Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Practice patience and not perfection...

Today I am annoyed with one of my children for a pretty small reason. I think that often we are annoyed with people that are ultimately small fry and this is a prime example. This child switched a load of laundry and I know, I know, he just grabbed the whole wad and tossed it into the dryer. I would separate each piece, shake it, and place it in the dryer and never forget to check for stain removal and be sure to hang or lay out all the appropriate items. Because laundry. He should have noticed the line dry only items.

If you know me, you know that I have two things about which I am super, super, embarrassingly neurotic about: 1) Food, 2) Laundry. If you don’t know me, well, now you know one of my salient characteristics. I will cry over food and laundry. I am stubbornly prideful about these things. The former is obvious and the latter, less so. Food is a great joy of mine. I love shopping for food, planning menus, cooking food, feeding other people, talking about food, eating food…food and food and more food. I sure you are not surprised by this. I write about food. The laundry thing might surprise you.

I care a great deal about properly done laundry. I want it sorted very specifically by color and washing temperature. I care about soaking and hand-washing and line drying or drying flat so the clothes last longer and wear well. Having an unfolded basket of laundry puts me on edge and I will get snappy and overwhelmed and drop everything to fold it. I am not like this about all things. For instance, I rarely mop. I sweep, I spot clean, and I ignore. Whatever. More time for laundry. My kids know that I will correct them if they don’t do it correctly and often I would rather do it myself than have it done badly. This means that I am more often than not struggling to keep up because I don’t let them do it. I make the perfect the enemy of the good. I have all kinds of good reasons for it. We don’t have a lot of money. We need these clothes to last. It won’t take me long. They could do other things. All these things sound rational but really they are a cover for pride.

Because I am prideful.

I have right now an opportunity to work on that pride. For Eastern Christians, Great Lent started yesterday. Clean Monday is usually quiet. We do okay. We do small little things with ease, like swap out half-and-half and instead choice almond milk. No big deal. The rubber meets the road when we have to do it again the next day, and the next, and the one after that. Then we start to get anxious and we start to complain. This is not going to be a post about how God is patient with us even when we struggle. He is, but that’s not what I am going to talk about. I am going to talk about our own patience.

I need to be more patient.

I didn’t yell at my son who switched the laundry but I was inwardly annoyed that he can never switch the laundry. He forgets to start one machine or the other or add soap or even do it at all but doesn’t remember that he didn’t. There is an enormous amount of babysitting when that kid is doing laundry. He means well and he is never intentionally disobedient. He just can’t do it. Sometimes I think he will never do it and this reminds me of something my mother-in-law said years ago when my husband and I were engaged.

She warned me he was passive aggressive and he had been so bad as an early teen, she had him stop washing dishes because he always broke at least one every single night. She took it personally. I hadn't seen anything like that so I asked him. He was so surprised. He had never intended to be so destructive; he was just a really clumsy child. It was never intentional. He did outgrow it and now a broken dish is a rare thing and I jokingly tease him that his mother warned me about him but it is a non-event. It’s small fry. Just like my laundry thing. My mother-in-law likes clean dishes and a clean sink and bleaches hers each night. Nothing else worries her as long as the dishes are done and her sink is sanitized, everything else fits in at the edges. She saw offense where there was none and to her credit she never let her son know it, she was very kind about it. I also see offense where there is none. It is just laundry. He will outgrow this but will I?

This Lent I will have lots of opportunities to do hard things (being vegan for seven weeks is freaking hard, guys) and I will have lots of opportunities to lose my cool. I need to practice patience. Patience with my children. Patience will people I meet. Patience with my laundry. Patience with myself. One of the things that I tell mothers is to practice patience and not perfection. When we make mistakes, start over. When we are upset with our kids, step back and cool off before getting back in the game. When someone is sharp with us, take a deep breath and realize that we might see offense where there is none, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Practice patience because nothing will ever be perfect. If I eat all the cheese in the deli case but I am patient, this Lent will be a success. I have no intention of doing that but really, that is what this season is about. I am going to start today with my laundry. Deep breath, people. I am going to have him start the next load.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Guiding children through Clean Week...

A lovely Facebook friend St. Seraphim Cathedral asked if I would write a couple of pieces for the church school families. I thought that it might help your families. This is the second of two pieces, the other may be found by clicking HERE.

