Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Simple Woman's Daybook--Christmas Edition #1

If you blog, you can do this, too. C'mon, you can do it! Join in the fun!

Outside my window... it is cold and dark... looks like it might think about snowing... but not a flake has fallen yet.

I am thinking... about my speaking engagements this week. I speak everyday this week to a wide variety of groups. I love the topic... Connecting to Christmas. One of my absolute favorite talks.

I am thankful for... an easier morning today. Mark and the kids worked hard to get things done so I would have time to get ready for my speaking engagement. This helped me so much! A stressful morning leads to a stressed out speaker... not at all what I want to bring to these wonderful groups this week.

From the kitchen... I am in the mood for chili... how about you? :)

I am wearing... black corduroys, a grey, long sleeved t-shirt. Just changed out of speaking clothes. Comfy, now.

I am creating... a quiet, peaceful season for my family. Christmas is so important... not for the presents but for the wonder of the Nativity. I want my kids to "get" that...

I am dreaming... about this week! And it is here! :) Love getting ready to speak EVERY day... and looking forward to Elizabeth's first ballet show on Saturday night. I cannot wait! :)

I am going... to run errands before I pick up the kids from school so we can enjoy a relaxing night home together. Finding downtime in the midst of this busy season is important.

I am reading... Mary Beth Chapman's book... and love it. Thank you, Junie.

I am hoping... that my Christmas talk can help people who hear it to connect to what the season is really about. I am praying that God's voice will be far louder than mine... and that He will find a way to capture the hearts of those who hear.

I am hearing... The id tag on our dog clinking as she walks, the pinging of the rain against the sliding glass door, my fingers on the keys... peaceful sounds.

Around the house... Boxes and boxes of Christmas stuff is out and about. We are decorating this week, getting our tree in a couple days and starting to feel more ready for the holidays.

One of my favorite things... how happy our dog is to see me when I got home. She has twice come to the computer to pull my hands from the keyboard. All she wants right now is me and my attention. I had no idea that dogs could be so relational.

A few plans for the rest of the week... speaking, speaking and more speaking. LOVE it. I seriously feel blessed to do this work.

What about you? : )

Blessings on your day!

Looking for more like this? http://thesimplewomansdaybook.blogspot.com/

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blog Rewind: Connecting to Christmas

There is a commercial playing right now that makes me mad. As it plays, a young boy is telling his momma all the things he wants for Christmas. From the looks of things, he starts telling her this during the day, continues through dinner, bath-time and bedtime. His list is endless. In the voice-over, the mom talks lovingly about wanting to give her children everything they want. This certain super store can make this possible! By the end of the commercial, I am saddened and angry again.

How did it come to be that we are encouraged to allow unbridled commercialism in our children? When did it become okay to ask for toys all day long? Why would parents even WANT to try to meet an endless list of material things requested by their child?

Is this what Christmas is really all about? Is this what we want? Is it best for us, our children, our budgets, our futures?

My friends, we need to take a breath and really reconnect to the truth about Christmas. This holiday is not at all about materialism run rampant. This holiday began in love and selflessness and hope. Where can we find these things in the Christmas the networks are broadcasting today?

This year, let's reign it in. Let's gather our sweet little ones around and tell them a love story like no other. Let's remember the hope we have... the hope that was born in a simple way, in a simple place, to simple, faithful folks.

I will be sharing some ideas to help us do just this and would LOVE to hear some of yours. What will you do this year to connect to Christmas?

This year, I want my children to understand that presents are just one part. This year, I want my children to remember that God so loved them... so DEEPLY loved them... that He gave them a gift they will never outgrow. This year, I want to make memories and spend time with the people I love most in this world. And in the end, they may have a few new toys but the connections they have formed to family and faith will mean more to them than anything else.

Let's talk together. What works for you? I look forward to sharing ideas!

Blessings on your day!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Blog Rewind: Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I read this today and wanted to share it with you. In this economy, at this time of tight budgets and potential frustration, reading this helps me find a bit of perspective.

"The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving."

~H.U. Westermayer

Blessings on your day!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Last year, I was asked to write something to share during our Thanksgiving service. This is what I read...

It’s easy to get caught up in the big things. Big plans. Big changes. Big vacations. Big, big, big.

Sometimes, when I am lost in the planning or dreaming of things that are far outside my reach, I miss it. The striving and pushing forward for whatever might come next hides what is happening right now. But not today. I don’t want to miss it today. I need to stand still and look around at the blessings all around me. Blessings that are, not blessings that could be. The wonder of the ordinary right before my eyes.

Here is some of what I see…

I drove my kids to school yesterday in seven year old van that runs. The same van that 10 days ago sounded like a semi coming down our street. This is certainly something to be thankful for! When we got out at school, my children wore warm winter coats and ran through the rain to get inside. A month ago, we were working and saving and preparing for being sure that winter clothes were close at hand. Noah and I walked into school last and he looked at me and said, “I love my school, Mom.” And I smiled and said I did, too. This school that we so love looked fully impossible just 3 months back. I stayed at school yesterday and bopped in and out of their classrooms where students buzzed with excitement about a long holiday weekend and I saw my children singing and praying and laughing and running and soaking it all right up. And for all of this and so much more, I am grateful…

Last night, we had hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for dinner. All of us home. All of us together. No games, no distraction, no where to be. It was not a gourmet meal but relaxing and enjoying its simplicity was just what we needed. Just enough. While we ate, Elizabeth wore a necklace made of noodles and Josiah still had pilgrim clothes on from his celebration at school. After dinner, Benjamin curled in a corner reading a book about a boy adopted in Korea and Noah shot baskets in the rain. And for all of this, and so much more, I am grateful.

