Thursday, November 29, 2007

Homemade Gifts for the Not-so-crafty

There was a conversation over at 4Real today about gift-giving to large families. It seems I have it pretty easy in my family. Most years we don't even see very many folks and Eric's side of the family includes several people who every year claim they are "going very simple" this time around. That never really turns out to be the case especially when it comes to our children who are the only little ones for the time being. In any case, I do see it as permission to keep things simple ourselves which this year is much appreciated.

It is very challenging to find gifts to purchase that are both inexpensive and meaningful. Unless, as is the case with my husband, you are a lover of used books or other second-hand goods. Giving homemade gifts seems like the best route. Homemade gifts show the giver that you appreciate them enough to invest in a thoughtful gift but they do not require a lot of expense (usually) and can help foster a simpler attitude towards Christmas gift-giving. I am not at all crafty and I am wary of giving gifts that ask to be displayed in someone's home. I was waffling on the idea of food gifts until I got a Harry and David catalog in the mail. There are whole industries devoted to food gifts: I guess people like them. I'm a pretty good baker, but baked goods are abundant this time of year. In my search for something original, simple, elegant and healthier-than-average I hit on the idea of "gourmet" spice mixes. I've pulled them from the pages of The Grassfed Gourmet by Shannon Hayes, which is an excellent cookbook. Before I received it as a gift last Christmas our family thought we just didn't like grassfed meats. Every recipe in this book is delightful and I've gotten profuse compliments every time I've served food prepared with these rubs. There are about a dozen spice rub recipes in the book. These four were chosen for variety and because they are a good mix of traditional and adventurous. I'm planning to make enough for about 12 half-cup gifts. I'm able to buy bulk spices at a good price and, before packaging, these will come in at $3.00 per set of four mixes.

Barbecue Spice Rub (pork, beef, chicken)
1/2 c. chili powder
3 T ground black pepper
4 T sugar
3 T coarse salt
2 T paprika

Cumin-Cinnamon Rub (our favorite on beef steaks)
1 1/2 T chili powder
1 1/2 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
1 1/2 T coarse salt
1 t. sugar
1 t. ground pepper
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cayenne

Garlic-Herb Rub (pork, lamb,veal, venison, goat, beef)
1 T dried thyme
1 T dried rosemary
2 T dried oregano
1 t. ground fennel
2 t. garlic powder
1 1/2 T coarse salt
2 t. ground pepper

Moroccan Spice Rub (pork, lamb)
2 T ground nutmeg
1 T coarse salt
1 T ground ginger
2 t. ground pepper
2 t. ground mace
1 t. ground cinnamon
2 t. ground allspice

Happy gift-giving all!

My series on making my house fair is at an end, I'm afraid. My sister is coming into town tomorrow for some Christmas shopping (ironic given that I don't have any to do!). It's been a good, motivating week, and I'm looking forward to acquiring some much-needed desk organization materials on Saturday so I can get to the bottom of The Basket.

Prove me right!

I broke my own blog-reading rules today and followed a link that I knew would be distracting over at Simcha's blog.

This organization, Free Rice is running a vocabulary game that allows the player to donate rice for every correctly answered question. The rice is donated through the UN World Food Program. Normally, I wouldn't be wild about supporting anything that is filtered through the UN and you may feel the same and, therefore, don't want to play this game.

If you're still with me . . . this site intrigues me for a few reasons. First, Simcha claims that they tried to set up as a non-profit and found the process too cumbersome so they set up this for-profit but they don't keep any of their earnings. I think that's ingenious. They've created a fun game that is also educational and is designed to only really work if a human plays it. They've built in levels to keep us motivated to play. I love for-profit thinking!

I was irked to read in the FAQs, however, a subtle implication that homemakers would need lower-level vocabulary words (maybe I'm just paranoid). Anyway, I have long had a theory that homemakers, particularly homeschooling, blogging homemakers are of above-average intelligence. So, if you aren't adverse to supporting the UN, play the game for a few minutes and let me know what your highest level is. I'm not ashamed to say that after donating about 600 grains of rice I had only gotten to level 44. Simcha says she's gotten to 48 which Free Rice says is about the highest most people get (the absolute highest is 50).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Making my house fair: Day Three

I'm really on a roll. This is great. This was the whole point of my blog in the first place--to motivate me in my vocation. I'm glad that I've finally hit on a theme that is both specific enough to focus me and general enough to allow for creativity. (Thanks, Robyn!)