We have been slowing stepping up towards its but it is nonetheless something of a shock when Great Lent finally arrives. The Church in her infinite wisdom slowly leads us into the most challenging of Fasts with a fast free week, a normal week, Cheesefare week, and then finally Clean Week. We should be ready but often we are like small children who have been warned that it is almost time to leave the playground and instead of being grateful for the time we have had, we start to feel just a little resentful that it is coming to an end. Clean Week is hard, there is no debating it. Not only is the spirit less than willing the body is more than weak. When we have children, we have to contend with their physical, psychological, and spiritual needs at this time and not only our own. Clean Week is the time to follow the Church’s advice and lead gently.

Show your children what is coming…
In our family, we will spend Sunday afternoon cleaning out our refrigerator, just like we always do. Things that can be frozen for Pascha will be and things that cannot will be eaten. When we move all the rich foods from the fridge and stock it with Lenten foods, it sets a tone. We wash all the shelves and drawers and even the outside so that we will be ready. Having a clean fridge filled a completely different set of contents is a physical reminder of what will begin.

Have a record keeping system for the weeks…
This is especially true for smaller children who don’t really understand calendars. My children have always liked the Lady Lent picture, the one with seven legs. We don’t do the salt dough or cookie one but that is because we have pets who might find them delicious. We stick with one printed out from an image on the internet and that is colored by the children. My children take turns taking the scissors and cutting off a leg at a time while they watch and wait for Pascha.

Give them something to look forward to…
Like I said before when I told you that you need a basic meal plan, you need to have a weekend plan. When the first weekend of Lent comes and it is more relaxed, then make it more relaxed. If you are pouring a glass of wine for dinner, make sure that the children have something special. In our family, we add seltzer water to juice for the children and let them sip from martini glasses. I have a large collection from the thrift store and a couple of plastic ones for the youngest. It’s special, and the children don’t get to do this very often so it gives them something to look forward to each week. We also make sure that we do a Sunday evening popcorn and movie night and we never forget to use lots and lots of olive oil and nutritional yeast. Your children need to a sense of relief from Lent, especially that first week, so make a plan for next week.

Build in some gentle dietary choices…
I know a lovely nun who jokingly refers to Clean Week as the “Insta-Cleanse” because the rapid and sudden shift from the diet of Cheesefare causes a little digestive upset. If your children are miserable from the diet of Clean Week, they will transfer their frustrations onto other elements of the Church and her practices. This is a dangerous practice. We have to find small ways of building in comfort, especially this week. Swap out whole grains for refined and polished grains and do not feel guilty. Believe you me, you are getting plenty of fiber this week already. A little less will be good for you! Provide white Lenten crackers, bagels, breads, and rice to have with our beans and lentils based dishes to make things a little easier. Also make sure that we have low fiber fruits like bananas, grapes, and melons. These make good snacks and help slow down the digestive system. You might want to avoid dried fruit this week and stick to fresh to reduce the fiber in your diet, reevaluate next week and see if your body is feeling ready for a little more fiber but go slowly, especially with small children.

Looking for other practical ideas?

  • Jennifer at Illuminated Learning has a great poster that you can download and print, just warning you that it is a larger poster and will need to be printed at a shop. Find it HERE.
  • Sylvia at OrthodoxMom wrote a wonderful Lenten study guide for mothers that I use and love. You can download and print the pages or you can load them onto a Kindle. Find it HERE.
  • Jane, the children’s book editor at Ancient Faith, put together a wonderful list of books to use with your children over great Lent. Find it HERE.
  • If you feel like you want something a little more in depth and you have the time and energy for it, this program by Annalisa is one my children have loved. I use it every summer as a substitute for Protestant Vacation Bible School for my own children. Find the book HERE.

Getting the kitchen ready for Great Lent...

A lovely Facebook friend from St. Seraphim Cathedral asked if I would write a couple of pieces for the church school families. I thought that it might help your families. This is the first of two pieces, the second can be found HERE.

Cheesefare is coming to a close and Clean Week is rapidly approaching. The trepidation, and perhaps even dread, that parents feel is palpable to their children. To help our children enter the fast with the right attitude and to help them learn to properly fast is especially challenging when we ourselves don’t know how to fast properly. I won’t talk about the spiritual aspects of fasting today because there is certainly no lack of books, articles, and resources out there. Today I want to briefly discuss how to fast in a practical and tangible sense.

Our goal in parenthood is to raise well adjusted, moral, happily Orthodox adults. This might sound strange at first but our goal needs to be on the end, not where we are now. Raising children who stay in the Church as adults is a high challenge and there are things we do that make it easier and things that make it harder. Orthodox Christian fasting is so rigorous and so opposed to the message of the modern world that all of us get a little worried as Great Lent approaches. How we act as adults and the behavior that we model sets the tone for our children’s expectations. The more we complain and stomp our feet or get overwhelmed and cry, the more our children hear that this is not a life worth living. We can and should do better than that.