Before they went to bed, we gathered in the kitchen and the kids cut bread into cubes for stuffing. Our daily bread in a very real way. While Benjamin arranged the cubes perfectly so that they would all dry evenly, Noah learned to pack brown sugar and Josiah and Elizabeth added spices to homemade pumpkin pie. It will not be a catered meal or a fancy meal but it will be something we all did together… something that they learned to do with Mark and I standing right close by. As I watched my family working together, the house smelled like baking and the kids chattered on and even in its simplicity, it normalcy, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of contentment… a sense that all of this is blessing to us… all of this is enough for us… and honestly, right now, we do not need much more… for all of this and so much more, I am grateful.

Working in the kitchen, Fingers in mouths tasting Thanksgiving treats. Laughter bubbling forth over a shared inside joke. Family together with no where to be. Completely, wholly, wonderfully ordinary. Sometimes, its good for me to stop chasing, stand still and look around. What about the next big thing? Today I know full well that THIS is the biggest thing. Driving my kids to school to a school they love. Listening to their words laughing and talking and sharing their day. Making dinner in the kitchen with my husband and our kids. For this and so much more, especially today, I am grateful.

Blessings on your Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Good Gravy!!

Gravy. Some folks pop open a can or a jar and call it good. Some folks think it is an impossible thing to create... The truth is, it's easy as pie! Well, easier than pie... I think pie can be kind of tricky! :)

Wanna learn how? You are going to LOVE this...

You will need:

-a roasted turkey with plenty of juices in the pan
-some canned broth (chicken or turkey), just in case
(Pan juices and canned broth together, look for around 4 cups)
-a stick of butter
-a half cup of flour
-seasoning to taste (salt and sage, especially)

Here is what I do...

I use a gravy separator. This is a special measuring cup that allows the fat in pan juices to separate from the usable broth. This is really handy when making turkey! On Thanksgiving, you will need a lot of gravy. So, after the turkey is done, I move it to a platter and collect the juices in my separator. When we talked about making turkey, I told you that I add several cans of broth to my turkey pan. I want a lot of pan juices so I can be sure to make enough gravy. I keep a couple of cans of broth on hand too, in case I do not feel like I have enough juices.

While the juices separate, I start the roux. The roux is the best way to ensure a smooth gravy, lump-free! How do you do it? Easy, peasy! In a saucepan, melt a stick of butter. Once it is melted, sprinkle a half cup of flour into the saucepan. Keep the heat on... about medium. Stir this butter and flour mix and watch it carefully. You are making a paste... though it will be a bit softer than a paste. As it cooks, it will foam up and you will stir it and it will settle down again. What you are trying to do is cook the flour. Cooked flour will add a nice, almost nutty, flavor to your gravy. As this cooks, you will notice it starting to change to a darker color. I usually let this cook, while I stir, until it is a light caramel color.

By now, my pan juices have separated and I can see the juices on the bottom of my separator and the fat on the top. I do not need the fat in my gravy. Slowly and carefully, I start to add the juices to the roux. It will bubble up quickly and it will be HOT... be careful. (I wear oven mitts.) Watch the separator while you pour so that the fat stays in the cup and only the juices are used.
Stir constantly.

Now, once you have used all your pan juices, look at the gravy. Is it the consistency you enjoy? The thickness or thinness of gravy is a personal decision. You might not even need all your pan juices. Watch as you stir. If it is still too thick after your juices are added, begin using canned broth. Stirring constantly over low heat, keep adding broth until your gravy is as thick as you would like it to be.

I keep my gravy over low heat until we are ready to eat. It is the last thing I put on the table. Be sure to taste the gravy before you serve it. You can add some salt, pepper or sage to taste.

You can use this same recipe to make any kind of gravy, at all. I use this recipe for our weekly Sunday dinner... though for a regular meal like that, I use a half stick of butter and a quarter cup of flour. I do not need nearly as much gravy on a Sunday as I do on Thanksgiving day. :)

This gravy recipe is easy and always turns out well. I have tried the water and flour gravy and the cornstarch gravy but the flavor of roux gravy is so much richer! Give it a shot and let me know what you think!

Blessings on your day!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stellar Stuffing--You Can Do It!

For those of you who have gotten some strange blog posts delivered to your inbox lately, I apologize. I have had a couple of blog issues lately. This post is the one that was supposed to go out today! Enjoy!

Thanksgiving is getting so close, you can almost smell it! :) I am so excited! As someone who likes to cook, I am eager to get going and start putting together this absolutely amazing meal.

Last week, we talked about how to make that turkey. Easy peasy, right? The stuffing is simple, too! Today, let's talk about how to make great stuffing from scratch. If you have never done this before, no worries. Making this important part of the Thanksgiving meal is a no-stress deal.

I told you last week, that I am really about straightforward food. If you want cranberries in your stuffing... or even sausage... you go ahead. For me, I love stuffing... good, old-fashioned stuffing. Nothing fancy, nothing tricky, nothing unusual. But feel free to do what works for you.

So, what do you need?

-A pot with water and the neck, heart, etc... you found in your turkey
-Lots of bread
-A bag of stuffing (I like Pepperidge Farm)
-Salt and Pepper
-A can or two of broth

I start the day before Thanksgiving. The process takes a bit of time but is totally worth it. I usually have a selection of bread... some wheat, some white, some "stuffing" bread. I clear the island in my kitchen, cut the bread into cubes and lay it on the island to dry. I like some of the cubes to be toasted, as well. Some of the bread is then put into a pan and popped into the oven until it browns slightly. Once that is done, I put it back on the island to keep drying.

Stuffing needs to be flavored and the taste that makes you think about poultry is sage. So, with the stuffing still on the island, I sprinkle dried sage all over it. I add salt and pepper... and if I have poultry seasoning (which also has sage in it) I will sprinkle that over the cubes, too.

Still on Wednesday, I will cut a bunch of celery and a good-sized onion. I bag these and put them into the fridge to be ready on Thanksgiving morning.