I cleaned off the "dresser". This piece of furniture is a wooden filing cabinet we picked up at a yard sale just before we moved. It was a smart buy in that we needed the extra storage but not so smart in that we didn't have our new apartment settled and space here is a bit tight. It's not sturdy enough to hold files but it does serve us well. The top drawer is my collection of kitchen linens--a collection I wish were much larger but my tastes run on the expensive side in that department. The middle drawer is for bulk spice storage and the bottom drawer is one of those "miscellaneous" areas that could probably be cleaned out and put to better use. I want the top to be an uncluttered display area but things always get dumped there. I'm not entirely happy with it but the extra clutter, at least, is gone. I have always meant to make a cover for my sewing machine. If I ever get some of my projects completed I could put it in a cabinet with my other sewing stuff. The fruit bowl is our table centerpiece but is always getting moved. The little statue which may not be visible in the picture is a reproduction of my favorite statue from the National Shrine here in DC--the Flight Into Egypt. The picture above is us greeting Pope John Paul II about a week after our wedding. It got lots of comments when we worked in a dorm full of Evangelical college students.

The desk is also clear but the debris is not yet sorted. The problem remains of where to put everything. I gave it some thought and did some web-surfing today and I think I'm going to purchase an open file crate and two baskets. The file crate will go next to the printer and the baskets on the shelf below. The baskets are for storing stationery and other desk supplies which, amazingly, my children have no interest in pulling down--at least not yet. I may write more someday about the file system once I make sure that it actually works!

I have a can of stain for this desk. I hate the light-colored unfinished wood and the dorm-room look of it all but this is what we could do, for now. We recently moved the computer to standing height to discourage us both from lingering too long. It has mostly worked. In any case, I now nurse Margaret with a book instead of in front of the computer. The books on the top two shelves are nothing in particular--just what fits. Our book sorting project is still a work in progress.

I also managed to get the kitchen entirely clean this evening.

the top of my dresser--another favorite dump site
the bookshelves--not entirely resorting them but removing things that aren't books and thinning out a few double-stacked sections.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Making my house fair: Day Two

I don't want to say this day wasn't a success just because I didn't exactly accomplish my goals. I admit that I walked up to my desk a few times today and had absolutely no idea how to begin. It is still a wreck and I thought about taking a before picture but our camera is dead, which fact became yet another reason to avoid clearing my desk. But, really, I know what I need to do. Everything needs to be swept into my my "inbox." I've done it before with the thought to blog about my amazing organizational system. That's why I have a picture of it. But that blog post never appeared because I still haven't gotten to the bottom of that basket filling event and my organizational system is looking less amazing as a result. The method involves taking items one at a time from the basket and acting on it decisively. Trouble is, most of the things in that basket have no place or their place is within easy reach of a certain one-year old so they all end up back on my desk anyway. I'll keep at it tomorrow.

My day, however, was not a failure. I did clean out the kitchen freezer to great effect. My bulk soup project is going to have to wait until we eat some of the stuff currently taking up room in our freezers. I did create a lot more room in this smaller freezer but what our freezer has in size it makes up for in poor design. The newly-created elbow room for my ice cream is only serving to keep the items from falling out every time I open the door.

I also did a lot of work on Christmas presents. For a variety of reasons I wanted to go all-homemade this year. The obvious way for me to accomplish that is by giving food since I'm not really crafty. I settled, finally, on "gourmet" spice rub blends since my co-op has a great deal on bulk spices. I'm giving everyone a half cup or so of four different rubs for a total cost of about 3.50 per recipient--before packaging. Which leads me to a question for my faithful, creative readers. How to package these? I want the packaging to be reasonably airtight and label-able. I don't mind giving reusable containers and making that sort of part of the gift and I'm thinking of these jars. (Which, incidentally, I'm buying for my own spices the minute we have a place to nicely store such things). How would you label these? Any better ideas for packaging?

Not a bad day considering we had a breakfast guest, we were out for the morning through lunch and Margaret clung to me desperately all afternoon before taking an hour to fall asleep this evening. And neither kid napped.

So, tomorrow:

The desk. Really.
The top of "the dresser" in our living room. We don't know what to call this piece of furniture but it's top surface is the perfect dumping height.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Making my house fair: Day One

I actually did it. Maybe I am a goal-oriented worker.