Some is Better than None
This is basically my mantra and I should have it printed on shirts. If you can’t do it all, do what you can, as much as you can. At least this way, something is done and that is better than nothing at all. If your child is supposed to finish the kitchen after school but has a lot of homework, wouldn’t you rather they do part of the task (say, load the dishwasher) than nothing? Absolutely. Some is always better than none. When you must make compromises or you just can’t fast in the way you would like, don’t beat yourself up. Do what you can and start over again tomorrow with a clean slate and a fresh attitude.

Have a Plan
One of the most stressful parts of fasting is just figuring out what you are going to eat at every meal. One of the ways to limit your stress is to make a list of ideas for every meal. Try to come up with a few breakfast items, a few lunch box ideas, a few snack ideas, and a few dinner ideas. If you put a list up with at least two ideas for each, then when you panic, make something from the list. Monotony is boring but boring is better than stressed.

Involve the Children
Children are in control of precious little in their lives and sometimes their frustration can bubble over. Avoiding meal time melt down is critical in helping you maintain your sanity. Get the children involved by tasking them what they want to eat and make it, even if it seems strange. It will reduce meal time fights and it helps take the pressure off you in deciding what to eat. Less stress is worth it, I promise.

Gather Your Supplies
Once you have a basic list of go-to meals and your kids’ menu ideas, make sure you have the ingredients. If you feel like your back is to the wall, you can recycle that same grocery list again and again and you won’t have to put your brain to work.

Stop Looking for Perfection and Start Practicing Patience
Don’t carefully study labels looking for any trace of whey or butter oil or any other item. You will drive yourself crazy and end up feeling worn thin and bitter. Do what you can but don’t make yourself crazy. Being overwhelmed and feeling small isn’t healthy for anyone and it sets a bad example for your children.

If you are looking for more detailed help such as shopping lists, menu planning advice, and loads of recipes, check out my book. You can find it in church stores, major retailers, and from the publisher by clicking the links in my sidebar or clicking HERE.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review of "Nikola and the Monk"...

I recently received this book for review from the author and illustrator. Nikola and the Monk is Dessi's fourth book for children. I was looking forward to getting my hands on it not only because the author is a friend of mine but because I really need to keep my collection of these saints stories current. I need to have them all. Like I said in my previous post, I have a love/hate relationship with children's literature because there is so much out there that is purely awful to read with children but this one is a joy. 

I always happily receive Dessi's books because they are always beautiful written in her warm, earthy style and the art is always delicate and beautiful but this one will always hold a special place in my heart. This particular book is about a little boy named Nikola who comes to the monk at his hermitage to work out his salvation. The book is in English but draws from Dessi's childhood back in Bulgaria and there are only a few words that should be reviewed before reading and which are found at the back. Nikola refers to the monk as Deda which  means Grandfather and to his black robe as his raso and to the Mother of God, the Theotokos, as Borogodica. From the first time I read this book, I knew it will always be special to me because it reminds me of my son, John, whom we call Jack. This book could be called Jack and the Monk.

My children have the less common experience of growing up in a little mission served by a Brotherhood. Unless we are traveling, and often even when we are traveling, their experience of the Christian services is with monks at the helm. Jack often talks about wanting to be a monk so that he won't have to do the chores that we do at home and instead can pray and read and bake and talk to the bees. This is a lot like Nikola who comes to escape his chores of milking and fetching cucumbers from the garden. I don't think Jack and Nikola are alone in this, I think we all often forget just how much we seek the higher things not for the right reasons but so that we can avoid the lower things. In this book, Deda tells Nikola that, "...doing one's daily work is a prayer, and that each chore that we do and cover in prayer is like building a ladder to heaven." This is a lesson not just for our children, but for ourselves.

As always, the art in Quis Ut Deus books are beautiful and while I cannot say that I know the artist personally, I know a great deal about her from her art. Her art has a misty quality to it with details fading to allow the focus of each illustration to take point of place. It is as if she if wants to highlight a smile here, a wing here, and the eyes over here. My favorite illustrations are the smile on the monk when he plays with the cub, his eyes when the bird is resting on his shoulder, and the icon corner in the family home. I love looking at icon corners and because they are the heart of the home, the are readily familiar to children. I think that children will see the large family gathered around it and they will think of how it feels something like their own families.

That is actually something else to mention, there is a quick but nonetheless lovely mention of large families. I have eleven children and often stories with families with only a couple of children make me children feel as if no one ever has large families. Nikola has three sisters and two brothers while Deda has five brothers and two sisters. Dessi is the mother of six children so she knows what this is like.