When I wake up on Thursday, it is time to put the whole deal together. In the turkey blog post, we talked about putting all those parts you found inside your turkey into a pot of water. Start by putting this on the stove and simmering it gently. I add salt, pepper and a bunch of sage. (I use powdered, not fresh... but you could use either.) Let this is cook away. You are creating a broth to be used to make your stuffing.

While that simmers, I put all my bread cubes into a huge bowl. I always have too much bread... though I would rather have too much than too little. I add one package of Pepperidge Farm prepared stuffing to this mix. I have not always done it this way, but their stuffing is very good and adds a firmness to my homemade mix. To this bowl, I add most of the onion and at least two big handfuls of celery. (I would love to give you amounts... but I don't cook that way. Look at it while you put it together... if you don't see enough of anything, add more. Stuffing is very forgiving!)

Once the turkey parts have cooked through in the water on the stove, it is time to put the stuffing together. It can be helpful to have a can or two of broth on hand. (If you find canned turkey broth, get bunches!) Now, start adding the broth you have in the pot on the stove to the bowl of bread. Stir it up and then add more. Keep doing this until your stuffing starts to come together. I don't want stuffing that is dripping wet... just moist throughout. If you run out of broth from the pot on the stove, keep going with canned broth. The bread will start to fall apart a bit and it will begin to look like stuffing. Take a minute to smell your mix. Does it smell like stuffing? Toy with your seasonings a bit... but most likely, if it still smells like bread, you need more sage. I am careful with salt... this is easily added to taste when the stuffing is served.

So, what do you do with it? That is totally up to you! I like to have stuffing in my turkey and stuffing that is cooked separately. If you choose to stuff the turkey, remember to extend your roasting time and be SURE the stuffing is hot enough before removing the bird from the oven. Because you used real broth from real turkey parts, it must be cooked through. Also, remember to stuff both cavities in your turkey. The neck cavity is my favorite stuffing of all! (I stuff the bird while it is in the roasting pan and tuck the skin under the bird to keep it in.)

The stuffing in a pan is actually called "dressing"... but I call it all stuffing, anyway! :) For that pan, I put stuffing in, smooth it across the top and bake it in the oven until it is hot through and through. You will know it is done when it is 165 degrees in the center. (Remember how I told you that thermometer would come in handy?) When the stuffing is starting to get close to that temperature, I will often put a bit of butter on the top. This helps to create that crispy top on your dressing. I don't do that to the stuffing in a turkey because there is enough "fat" from the turkey to do the same thing.

So, that's all there is to it! If you can cube bread, you can make your own homemade stuffing. Feeling creative? There are millions of recipes that add other ingredients to this tried and true mix. You can try cranberries, clams, sausage, eggs... the list is endless!

Last year, my family made stuffing together. My kids and I stood around the island in the kitchen and diced bread and talked and laughed... Sitting down around our Thanksgiving table meant something new to us, last year. Creating the meal together created far more than food. We made memories, my family and I.

And that is something that lasts far longer than the dinner we shared...

Blessings on your day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Thanksgiving is possible only for those who take time to remember; no one can give thanks who has a short memory. ~Author Unknown

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Blog Rewind: What Good Mommas Do

~I wrote this post a few years ago... the memories are still warm for me today.~

How I love Thursdays! I don't know what your week looks like, but for us, the beginning of each week is always extraordinarily busy! Between shuttling our littlest ones to and from preschool and helping to run our amazing MOMs Group, Monday through Wednesday rush by way too quickly. Oh, but Thursdays... Thursdays are the day we do not have to be anywhere or do anything or rush in any way at all. As the momma of four busy children, the pace of this day is like a heavenly retreat.

I read somewhere that good mommas get up, get dressed and put on their shoes, first thing every day. These mommas are always ready to run out the door and on to the next thing. Being dressed is supposed to get you ready for work and cleaning and accomplishing great things every day. Right now, it is after 10 AM and I am sitting here in my pajamas. I do not want to be a momma who is always ready to run out to the next big thing. I do not want to be a momma who is constantly seeking more work or greater accomplishment. No, I want to be a momma who takes a day, every week, to sit in her jammies with babies on her lap and read a book. I want to look into the sleepy faces of my relaxed little ones and laugh with great abandon. I want to be the momma who can crawl into bed with my children, and share a story or build a fort or play flash light games and not have to worry about my shoes catching on the sheets.

If good mommas have to be ready and dressed every single day, I will embrace being a bad momma and leave my shoes at the door. Today, will look at my children, straight in the face. I will tickle them and play with them and get very little done. For right now, I will let that be okay and remind myself that today is Thursday and it is a gift.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Talking Turkey: Easy Peasy

It's almost Thanksgiving. Are you getting ready? I am getting pretty excited because the whole Thanksgiving weekend is just so very fun for our family. But, before we get to the fun, it will be time to cook. If you read this blog every now and then, you know I love to cook!

I also know there are LOTS of people who are worried about all this baking and cooking and sauteing and such. There are commercials showing harried women pulling gargantuan turkeys in and out of the oven with sweat on their weary brows. There are millions of magazine articles laying out complex turkey recipes with fruit and flavors that will send many women to the grocery store, hunting through stacks of specialty items. It all seems so hard. So overwhelming. With so much speaking to the craziness of it all, it must be really complex. Right?

Nah. Not at all. The truth of the matter is a turkey is really easy to make. Seriously.

So, here is a bit of self disclosure. When it comes to food, I am a bit of a purist. I love when a turkey tastes like a turkey. Do not look for pomegranate seeds in my stuffing. The straightforward flavor of the bird itself is the flavor of Thanksgiving to me. So, I will tell you what I do... but know that about me up front. That said, my turkey is never dry, always tastes good and receives rave reviews from my fam.

Wanna learn how? No stress, I promise.

First of all, gotta have a bird. I plan a pound per person plus a little bit more because I LOVE leftovers. So, count your folks and buy a bird. What bird? That is your call... but I sure love a Butterball.