By dinnertime all the laundry was washed, folded and put away. And it was a lot of laundry. I was counting on a good two hours this evening to get the freezers organized and all the other evening chores done. I forgot, of course, that Eric switched his weekly Holy Hour to Monday night from 6-7. I was trying out a new recipe this evening and it took longer than usual. The kids had tandem meltdowns at 6:15 and I decided to put Margaret to bed since she's usually ready by 6:30 anyway. At 6:45 I took up dinner once again. At 7:00 Margaret woke up--very unusual for her--and she stayed up until she heard her Daddy come home half an hour later. She adores her father lately, so bedtime was over. We didn't finish eating until well after 8:00 and I took Margaret back to bed. She nursed for awhile and then threw up all over me. A few times. Also very unusual. By 9:00 she was back asleep and, undeterred, I decided to tackle the chest freezer despite being ninety minutes behind schedule. Tasks never take as long as I think they will (unless that task is preparing a meal).

I love having this freezer. It saves time and money in several ways but the only way to make it work is to have an accurate inventory. There is just no way to remember everything in there and use it without a list. We had an inventory going for a long time but since we moved this summer we've used the "hope and rummage" method. It's now absolutely full and that method is really failing me. Just at the point that every last item was on the floor and written on my clipboard (and my back was breaking) Margaret woke up again. After settling her I repacked the freezer, really hoping to find more space in there for a bulk cooking project next week. No luck.

The good news is that I unearthed a half gallon of Breyer's chocolate ice cream and that break to nurse Margaret tempered it to the perfect scooping temperature. And, because not only did I do all the laundry and inventory the freezer but also made bread and yogurt and planned a big bulk cooking week, I thought I'd have some.

The kitchen is a mess but that wasn't on my list today, was it? Well--Margaret doesn't usually end her days by drenching me in, well, whatever . . . I'll get to the dishes tomorrow. Might as well let the mice party one more night.

Eric very wisely suggested that my pre-Advent cleaning spree focus less on deep cleaning and more on organizational problems. I think that's wise, so with that in mind

Tomorrow's goals:
inventory the kitchen freezer and try to make it neater
reclaim my desk

Is all this exciting for anyone else?

The Loveliness of Preparing to Prepare

I confess: the reason I wanted to host this Loveliness Fair is that I am in love with liturgical year ideas as are many of the women in the 4Real community who are the main participants in these fairs. I figured this fair would be a bonanza of liturgical year ideas and I didn't want to miss any of them. I'm an obsessive planner and this was to be an oh-so-indulgent blog post.

Many good ideas arrived in my inbox but also several timely reminders not to overdo, not to seek perfection, and not to let Advent get away from us in the mad dash towards Christmas. With that in mind . . .

I'm a huge fan of the O Antiphons--said with Evening Prayer from December 17-24 each year. As we get to that part of our family prayer life each year I dream about various beautiful ways to include them in our home during Advent. The biggest reason I haven't done anything is that I can never decide if my O Antiphon tribute should be done in English or Latin. Sally at Fine Old Famly offers what she planned to do last year and what she ended up doing and it all sounds beautiful. And, I hope Sally doesn't mind if I point you to some of her more recent posts on making her home "fair as she is able."

If reading about ornaments and O Antiphon houses gets you in a crafty mood, do stop by and visit the ever-creative-and-organized Dawn at By Sun and Candlelight. I'm terribly envious of Dawn's window and I'm thinking, perhaps, of dressing up our roman-shade decked windows with cards this year. Marianne at Learning to Love is also trying to keep herself organized by sharing her list of Advent plans. I'm looking forward to teaching my kids Christmas carols on musical instruments some day, too! If you're like me and your crafting skills are a bit lacking and you are on a budget, Cay at Cajun Cottage Under the Oaks has a few ideas to consider.

Prone to discouragement as I am--especially in the face of the highly organized--I am very glad to see that Elizabeth at Real Learning is sharing some of her non-blog Advent and Christmas writings with us. Elizabeth's writing never fails to inspire and encourage me. If you are feeling overwhelmed as you face the season this is the place to go. Do make sure to click through to read Elizabeth's story of last year's Christmas tree. Cay also offers a timely reminder from John Greenleaf Whittier to look to others this Advent and Christmas.