I will be putting this book in my basket in the icon corner, but only after it has spent in week in my morning basket. I keep a basket of books and flash cards with which we start each day. I think it will be great way to talk to my younger children who are often "forgetful" about chores. I plan on reading it every day this week and asking my children how they are doing in building their own ladder to heaven and with what chores. I could see it being very useful this lent. If you are looking for ways to use it in your family and in a home school setting, you should head over to my friend, Jennifer's site Illuminated Learning and check out her post.

You can find Dessi's other books also illustrated by Lydia Grace Kadar-Kallen and published by Qui Ut Deus Press from major retailers and on their site including Roses in the Snow (about Roman Catholic saint Elizabeth of Hungary and with my favorite art of all three books) and Saint Felix and the Spider (about St Felix of Nola). You can find Dessi's book The Saint and His Bees (about Irish saint Modomnoc) which was illustrated by Clare Brandenburg on Amazon HERE. It is also available on Kindle for instant download. You might remember Clare's incredibly beautiful book, The Monk Who Grew Prayer. You can find her website HERE. You can read all posts with reviews by clicking HERE.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review of "In the Candle's Glow"...

Today I want to tell you about the new children's book from Ancient Faith, In the Candle's Glow. I have a love/hate relationship with children's literature. Often is is sappy and trite and has conflicting ideas. I am one of the few parents out there who have literally thrown away a copy of  The Rainbow Fish and not looked back. I think that proper children's books should be beautiful and thought provoking and well written. That doesn't mean I think that I think they need to talk over the heads of the children that they address but rather that they respect the developing person they are fast becoming without rushing it. It is a pretty tall order, I admit. But there are some books that so perfectly fit my rigid ideal of a book that they become fast favorites around here; ones that will stand the test of time and ones which I will not dread seeing my children pull off the shelf every night for eighty-seven in a row. This is one such book.

I have a great job. I get to think words and write them down and get paid for it. Because I have sold some of the words I have written down, it gives me the brilliant opportunity to read other words other people have written down. Sometimes books come in the mail and I get to read them solely because I have written words of my own. This is fantastic. Now, I don't get free copies of all the books that I want, but this was a free review copy given to me. I literally jumped at the chance because it is published by my publisher and I had the chance to see some of the art before the book was released. I knew as soon as I saw the cover, that I wanted that this book. I don't get a kick back and I am not being paid for my review. What I get is a free copy of the book to drool over.

French artist Amandine Wanert produced the gorgeous images in this book and there are really two present styles of art. There are bright, light, outdoor scenes of a charming nun, of bees flying through meadows, and of honeycomb caps. They are brightly colored without being gaudy, light without lacking substance. Then there are the richer scenes within the church. They are dark without being heavy, and serious without being severe, and so evocative. Before I knew what the book was about, the art drew me in, and it did the same for my children the day that it arrived. I watched as all my children squeezed onto the sofa to watch as one of the younger teens flipped through the book.

But the book isn't just a pretty face, Elizabeth Crispina Johnson has created an edifying and evocative story which unfolds page by page. The story is about both the journey of a candle and of a little girl. The story begins with the journey of the candle from the bees, to the hive, to the wax, to the nun who produced the candles the church. The little girl moves from playing outside to entering the church and lighting the candle to say her prayers. In the story, Felicia watches her prayers swirl around the candle's flame. She says more prayers and watches more prayers swirl around. Ultimately a slight breeze blows in from the window and extinguishes her candle and she says, "Amen," At that moment her prayers float up to Heaven with the tiny wisp of smoke. The book shows the prayers floating up to the icon of Christ the Teacher. It is so sweet and so innocent and such a pleasure to read to children.

This will be an excellent teaching tool for my family. I have a lot of children and I have found that lighting candles is a thrilling experience for them but teaching them that they are prayers is a critical aspect of participating in the services. Often my children need to be prompted and asked directly for whom or what they want to pray when they ask to light candles. We spend twenty dollars every weekend on candles (between Vigil and Liturgy) and I am pretty certain that many of those candles are lit by my four youngest, all girls, who simply want to stare at the glow in the darkness. I plan on reading this on Fridays and then packing it up for church for the littlest of my children. Toddlers and preschoolers, and sometime those slightly older, have a difficult time sitting still. They often need little books and things and I keep a church basket with saints books and other books appropriate for church as well as scarves for the girls and our family's commemoration book. Another item I keep in the basket is A Child's Guide to the Divine Liturgy. It features illustrations which help my non-readers know what is happening and understand the service structure along with brief explanations that are not so verbose that it keeps little heads turned downwards towards to the book rather than upwards at the service.