Next, your bird needs to be defrosted by the time you are ready to cook. It's a tricky thing because it takes FOREVER to defrost. The Butterball website says to plan on putting your bird in the oven for one day for every four pounds. It always makes me nervous to keep poultry in my fridge that long so I prefer cold water thawing... 30 minutes per pound in the wrapper in cold water in your sink. If you don't want to thaw a turkey, you can always buy it fresh.

Now, to make the turkey, you want to be sure you sink and counters are CLEAN. I like to have a bleach spray on hand for cleaning up after preparing your bird. On your counter, put a pot, your roasting pan sprayed with Pam and with that string lifter thingy set inside, some salt (I like Kosher salt.) and some paper towels. Remember, you do not want to touch lots of stuff with turkey juice on your hands. Keep your food and your kitchen safe.

Start but putting the turkey in the sink and cutting open the wrapper. There will be juices. Don't freak out. :) While the bird is sitting in there, find the giblet bag(s). In the main opening of the turkey, there will likely be one. In the neck opening there might be another. Dump these into water in the pot on your sink. We will get back to that in a later blog.

To roast a turkey, you will need to rinse it out. You are going to get wet. It's okay. Stick your hand inside that big opening and feel around in there. There should not be lots of hanging things. If there are, pull them out. Run cold water through there and dump it out. Put your bird into the roasting pan, breast side up. Once it is in there, wash your hands with hot water and soap. Poultry is one of those things you gotta be careful with!

When you hands are clean, open the oil and then pour some salt into your hand. I put the salt in my right hand. I keep my left hand away from the bird for now. Stick your salty hand into that big opening in your bird and rub the salt all over inside. With your clean hand, grab the oil ( I use canola for this.) and rub the skin of the bird. Get it all over the turkey. Not gobs, just enough that it looks good and shiny. (Some folks use butter for this... that can totally work... but I use oil... I am always afraid that butter will burn. Now, wash your hands again.
Nothing too tricky yet, right? :)

Now, if you go to the Butterball site, they will tell you that you should preheat your oven to 325 degrees. I don't do that. I set my oven higher, to about 400 degrees. What I want is to get a good seal on the skin. Starting hot works for me.

So preheat your oven to whatever you choose. Take out the extra shelf and put your turkey in the oven. What about stuffing, you ask? We will talk about that in an upcoming blog. Also, crazy easy. But for today, let's set it aside.

I put the turkey in the oven and let it start roasting away. When I start to smell turkey smells in my house, I go and check on the bird. If there is a little color on the skin, I lower the temperature to 325 degrees. (Probably about 30-45 minutes at 400 degrees, then lower.
Is it covered?

Is it in a baking bag?

Do I put on a lid?
Heaven's no! I don't like a soggy bird. I don't want to steam it, I want to roast it. But do what works for you. :) Some folks swear by those methods... and some of it works great. You need the turkey to taste the way Thanksgiving tastes to you.

Now, the bird will cook for a while. I do baste it from time to time but I think that has more to do with my feeling like I have to DO something than any need the bird has. I have a great baster from Pampered Chef that I just love to use.

The other thing I love to do is add cans of turkey or chicken broth to the roasting pan while it roasts. You don't have to do this but the canned broth tastes so much better if it has been cooking with the drippings from the bird. What difference does it make? None. Unless you want gravy. I know I do! And I like to have plenty of gravy. After all, there will certainly be leftovers!

You will follow the roasting guide that comes with your turkey or find another one here. But, don't ignore the turkey to pay attention to the clock. If my turkey skin starts to get really brown, I make a tent out of foil and put it over my bird. No matter how the bird looks, it is not done until it registers 180 degrees deep in the thigh. If you haven't already, go ahead and buy a meat thermometer. They are handy to have anyway.

Here is the thing. It's cooked or its not. You have to be sure that it is. The juices should run clear. If they are red at all, your turkey is not cooked. Not sure what color they are? Let them run into a spoon. Red drippings mean the meat is not safe to eat. Keep roasting it.

(BTW, I have mistakenly taken the turkey out too soon. I don't recommend it. I finished the cooking, after slicing, in the microwave but it was not nearly as good as keeping it in the oven the right amount of time.)

When you finally get the right temperature, pull that turkey out and let it sit a while. It will not cool off. You have time, lots of time! Don't even think about it again until you are almost ready to eat. Get everything else ready. Then slice the turkey and take it right to the table. I am not the queen of slicing... but I work it out anyway. Sometimes, you will have someone sharing Thanksgiving dinner with you who loves to slice. If so, let them do it! :)

So, lets review:

How to Roast a Turkey in 50 Words or Less!

1. Buy a turkey.

2. Defrost said turkey.

3. Rinse your bird.

4. Put in pan

5. Salt your bird.

6. Oil the skin.

7. Calculate roasting time.

8. Heat oven.

9. Put bird in.

10. Let it cook.

11. Baste if you wanna.

12. Check the temperature.

13. Take it out if done.

12. Let it sit.

13. Cut it up.

15. Feast!
Not too tricky, huh?

Once you get the hang of it, you can try other stuff... but first just master the basic deal. Serving the turkey just like this will have your guests going on and on about how amazing you are. I promise. It doesn't take much to make people happy. :) And after hours of smelling that bird roasting away, they are ready to enjoy the meal.

The holidays can be stressful. There are a million things to take care of and so much cooking to do. But, dear friends, do not buy into the common theory that the turkey is what is going to be hard. It really isn't. It is just as easy as roasting a chicken... and if you haven't done that before, you can use these directions to get it done.

Now, let's share some tips! What do you like to add to your bird that makes it taste like Thanksgiving to you? Or, share what dish has to be on that table, beside the bird! I would love to hear your thoughts! I am always looking for new ideas.

Just remember this... the Thanksgiving turkey? Easy peasy. Give it try! I will post about stuffing and gravy soon so be sure to stop by again!

Blessings on your day!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Simple Woman's Daybook--November 16

If you blog, you can do this, too. C'mon, you can do it! Join in the fun!