For my part, I always hope to get the more mundane side of prepare done before Advent arrives. Every year I hope to do a major housecleaning leading up to the first Sunday of Advent. Our family tries very hard to save Christmas for Christmas. The tree goes up the 23rd and is decorated Christmas Eve. I'll bake but we try not to eat the goodies until Christmas. Gifts are saved until Christmas morning, of course, and the opening is stretched out until New Year's, at least. I want Advent to be a time of quiet, reflection, extra prayer, and snuggling close as a family. It sounds like Cheryl at My Thoughtful Spot shares these desires and is planning to follow the advice of her family to snuggle together this Advent.

There are lots and lots of great Advent ideas out there in the blogosphere and at 4Real. It's tempting for me, I know, to rush around trying to fill up the season for my three-year old who is really ready for a bit of structure. I actually considered making (this week) a Jesse Tree quilt complete with a few dozen cloth symbols and an equal number of buttons and buttonholes to affix them. Then I remembered how burned out and snippy and not very reflective/prayerful/quiet/snuggly that would be. Maybe next year. If I start in January. Go look at all the great ideas out there, but remember to pray, hold your family close, and await the Christ Child in peace.

God Bless!

Here's another contribution that came in from Ruth at Just Another Day in Paradise. She has lots of great ideas for celebrating Advent and the feasts in December. Lots of links just in her post!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Making my house fair

People, look East, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house as fair as you're able,
Trim the hearth, and set the table.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch, when night is dim.
One more light the bowl shall brim.
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and moon together.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels, announce, with shouts of mirth
Him Who brings new life to earth.
Set ev'ry peak and valley humming
With the word, "The Lord is coming!"
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Back in my Anglican days I was in a church choir. I probably didn't really deserve to be in this choir but the director thought I really added something. I really can't sing all that well but maybe I've got one of those nice blendy choir voices? In any case, it was sure a lot of fun. My last Lessons and Carols service included the above piece. I absolutely loved it and was glad that we used it as the post-communion piece one Sunday AND that my conducting class for my music degree used it as one of our study pieces. Between church choir and conducting class I sang that piece well over a hundred times in the space of about four weeks and I never tired of it. Oddly, I've never really heard it since, but I've been thinking all the last week about the spirit of preparation embodied in this hymn. Two of my favorite bloggers have referenced it recently, so I guess it isn't entirely unknown (check back tomorrow for said bloggers in the Loveliness Fair).

Every year I want to make Lent a time of intense spring cleaning and the week between Christ the King and Advent a smaller fall cleaning. I have thus far utterly failed but I'm not giving up! Just because normal household upkeep defies my on a daily basis is no reason not to attempt huge projects. Part of my recent blog resurrection was the hope that I could use this forum as a self-motivational tool, so here it goes.

Tomorrow's goals: the back room. We call it the study though not much of that sort of thing goes on back there. It's also the laundry room and contains our chest freezer. It's a wreck and there aren't that many ways I can fix it but here is my to-do list:

Laundry, laundry, and more laundry. The hanging everything to dry method is okay but slower and I need to rethink my laundry routine. For tomorrow, everything is going straight to the dryer so that I can get back on top of the laundry mountain and get everything put away. I also need to do other work in there which would be impossible with a full clothesline.

Inventory the chest freezer. Which is full. At least it's nice and cold back there (no heat here, yet, at 63 degrees).

Sweep the floors.

Water the plant.

Fill up the few empty bookshelves with some of the double-stacked books from the front room.

If you really care about my housekeeping, check back tomorrow night for a report and for Tuesday's ambitious goals.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Do yourself a favor and stop by the kids' blog to hear about our minor adventure this afternoon. It could save you nineteen dollars . . .

My husband doesn't believe me . . .

. . . but some critter is trying to gain access to my kitchen. The noise is behind the refrigerator. It's too irregular to be of mechanical origin and there are no unaccounted-for humans. Nor is anyone doing work in the gap between our building and the next (which gap is behind the refrigerator). I'm mentioning it here because the noise is so loud and so persistent that I'm starting to think things like, "I hope that's a mouse." If I'm still here when Eric the Vanquisher comes home from conquering the library, there will be some applicance moving. Robyn, I hope you aren't sending me the rejects from the Department of Mouse Housing?