In the Candle's Glow is available from Ancient Faith HERE as well as other major retailers and perhaps even your own church book shop (if not, ask for it). It retails for $19.95. A Child's Guide to the Divine Liturgy is available HERE and if it's not in your church shop, ask for it. It also retails for $19.95. I received the former as a free review copy but the latter I paid for myself and I have two copies in my church basket. 

I am going to be talking about the books in church basket as well as the icon corner basket in my house, that is basket that I keep under the table in icon corner so that my children can read them at quiet times. If you Insta, and I love Insta, drop by and see photos of my kids reading these and other great books. You can find me HERE. If you don't Insta, you can scroll through all my photos from my blog without leaving the site. You can read all posts with reviews by clicking HERE.

What do you keep in your church basket?
What are your favorite books for your children?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Coming full circle...

I have mentioned it before but I like photography. It is just a hobby but I enjoy it and I get a lot out of it. Ironically, this week in my group we are doing circles, a more abstract theme than usual. Why would it be ironic? Because on Sunday (or maybe even Saturday night), I lost my wedding set. What was once lost is now found, so no worries, but it gave me a lot of heartache.

That right there is my three piece wedding set. I have sensitive skin and sometimes I need to take off my rings and put some cream on my hands and let them rest overnight. I have a little wooden box from Poland that was given to me by a dear family friend when I was a child and usually I put them in there. Saturday night I decided to just loop them over the cord to the cross on my neck. I have done it before and the rings never slipped off but for whatever reason, I lost my rings while I slept. I realized when we went out to the van. I ran back in and looked in the bed but I only found my plain wedding band and my engagement ring. No anniversary band anywhere to be seen. I went off to Liturgy and was heartbroken. I said a little prayer to St Phanourios and lit a candle and hoped for the best.

When I didn't find it on Sunday, I basically tore my room apart. Then I appealed to the children. I promised them later bedtimes, video-games, homemade cake, ice cream, basically anything that I thought would convince them to look. Look they did but it didn't matter. No ring. In the end, it was not the plain gold band that was blessed by the priest at my wedding. It wasn't the modest diamond engagement ring. The diamond in the ring was given to us by my mother-in-law from a ring my father-in-law had given her and the first but most certainly not the last generous gift from her. She has always treated me like her own child. Once about a dozen years ago I knocked my hand on a doorway and knocked out the diamond which was quickly found in just minutes but I was hysterical. It was not about the money or the value, it is fairly modest. It was because it was a gift from my mother-in-law to both my husband and to me. I now have the prongs checked regularly and had them rebuilt last summer. No, it was the tiny anniversary band.

In the end it was unreasonable for me to be so upset so I tried to calm myself down. It was the two more important rings. Still, that little anniversary band which was so small and so inexpensive. It was a tiny luxury at a time when we were ridiculously poor with kids to feed and my husband in graduate school. I was pregnant for the second time since our wedding and it was just our first anniversary. I think we spent just $100. In the end, that is such a tiny amount but for us at the time it was a serious investment. As Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and even Wednesday went by with no sign of the ring, I began to worry it would never be found. My husband reassured me that he could buy me another one, that we could do it for our next anniversary. I didn't want another ring. I wanted my ring. I wanted the one we bought back when we didn't have money for movies or dinner out and our dates we walks in the park. I wanted to look at it and remember the first year of this glorious marriage that has brought me closer to my husband and closer to God. I just wanted my own ring back. There was a little part of me that was afraid that we would replace it and then find it and I would have a little dalliance on my hand instead of the original.

But then, this morning I was sitting on the bed and talking about the day with my husband while he finished dressing for work and I looked down next to my bed. There it was, just sitting there next to the bed in the open area between it and my desk, as if it had been waiting all along. There was my ring. So. I said a prayer to St. Phanourios and asked the kids to pray for his mother and I baked a cake for him. In the busy patterns of a morning with work and school and books and barn chores and snow and a windchill of -14F I stopped and spent the time to make the cake. I made it with almonds and Swedish sugar and Lemoncello instead of the usual Brandy or Whiskey and the very last of my clementine oranges from the basket on the table. It was fragrant and delicious. I cut slices for the children and asked them to come celebrate with me, just like the woman in Jesus' parable who celebrated with everyone around her when she found her coin. I ate my cake with my little ring of gold around my finger and she celebrated with her little circle of silver, one that represented in its own meager way the entire wealth of her family.

Come celebrate with me for what was lost is now found.