Outside my window...it is sunny and chilly. The late autumn sun is a different color from the mid-summer sun... whiter, cooler...

I am thinking... about our health. We have been hit hard with a terrible bug and while Josiah and I are a bit under the weather, Elizabeth now has pneumonia. She is really feeling badly and I feel awful for her. I so hope the rest of the kids do not get this cold. We are all back on vitamins now (we had not begun our "flu season" vitamins before we all got sick...) and I feel deeply affirmed that these vitamins make a huge difference in how healthy we stay.

I am thankful for... my fever breaking in the night. I am thankful for vitamins, for a quiet minute to get ready for a day of caring for sick days, for bits of sleep last night, for hot coffee...

From the kitchen... We grilled Benjamin's birthday dinner last night and it was WONDERFUL... Today, we are having chicken soup for lunch and pasta for dinner.

I am wearing... black cords, grey, long-sleeved t-shirt, crocs. After being sick, I am really glad to be up and dressed! :)

I am creating... a set of Thanksgiving devotions for families, another article for MOPs, and I am going over my talks for this week. I speak three times between now and Saturday. Here's hoping my voice comes back soon! (Prayers appreciated!)

I am dreaming... about the holidays. I work very hard to create a faith and family centered time for us. It is simple, loving and good... but it takes planning. Time for me to think it through and start getting ready. Sounds like work... but it really isn't. It is what I love to do...

I am going...to help Josiah and Elizabeth get caught up on the school work they have missed since getting sick. We are also going on a "virtual field trip" to Plimoth Plantation today at noon! Can't wait! (Google Plimoth Plantation to learn more...)

I am reading... Radical... love it. Makes me think.

I am hoping... that Elizabeth gets better soon. She has been sick almost a week. Pneumonia is no good... poor girl...

I am hearing... the TV in the background, the clicking of my laptop keys. :)

Around the house... I need to get organized for the kids lessons from school, and pick up a bit. Our highest priority today will be balance... some work, some play, LOTS of rest.

One of my favorite things... watching Josiah handle a hard time... he is just so happy. Nothing shakes his faith, nothing brings him down... He is my son but he inspires me to be a better person... to be more optimistic. Yesterday, with a fever of 103, he was still smiling as he sang "O come let us adore Him..." Yes, my dear son, let's...

A few plans for the rest of the week...lots of speaking, some writing. I speak on three different topics this week so being prepared makes a world of difference! :)

What about you? : )

Blessings on your day!

Looking for more like this?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blog Rewind: Thanksgiving Thoughts

"Perhaps it takes a purer faith to praise God for unrealized blessings than for those we once enjoyed or those we enjoy now." ~A.W. Tozer

Blessings on your day!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Parents and Teachers and Together: 936 No More

What do you value? Have you ever wondered if you life tells this tale for you? If you sit down with your family budget, will it show what's important to you?

Mark and I think about this often and the thinking and evaluating helps us to make decisions about what we should or should not do when a choice must be made. If we look at where our money goes, it tells a bit about what we value, what matters to us. For us, faith and education top that list.

I have been thinking about education a lot lately. As a teacher, I knew my work was important. As a parent, I know that in a whole new way. I want my children to have an education that affords them the choices they will want as adults. I want my children to feel confident as they grow and seek to understand the world around them. We take it seriously... and that is not always an easy thing.

With the recent opening of the documentary Waiting for Superman, I have found myself in conversation with many people over the past two months about the state of the education system. It worries me. It breaks my heart.

I know that there are many amazing teachers doing great work in schools all over the country. I am so grateful for their effort... especially when it means that they may have to do that work in a system that makes it feel like they are swimming upstream. The amazing teachers do not worry me. They make me thankful.

What weighs on me is the number of schools that are failing. What weighs on me is the number of children that effects. What weighs on me is the fact that all of those teachers and all of those administrators will get paid anyway. With your money. With my money. And it feels as though there is nothing we can do about it at all.

I believe it is time for change. When is the last time you wandered into the local grocery store, handed over your hard-earned cash, and then did not check to see that you were getting what you expected in your cart? You would NEVER do that. If you purchased a whole, fryer chicken, it would certainly not be okay with you to get a pack of chicken wings!

And yet, when it comes to the same hard-earned cash being paid for taxes and sent to your local school, we feel somehow disconnected from that money. It's just taxes, right? Just taxes. We feel like we have no say.

Wrong. This has to be wrong.

Have you ever googled your state's Report Card? Schools are required to post this information and it is (or should be) available to you. Take a peek. See what you think... I did just that today. It is a confusing site and has many overlapping statistics. But, if I understand it correctly, my home state of Illinois currently shows that 76% of students meet or exceed state standards. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? (I do worry that the actual standards are not listed on the website though... What is that standard? Hard to know how I feel about it if the standard is 60%.) Or, it looks differently if you think that this very stat means that 24% or 1 in 4 children approximately, does NOT meet that standard. Maybe that is okay given the wide span of learning issues represented in our schools. There are so many different kinds of kids... so many kids who struggle in so many different ways and I am grateful that our public school system enfolds children, even when they need creative ways to learn... So, let's look at it another way. The state reports on "adequate yearly progress". I can't say I love the term because I know I want better for my child than "adequate". How does Illinois rate in this way? Do we pass? The report shows that there are 3910 schools in this state, 2253 of which made adequate yearly progress. I believe this means that about 1657 schools did NOT make the progress expected by the state. The report also points out that 791 schools in Illinois are improving... but what about the other 936?

My friends, in this state that I adore, as you sit here right now reading this blog, there are 936 schools failing. Right now, there are real children sitting in real classrooms with real teachers and it is just not working. The learning we MUST offer our children is not happening. The standards set forward by those in positions to set those standards are not being met. It scares me to think about how many students that actually effects.