So, trying to calm down (I love rodents, have I mentioned that?) I thought I'd share our delightful Thanksgiving meal with you. Eric and I started cooking together at 4:00 and sat down to eat at 7:00. During that time we prepared a rabbit, roasted root veggies, brussels sprouts, homemade cranberry sauce, and oyster stuffing from scratch. We also got most of the way through a bottle of wine, reorganized my spice drawer and researched family games online. And the kids were mostly awake for all of this. Thanksgiving does not have to be a day-long stressful event.

The food was amazing. Rabbit tastes exactly like turkey, it turns out, and one rabbit is a much more sensible amount of food for four than one turkey. Oyster stuffing was . . . fishy, but good, and reminiscent of Eric's grandmother. The veggies were delightful--we discovered parsnips this year. The brussels sprouts were shredded and sauteed with bacon and garlic. There's never enough. The cranberry sauce was heavenly. I wish there were so much more of it. I cooked the cranberries down with orange juice, red wine, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. I accidentally doubled the cinnamon which was fine. Cranberries can hold up their own flavor under a lot of cinnamon and all that spice gave it a bit of heat. Wonderful. I'm going to make it again to go over vanilla ice cream.

I took a picture of the whole table, but Eric thought a plated meal looked prettier, so there it is. We have these Orchardware cherry dishes we bought while engaged at a yard sale from a little old lady who had owned them almost fifty years and teared up as we carried them away. We have used them twice including last night and every time we move I think of getting rid of them. We'll see. I love interesting china but I hate clutter and too many possessions. It's a constant battle around here--especially with the books.

Our day was lovely as, I hope, was yours.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

If you must go to the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving . . .

. . . I do hope you have a Trader Joe's nearby.

Our family once again dropped the ball on Thanksgiving plans. Responsible folks put in their farm-fresh turkey orders weeks ago and shopped the root veggie sales last week. We planned our meal last night over soup.

We're not big turkey fans and it's just going to be us this year. Eric wants a meal that feels seasonal and authentic so we're having rabbit. I've never had rabbit before. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Anyway, the rabbit will be procured elsewhere but the rest of the shopping had to be done. The day before Thanksgiving. With two children. Who were tired. I didn't want to go. I figured the store would be full of frantic shoppers all of whom would be pestering the overworked, harried employees for items they can't find because they are planning overly ambitious dishes that they make once a year, at best.

I was partly right. I usually shop on Saturday mornings and the store was MUCH more crowded today. There were a lot of husbands there, and several college kids with mom. For some reason college kids think that if classes aren't in session it's okay to appear at the grocery store in your slippers. I helped one bewildered husband locate sundried tomatoes. I was feeling magnanimous because the employee-customer ratio at Trader Joe's was about 1:2. They were all busy restocking pumpkins, highlighting their favorite wines and moving people through the checkout lines. And they were all happy. One girl, sporting a sunflower headband, offered us all biscotti and then scurried off the to the back room to find me hazelnuts. They didn't have any but I didn't even care because I can't remember the last time I got such prompt service at a grocery store.

My sleepy little boy was an angel and patiently waited through the entire shopping trip to sweetly and politely ask the clerk for a balloon. She obliged--how could she deny such a polite request from a three-year-old? When I commented on the cheerful mood at the packed store she suggested that maybe things wouldn't be so nice for the evening crew. No worries, there. I noticed at the sample table that champagne tasting is on the menu at the store this afternoon. Do you think that's for the customers or the employees?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two extremes

Eric was away at a conference last weekend and I spent three days with no one to help out with the kids. It was pretty challenging. Last time Eric went away I felt really empowered at the end of the weekend. I was amazed at how competent I could be when left entirely to myself. This time I realized how very much I depend on my husband. I'm so blessed to be married to someone who invests as much time in his kids as my husband. As soon as Eric got home my dad and his wife came to visit for two days. We went from two kids and one adult to two kids and four adults. The grandparents were all too happy to play with the kids pretty much non-stop and I felt totally at a loss for activity. So I did what any reasonable person would have done in my place: I made fudge.

