • A fire, for marshmallow toasting
  • Piñata for the children
  • Family history photo books 
  • A professional photographer
One photograph was taken of all the cousins together, lined up in age order (except for Little Q, who was held by a teenage cousin). One of the cousins had passed away ten years before, so my daughter held a purple helium balloon to represent her.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

General Women's Session Coloring Journal for September 2016: Free Printable

2017 Update
With changes to two of the presidencies, this old journal is now outdated. Click here to see the new one. It's a fold-in-half book, which is easier to manage on laps or on hymnbooks. Just be sure to print it double-sided with short-edge binding!

With updated conference quotes, the new Primary Presidency, and a fall-themed cover, the General Women's Session Coloring Journal for September 2016 is now printable!
I finished my daughter's Coloring Journal much earlier this time around, which is good, since the Women's Session is so early this month (September 24th).
Please feel free to print and share this for anyone who will get more out of the session if they're allowed a few coloring supplies.

Click here to print the Coloring Journal. (Sorry, Google Docs wouldn't let me embed the file right in the blog post this time. Arrgh. Every time you get used to a new technology, they change it.)

A fun coloring hint: when the new Primary Presidency got together for their press photos, they each wore a primary color. Color their tops red, yellow, and blue.
Illustration Note: As the various presidencies were unavailable to sit for portraits, I have based (and, ahem, somewhat traced) their images off of press photos as found in the Mormon newsroom. Not as professional as, say, my cover image which came from drawing my daughter up an oak tree, but the best I could do under the circumstances.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Philadelphia Open House

Cory and I have been wanting to take the children to a temple open house for ages, but there aren’t that many opportunities to do so on the East coast. When we heard about the open house in Philly, we were eager to try.
We drove up to Pennsylvania (well, New Jersey) on a Friday afternoon. The drive was surprisingly pleasant. We stayed at a hotel in New Jersey. Saturday morning we checked-out and drove the half hour to the temple in Philadelphia.
We parked in the garage under the temple, came up through the visitor’s center, and walked across the street to the beautiful red brick chapel. The chapel has its own courtyard, from which one can see the temple spires.

After a ten-minute video about temples, our group walked across the street. The shoe covers (which look like shower caps) were one-size-fits all, so we pocketed a set in case little Q wanted to be set down. Mothers with younger babies had them in baby carriers. Ah, those were the days.
In the entrance to the temple, behind the recommend desk, is a beautiful painting of Christ. The picture is “framed” with columns and a roof-like peak. In the ornamentation above the peak I saw two crossed quills. 
K commented to an usher on the "nice chandeliers" in the entry. The usher pointed to a painting, off to the side, of the Founding Fathers in (I think) Independence Hall. The chandelier in that painting was a near match to the ones in the temple entry.
The single painting and the carved quills, while subtle, were touching to me. They seemed a fitting tribute to the men who laid a foundation for religious freedom, displayed in a building that only exists thanks to religious freedom.
Most of the art in the temple was either of Christ or his creations (landscapes). In one stairwell is a large print of Christ with two native American girls.
As we walked through the temple, I noticed a lot of colonial inspiration: colonial-style dressers in one hall, sconces on walls that looked like old candle-holders, American cherry wood stair steps with a colonial-style (carpet) runner  running up them, and so forth.
There is a captivating mural in an instruction room. It was like playing I-spy with the children: do you see the bald eagle? The woodpeckers? The butterfly? I wished we could have stayed there longer.
The Celestial room is full of light, which is remarkable in such a big building with art glass--really the whole interior was full of light. Maybe all the lights were on, but there didn't seem to be a dark corner anywhere. Being with my husband and all my children in the Celestial room has been a dream of mine, although I'm not sure it counts during an open house. I hope they felt God's love for them. I looked down and realized S had a handful of Legos out on the area rug--he must have brought them in himself. I suspect that may be the only time that happens there. Little Q began testing the acoustics in the Celestial room, and Cory hurried him out.

My daughter had been waiting to see the bride’s room, where women can get ready for their special day with the help of her mother, sisters, or friends. I don’t think she was disappointed. The bride’s room was large and beautiful, with formal furnishings and a sparkling chandelier. The guide in that room said she would be married in five weeks in that temple, and she would get to come to this room on her special day to be “pampered.” 
The tour finished in a large sealing room, where couples get married and families sealed for all eternity. My children kept trying to see their reflection go on forever in the mirrors that face each other. It doesn't work that way. You can see your family go on forever, but you block your own view of yourself. There's probably a lesson there.
From the rooftop garden on the Visitor’s Center, there is a lovely view of the temple. I imagine this would be an ideal place to take family photos.

While we were in the city anyway, we headed over to see the Liberty Bell. Sadly, the all the tickets for Independence Hall were gone by the time we checked (shortly after noon on a Saturday), but we had a good time anyway, and the kids earned some history flashcards from a park ranger.
This fun picture (above) was actually taken in the Visitor's Center. It's way too crowded around the real bell to get a great shot without strangers in it. Well, maybe if you're there at opening you can. We weren't.