We can sit together today and talk about why. We can wonder and chat and carry on about it all but I have to wonder if any of that makes a difference in the lives of those kids. You see, this isn't theory. This is real life. And whether it is because of money, or unions, or teachers or location or situation wont really matter when those children graduate and cannot read or write. This is not a time for pointing out how great some educators are or how little we appreciate the success stories in Illinois. Both of those things are true. There are great teachers in Illinois and many success stories and those teachers and successful schools have earned our appreciation. But, these points do not negate the fact that in some schools, in way too many schools, standards are not being met. Remember, this is real. This is current. These children exist and are not theoretical. They are sitting in a real classroom right now. Real children who mean as much to their mommas as your little ones mean to you. Real children who will grow up and decide the direction of this country... who will have children of their own and who will have to find a school for them, too.

This matters to me. It matters to me that my children get an education they can use. It matters to me that we, as a country, come to value that in a way that expects change from all schools... especially those 936. And this might be the time for us, as parents, to say "This is enough!" and demand better from those who need their expectations to be higher.

In the United States, our kids are expected to have 180 school days. In Canada, that number is 194. Our kids go to school for roughly 6 hours a day. Many countries have far longer days. In China, kids spend up to 8.6 hours a day in a classroom and attend school between 190-228 days per year. How can we teach them everything they must learn, everything other children in the world are learning, if we do not have enough time? Do we value it really? Really? If our school day is getting shorter and we are falling in achievement level and our drop out rates are rising and if 936 schools can be failing and yet everyone still gets paid? Is this about year-round schooling? It is not what I am suggesting. But, I know that in my town, kids are home well before 3pm. What would happen if we added only one hour? That is 180 extra hours of instruction... what could we do with that?

Do you feel as stuck as I do sometimes? Does it feel like there is a disconnect between what we want for our kids and what some kids are provided? Do you want more for your taxes? I do. I really do. And I know people will get mad and carry on about unions and hours and work load and salary and... We need to stop. We need to stop being distracted and start expecting more. More from ourselves and more from the schools and teachers that are not doing what we need them to do. Believe me, there is no teacher shortage. If we were able to find the teachers who really do not want to do this job and if we were able to open their positions, I know there are thousands of recent college grads that would do anything for one of their spots. College grads who have spent years dreaming of a classroom of their own. College grads who are brimming with new ideas, young legs and energetic optimism who would love to spend their days with kids who NEED to learn.

That said, we all need to do our part. No one is exempt from raising a generation of children who are really well-educated. As parents, what shall we do? What part do we have to play?

A couple of easy ideas:

1. Read to your child. Find ways to make reading fun. It is a little thing that makes a world of difference. Reading is crucial to a great education. If your child can learn to enjoy it, you are giving them a step up in the process. As a former first grade teacher, I can tell you that this point cannot be made strongly enough. Don't give up, dear friend. Find the key that opens this lock.

2. Help your kids understand how important school is in their lives. Get excited with them about the opportunity they have to learn from their teacher. Fostering a positive attitude in our kids will go a long way toward helping them get invested in their own learning. Speak highly about school, about teachers, about the choices your kids are earning as they seek success in their academic life.

3. Know what is happening at school and get involved. Try to keep up with what is being taught in the classroom and discuss it at home. Looking up the same subject online with your child to help them discover even more about the topic can help them to see how interesting learning can be. Nurturing a love for discovery and curiosity makes a world of difference.

4. Foster learning at home. Turn the TV off after school and offer comfortable places for your child do his or her homework. Snacks and breaks can help an overwhelmed student feel more at ease. In our home, we even encourage the older kids to read and study with the younger kids so that everyone gets involved. And when the TV does get turned on, turn on the captions, too. Seeing the words that are spoken written on the screen helps the details of reading fall into place.

5. Visit school. No matter where you choose to send your child, you should be welcome to visit and help out during the school day. Get to know the office staff by name. Knowing that we are all part of the same community can help people feel connected and improve a difficult situation. And when you visit, every now and then, bring something for the teacher. Even on our tight budget I can share some baked good with the people who spend more time with my children than I do. Watching a teacher feel appreciated is an awfully nice thing.

6. When something is unclear, ask questions. We do not want schools to feel like we are always looking for an issue but we do want to foster an environment of accountability. If you don't understand how or why something is happening with your child, talk to the teacher in a respectful and open way. You are on the same team. Approach the conversation in that way. When the parents and teachers work together, when you do what the teacher requests at home, when you communicate about issues happening in your house, your child will benefit. Guaranteed.

7. If something is not right, follow through. If you see something that is bothersome, do something about it! Whether that is something that relates specifically to your child or your tax dollars (or both!), talk to the school administration and make your worries known. Maybe you do not understand the issue or maybe a change is needed. Until the school is aware of the concerns of parents, change will not occur. It is time for us to work together, expecting more of one another and helping each other meet goals that will benefit our children.

8. See Waiting for Superman and think about the big picture. I know a lot of you already do. Maybe your child goes to an excellent school. That is great! But until all children have access to good education, we all have work to do. You may deeply disagree with this movie and that is okay. The more we hear about all sides of the education issue in the United States, the easier it will be to find ways to fix what is broken. Is the whole system broken? No. But, if there are children in this country who do not have access to education that will open doors in their futures, we must fix the things that are broken.

9. If you know a great teacher or if your child spends the day with one, pat them on the back. Sing their praises loudly! Send an email to the principal and tell them how pleased you are with that teacher! (Principals get LOTS of negative emails... send an email of praise!) Teachers need to know we see all that they do for children. They need to know we appreciate them. Send a thank you note, a baked good, a gift. Tell them face-to-face. The work teachers do on behalf of our kids is hard and when it is done well, it must be noticed. (As a total aside, each year for Christmas, I give a homemade gift to my kids teachers--usually something I canned--and a thank you note that tells the teacher, in great detail, what they have done in the life of my child. I know this means the world to these amazing teachers. Positive feedback is powerful.)