It's not as impressive as it sounds. I have made a traditional fudge many times and it is always delightful. Eric loves fudge (as do I) and we usually end up making a big block of it "for gifts" and leave it out on the cutting board "waiting for packaging" and we slowly shave it away over the course of the day until we are so stuffed with fudge that we never want to eat again. To make matters worse, and in spite of my generally excellent candy-making skills, I was using my mom's recipe. Main ingredient: marshmallow fluff. That's just not right. I've had a big food conversion since the last time I used that recipe and I now try to stick to ingredients that are actual food rather than a concoction of chemicals. All that to say that I still don't make real fudge because a friend gave me the recipe for the above-pictured pieces of heaven last year and I don't think we can ever go back:

1 1/2 c. coconut oil
1 1/2 c. rapadura
1 c. cocoa powder
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt

Melt the coconut oil very slowly (maybe even in a bowl set in a bowl of hot water). Pulverize the rapadura in a blender and then add all the other ingredients and blend until combined. Pour the mixture into any dish (a pie plate is a good size for this recipe) and let it cool.

The consistency is different from real fudge--it will get quite hard when cold and melt quickly at body temperature--but the taste is amazing. AND this stuff is, arguably, pretty healthy. Good coconut oil is expensive and hard to find but Weston Price folks such as ourselves could give you a whole thesis on the health benefits of coconut oil. Rapadura is unrefined, evaporated cane juice. Also expensive and hard to find. I get them both at a good price through a co-op. Lots of healthy fat and unrefined sugar. It's enough to make you want to gobble the whole pan in one sitting.

I guess I needed a confidence boost this weekend because when my dad mentioned that they LOVED this fudge last Christmas I decided to make them a bag for their trip north for Thanksgiving. We kept some for ourselves, of course.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy Feast Day . . .

To the girl who kept me from writing the post I was going to write this evening.

To the girl who makes me smile every day.

To the girl who makes me want lots more daughters.

To the girl who inspires me every day to make a home where she can learn to grow into a beautiful capable woman.

St. Margaret of Scotland, Pray for us!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why didn't I think of this in the summer?

Another reason the dad in our family shouldn't work from home: if he does, I'll ask him to hang a clothesline. My husband and I are both enthusiasts so when I say, "Do you think that rope in the car could be used for an indoor clothesline?" Eric immediately finds something that will work even better and installs it for me. We don't really have the neighborhood for a clothesline outdoors and we don't have much space indoors. I bought a collapsible drying rack when we first moved here but it never really took. It was just too easy to lift the stuff out of the washer and throw it in the dryer.

Now that I've got our laundry routine down I'm turning our recent frugal fanaticism on the dryer. We don't know how much it costs to run our dryer. One friend of mine who lives in the same neighborhood and has similar amounts and types of laundry as me (i.e. she also washes diapers) recently bought a dryer and her electric bill went up fifty percent in one month. Yikes.

I gave the drying rack a shot again last week. I hung our diapers on them. Twenty-four hours later they were still wet and we were out of diapers so I had to throw them all in the dryer. Even if they had dried, I don't want to put stiff, sandpapery diapers on my sweet little children, so I think I'll stick to machine drying the diapers. Ditto towels. Call me a wimp but we're not even heating the place, yet. I really want a soft towel when I get out of the shower.

I really, really want to use the dryer less. My motivations are similar to our bun freezing experiment: I want to save money and maybe do a good turn for the planet while I'm at it. So, today we hung a line diagonally across the small back room where the washing machine is located. It's long enough that if I use hangers I can fit a lot on it and we think it will hold a fair amount of weight.

I've been successfully navigating two laundry days each week for awhile, now, and our wardrobe is designed with this schedule in mind. The kids and I have exactly enough clothes to get between laundry days (Eric seems to get a lot of hand-me-downs). This drying method will take a lot longer--maybe a day or two--so I'm going to have to alter my laundry schedule to accommodate it, but I think I'll give it a go for a month. We'll see how our electric bill likes it and how our wardrobes deal with it. Even if I only hang the clothes that are normally hung on hangers, that's probably four less loads of laundry going through the dryer each week.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My first blog carnival

Back when I was a committed, enthusiastic blogger I agreed to host an autumn loveliness fair.

I wasn't sure, for awhile, if I'd be around to follow through, but my blogging revival has been fun and encouraging and I really don't want to miss out on seeing the contributions to this fair from the amazing women in the 4Real community.

But you don't have to a 4Real member to contribute! A blog carnival is a collection of ideas and links to posts on other blogs. If you have thoughts on "Preparing to Prepare" (Advent being a season of preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord) send me a link via e-mail or in a comment to this post. Check back here on Monday, November 26 for some great ideas for your own Advent celebrations.