10. Dream with your kids about where a great education can take them. With good grades and a positive attitude, kids have so many choices! Help them to think about all the incredible things they could do with their lives and help them connect the dots. The work they are doing today matters for what they get to do tomorrow! And if you find your child is struggling, help them. Help them. Encourage them and work with them and talk to the teacher so that your children feel like they can keep moving toward those open doors. Discouraged children lose a lot of steam... help them work it through while speaking truth and hope into their young lives.

Do you see? We all have a part to play. Parents and teachers working together to build a community that supports the learning of children for the betterment of society! It is a beautiful picture that is lived out all over the country! But... not everywhere. There are children who need to catch a glimpse of this vision... who need access to better schools... who do not have the options we want for our kids. It is time to take our tax dollars seriously and find ways to help schools that need it. It is time to support the teachers who do amazing work, some with very little, and thank them for a job well done. It is time to find ways to reform the school system in America so that there are not 936 failing schools in ANY state.

When we come to see, teachers and parents alike, that this is a work that we share... that there is accountability both ways... that location or economy should not dictate quality... things will change. And the people who will benefit from that growth and reform are the children. The same children who will someday grow up, and in turn, seek to educate their own little ones. There is a ripple effect here that is worth all the effort, worth all the talk, worth all the work that it will take to do better.

Because really, what do you value? I am asking myself the same question. When I look at my life, at my choices, at my checkbook, do they confirm what my words say is truth? Looks like an easy question... but it is harder than it seems. This is not a topic for finger-pointing because we all have a part to play. And when it's all said and done, the answer will be clear. We will see what we valued in how we all lived and not in what we said.

In our family, value education. But, I know I must do more. What about you?

Blessings on your day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Exposing Who We Are...

Yesterday, I was straightening up our home. I cannot say it is a job I enjoy but it is a necessary component of my day. Often, as I move from room to room, I can feel my frustration levels rise. With four kids living here and our very full schedule bringing a challenge to most days, it is easy for the house to get pretty messy, pretty quickly. As I work, I often feel a little put out as I pick up things I did not leave around. There is a voice in my head that says, "Look, they are taking advantage of you. See? They know you will pick it up, so they leave it for you to do."

I hate that voice. I hate that feeling.

And yet... there is a truth to it all, too. Right?

That is not a fun way to clean. Not at all. And the truth of the matter is, cleaning is a part of life. No matter how much I hate it, no matter how frustrating it is, I will have to do it anyway. Uplifting blog post, huh? :)

I am not sure what happened yesterday, but for a few minutes I began to see the task differently. For a little while, as I cleaned up other people's messes, I realized that all those many things told me something about the person who left them laying about.

Let me explain.

As I went into the living room, the throw pillows that belong on the couch, were tossed onto the floor. As I picked them up, I remembered Josiah and EB tickling each other before school and in their rolling about, the pillows fell off the couch.

In cleaning up the bay window, I found an assignment guide of Noah's that helps him to know what math problems are to be done each night. Half the sheet is scratched off and I was reminded about how easily that has happened for him this year. The math teachers in middle school have helped him to understand the subject I always hated the most. Now, he loves it and works through the assignments with no struggle, no stress, no trouble at all. My son loves math.

As I straightened the kitchen, I found a stuffed white bunny on the island, next to a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Josiah's most beloved lovey, White Bunny (who is not very white anymore...) leaves the bed with him each morning and lands somewhere in his morning routine. Yesterday morning, White Bunny made it to breakfast. And by bedtime, we were all searching for him so Josiah could sleep. I love seeing my sweet boy carrying around that ratty old rabbit, each and every morning.

I entered the dining room and noticed immediately that there was sand beneath my feet. On the table were two models from ancient Egypt. Benjamin was given an assignment a couple weeks back to write a research paper on Egypt and then to do a project. For my over-achiever, one project is never enough. He came home and told us that he wanted to recreate both a pyramid and the Sphinx. After much squishing of clay, and rolling said clay in bunches of sand, the models are complete and drying on the dining room table. How Benjamin loves a job well done!

I also came across:

-Noah's open book on the arm of the couch.
-Two pages of the story Josiah is writing.
-Benjamin's shin guards and soccer socks from his play-off game.
-Elizabeth's baby doll's pajamas and fully dressed doll.
-Four cups of water
-Two markers
-A book list for school
-Three small candy wrappers
-A dog bone

As I finished my work and got ready to head off to school to pick up my kids, I just had to smile. Instead of focusing on the fairness of the work, I focused instead on the family for which I am working. In paying attention to the task at hand, my family had been exposed. Their likes and hobbies and beloved things... all of this surrounded me and I was enfolded in bits of their young lives.

My head was full of pictures. Pictures of my kids playing soccer and rolling out of bed. Pictures of them smiling and laughing and playing together. Pictures of homework getting done, snacks being eaten, projects getting accomplished, toys being played with, books being read... Pictures of... life. Life lived together in this humble space.

Yesterday, I spent time cleaning my house. It is not a job I enjoy but I sure love the people reflected in this work.

Blessings on your day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Blog Rewind: Making Applesauce

Last week, my kids got out of school early one day. I had spoken to a MOPs group that morning and I was beat. I had laundry to do and errands to run and found myself surrounded by all four of my children instead. Ever have one of those days when you know you have to regroup? This was that day for me.

Josiah loves apples. He would be fully content if we never processed one of the fresh picked apples from the orchard. Every day, every single day, Josiah eats an apple. (I will tell you that there must be something to be said about apples and health because the boy is rarely sick!) And while the apples we picked were meant to be eaten, I knew we were out of homemade applesauce and that our fresh picked crop needed to be canned.

Have you ever made applesauce with your kids? My friend Kristie taught me to do it about 5 years ago and honestly, I felt silly for not having done it before. It is easy, fun and healthy. Since Kristie showed us how, we have made applesauce every year and often give it as gifts at Christmas. My kids love the process and it has become a fun, family activity that helps save us money and eat more fruit!