Freezing our buns

Elizabeth at Real Learning alerted me to the Freeze Yer Buns challenge this winter. Our family does many things that are considered "green" but the environment is seldom our primary motivator. This challenge is a classic example. This winter is the first winter we'll be paying for heat. Utilities have been included in our last two apartments but here we pay gas and electric. We kept the AC off as much as possible this summer and when it was on we tried to use it to kill the humidity and not refrigerate the place. Most of the time it was off or set to 82 degrees.

Eric and I are both much better at being cold than being hot so the winter should not prove to be such a thermostat challenge. So far we haven't turned on the heat. The lowest temp has been 63 degrees first thing in the morning. I can raise the temperature in the main room of the apartment two degrees just by baking a loaf of bread. Our plan is to keep the heat off until we are too cold and then bump things up one degree and leave it there. We are fortunate to have gas heat, but every little bit helps and this should help our utility bills this winter. And, hey, if we reduce our carbon footprint while we're at it, so much the better.

We're considering alternative methods of keeping warm, but since our main goal this winter is to save money, there is a limit to what we can buy before it would cost less just to turn on the heat. There is the argument, I suppose, that long underwear and extra blankets last for years. We also have the children to consider. Margaret sleeps with us but refuses blankets during naptime or the few hours before we join her in bed. I'll let you know when we finally turn on the heat. In the meantime--how do you stay warm in the winter?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bookcase Overhaul

I took this picture a couple months ago as part of the "virtual tour" of our new place for friends and family. I really love this bookcase. We got it free from a neighbor. We've never been sure if it's "shabby chic" or just shabby. This bookcase is really the focal point of our living room and one evening I realized that it was driving me nuts.

The top is supposed to be some kind of liturgical display area but it was sort of a mess with things piled on the two side shelves as well. The small shelf on top was crammed full of encyclicals because they fit there. The other shelves had many books tipped on their sides because the shelves are all short. The two bottom shelves were full of kids books but the large picture books on the bottom stuck way out and were mostly on their sides as well.

It's taken a pretty long time to chip away at all the things that were bothering me about this bookcase. Mostly we've been slowly re-organizing our home library. We originally put the books in alphabetical order by author without regard to genre. As time permits, we've been collecting categories and shelving them where they logically belong, and where they fit. We're not done with this project, but we've made good progress. At least this red bookcase no longer contains large books tipped sideways. I neatened up the two side shelves (the sippi cup is an occasional addition) and cleaned the encyclicals off the top shelf. In its place are our prayer materials: liturgies, family Bible, extra candles, Rosary cards. The very top has a simple frame displaying the liturgically appropriate Rosary card (Sermon on the Mount for Ordinary Time) and our prayer candles. I'm really excited about these candles. We just got the holder a couple days ago. They are simple and they match! We change the tapers according to season (so we have green ones out now) and light them for Morning and Evening Prayer and the large white one is our new Lord's Day candle, eagerly awaiting its debut this Saturday evening.

I left the board books on one of the shelves and moved the picture books back to Joseph's room. I put a basket on the coffee table opposite this bookcase containing several current favorites. There are two baskets for toy storage on the bookcase now and an additional few toys under the coffee table. I plan to rotate the living room toys slowly. I was so pleased to see Joseph able to wheel right up to his new book basket and pick one out to read this morning. And he can put the book away when he's done.

I'm even more pleased to see how just a few small changes can make my living room a much nicer place for everyone in the family.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Baking Soda Magic

There is no way you can appreciate this picture but I'm including it anyway. I was washing up our few Sunday dishes yesterday and, as I finished, I sort of idly wiped out the sink. Then I wondered: could I get the sink cleaner?

I'm not a putterer when it comes to clean. Mess paralyzes me and I have a very all-or-nothing attitude. I need to do a total clean of one small area at a time. When it comes to the kitchen this means that I either scrub the sink clean and then move the mess on either side through the clean sink and into the dishwasher or onto a drying surface, or I pile everything into the sink, clean both counters and wash the dishes from there. I love starting from a clean sink. It's a tiny oasis of peace in the midst of kitchen chaos.