Before I share our process, let me just encourage you. Some of you are excellent cooks who do so often. Some of you are totally intimidated by such things and I can totally understand that, too. Somewhere along the way, I found myself wanting to know how to do some home-y things that I somehow never learned to do. I was overwhelmed. I was intimidated. I was clueless! What I have found is that if I tap someone who can share some ideas or instructions with me, most things are really not that hard. Or... maybe I just like to find the easy way to do them! When I first thought about making applesauce, I really thought I would have to peel all those apples. I thought I would have to core all those apples! Just imagining the process exhausted me. Truth be told, you do not have to do either of these things... and making applesauce is easy... and it is SO good. If you have not done it before, this really is something you can do.

On that early dismissal day, I knew I would have all four kids home and we had time when we had nothing else to do. Perfect! I hunted for my canning supplies and hauled the apples in from the garage. Here is what we use for supplies:

1. Three big pots. One of these is a canning pot. You can buy one at Wal-Mart. Before I bought a canning pot, I used a big stock pot that I usually use for soup.

2. Knives for cutting the apples. One knife per person... my little ones use butter knives.

3. A saucer. Usually the box says tomato press. (It can be used to make apple or tomato sauce)You can buy them on-line, at Farm and Fleet, or other kitchen supply stores. It is TOTALLY worth buying this tool. With it, you will not have to peel or core your apples. It clamps to your counter (or has a suction cup... I prefer the clamp) and is the way that cooked apples turn into sauce.

4. Apples... lots of them!

5. Spices. Try cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice or clove... or a wonderful mixture of all of the above.

6. Canning jars, lids and rims. They are cheap and can be found at grocery stores, Wal-Mart, Target, on-line... anywhere!

7. Lots of bowls! : )

So, here is what we do:

We start by washing the apples. Rotten apples get thrown away, bruised apples stay. We toss them into the sink and fill it up with water. Eighty pounds of apples is about three sink fulls.

Next, we set up to cut the apples. I start by showing the kids how we do it. Essentially, we cut each apple into eight pieces. My older kids make the first cut, my younger ones cut the halves, which will not roll away. I help them see how to hold their fingers away from the knives and we focus on safety.

The apples then get thrown into a pot (pot 1) with a bit of water or apple cider. We keep cutting while the apples begin to simmer. The goal is to get the apples soft... the peels, cores, seeds and stems are still completely attached.

While these apples simmer, the kids are still cutting the others into eighths. As their pile of pieces grows, I get out another pot (pot 2) and fill that one, too. If I am able to step away during all of this, I get out the canning pot (pot 3) and fill it with hot water. I put that one of another burner and cover the pot to encourage it to boil. As soon as the water in pot 3 boils, I drop my jars and my lids into the water to heat. I just let this boil away until I need the jars later.

As soon as the apples in pot 1 are softened, I dump them into a bowl to begin to cool. I rinse this pot and then give it back to the kids to fill with more cut apples.

Now, with our saucer set up, I pour the apples into the top and start to turn the crank. All the kids like to have a turn helping with this part! The apples go into the top and then the crank turns them into the saucer. Applesauce falls out of the side of the saucer and all the stems, seeds, peels and cores come out the end. It is an amazing tool!

When we are done with processing the apples from pot 1, I check pot 2 for soft apples. If they are ready, we pour them into a bowl, rinse the pot and fill it with more apples. Pot 1 goes back to heat and we just keep going this way.

When the bowl with the applesauce in it is getting full, we stop what we are doing and add some spices. We use Jonagold and Fuji apples and have never needed to add any sugar at all. After we mix it, it is time to start filling jars. I pull several jars out of the boiling canning pot and use a measuring cup with a handle (two cup, glass measuring cup) to pour the sauce into the jars. I use a funnel to get the sauce in without getting it on the jars. As soon as the sauce is in, I pull a lid from the boiling water and use a rim to keep it on. We keep filling the jars this way.

Once we have processed all our apples and all our jars are full, I tighten all the rims and return them to the boiling water in the canning pot. They need to boil in the water bath for 20 minutes, completely submerged. Depending on how much applesauce you have, you might need to do this in batches.

After the time has elapsed, we pull the jars out and put them on a towel to cool. As they cool, you should hear them pop. When they pop, the canning seal is REALLY sealed. Once they are sealed, they will keep for several years. We normally make some applesauce without seasoning, some with cinnamon and clove and some with our secret ingredient that turns our applesauce pink! The pink is my favorite, by far!

We love the process and I love helping my kids to learn that hard work done together can create something so yummy. We work hard to make it fun and everyone enjoys the process. Every now and then, I will send them off to play while I process some on my own. The breaks help a ton!

We also save some apples for pies and cakes. This year, Josiah and Benjamin used my apple/peeler/corer/slicer to prepare apples for other uses. We find that one apple can make about a cup of sliced apple. My pie recipe calls for 6 cups of sliced apples so we froze sliced, peeled apples in this quantity seasoned with cinnamon and sugar in Ziploc bags. Throughout the next year, I will be able to pull a bag of fresh apples out of my deep freeze and quickly and easily make home-made apple pie.

This year, we have had two apple saucing sessions. Both lasted just a couple of hours and the jars of applesauce will last us over a year. Every time we serve the applesauce, our children talk about the process. They feel a sense of pride about what they have done together and I love to hear them remember that day. I love that we are eating food we picked and processed and is fully without preservatives.

Last week, my kids got out of school early. Though I was tired, I had my kids at home for a bit of extra time and chose to do something together. I needed to regroup. Sometimes, I need to remember that needing to regroup does not always mean spending time alone. No doubt about it, it was work. But in the end, I spent the afternoon listening to my children talk and giggle while we sought to reach a common goal. I taught them something concrete that they will have when I am no longer here. We made some memories together and created a way to remember it again and again... and all of it tasted so very sweet.

Now that is a way to regroup.

Blessings on your day!
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