When we moved into this apartment I thought, "What a pretty kitchen! Too bad the sink is sort of brown." It did not occur to me that maybe the apartment came standard with a less-than-clean sink. I've just been sighing over my brown sink for four months. I scrubbed at it for awhile yesterday to no avail, thinking, "I need a good abrasive . . .". Now, I have a whole book devoted almost exclusively to how to clean your house with baking soda but I've never actually tried it. One tablespoon later and I had this bright, shiny marvel in the middle of my kitchen. Eric says the glare hurts his eyes. It's amazing. I've felt so happy every time I used the kitchen today.

If the cold, gray November is getting you down, get out the baking soda and scrub your sink.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday Begins

When I was engaged I took a course called "Theology of the Domestic Church." It was a leftover from my brief attempt at acquiring a masters degree. I abandoned the attempt when I realized that I'd rather live marriage and family than have abstract discussion about it, but there was one professor I really loved and I audited this course of his just before I got married. I remember very little of the content but the course alternately left me feeling completely inadequate as a future home maker or overly idealistic about what Catholic family life could look like. I haven't changed much.

We're always trying to live our faith more fully around here. Our most recent resolution is to make a bit more of Sunday. This has been challenging because I find that the pressure of creating a formal "Sunday dinner" around a later morning Mass and family time leaves me feeling not a bit like I've had a Sabbath. I usually want to order out or have leftovers on Sundays. Our solution is to make Saturday night the big meal. After all, Sunday begins at sundown the night before, right? Conveniently, we are often entertaining friends Saturday evening. If Saturday dinner is the big meal of the week I'm not cooking a big "entertainment" meal Saturday and a big "Sunday dinner" on Sunday. Less work for me.

I do really love to cook but dinner is a challenge. I think I make delicious, but simple fare most nights of the week but I do want to bump things up a notch for Saturday night. Yesterday was our first go at our new routine.

We did have some good friends coming with their two young children. I set the table nicely in advance and served a first course of wild rice salad with poached raisins and pine nuts. The second course was pumpkin, potato, leek soup with corn bread. Dessert was provided by our guests (and might have been the best part of the meal).

We sat down together to plated salads and Eric read the prologue to John's Gospel. At the appropriate moment I lit green candles (we hope to get large Lord's Day candles in liturgically appropriate colors soon). The last couple verses of the prologue will be said responsorily. Eric then moved immediately to the Epistle for Sunday and the Gospel for Sunday and we closed with grace. We think wine will typically be a part of the Saturday meal, but we're still considering this from a budgetary standpoint.

We kept the candle lit until we were ready to leave the table at which point we brought the candles into the living room and immediately said first Vespers of Sunday from the Liturgy of the Hours. We try to say Vespers every night and it is usually a bit chaotic. Our friends were familiar with the liturgy and their older daughter set a good example for my kids. Amazingly, all four kids sat more or less quietly for the duration of Vespers. We then extinguished the candles and had dessert.

I'm pretty amazed at how well it all went. We plan to keep this "liturgy" for several weeks and then tweak it if necessary. This format feels suitably reverent, repetitious, and liturgical for our purposes. I think the use of candles is the key. The kids are totally fascinated by the flames and they stand as a visual reminder: this is the Lord's Day. Keeping the candles lit until the end of Vespers reminds us to pray Vespers before dispersing for the night.

I'm really excited at this new tradition and I'll report back as it develops.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Grand Re-opening

I haven't posted in awhile. You might have noticed. I've been feeling pretty ambivalent about this blog, lately. I've been feeling pretty ambivalent about a lot of things lately. I can't really put my finger on it. Nothing is wrong, exactly, there's just a general lack of focus in my life. I'm really good at coming up with extreme solutions to vague problems and one of the things I came up with this last month was to delete my blog (again) and give up on most other internet activities. Our family briefly considered getting rid of home internet service all together but decided against it.

In the end I decided not to delete my blog but to write an "On Hold" post and leave it alone for awhile. I never got around to writing that post but I have done a good bit of thinking and here I am, blogging again, hoping this hobby can be a small part of putting things together.

There are many sorts of blogs out there. I already write about my dear children but I want a place to write about all the other stuff in my life that my family really doesn't care to read about. This blog, at least for my part, needs a clearer focus. I also need this blog to be a tool for encouragement and accountability. More than anything I want to create a beautiful, welcoming, well-ordered home for my family. I want to live this vocation God has given me as perfectly as possible.

I'm a mess. Partly I mean that the dishes aren't done but mostly I mean that I feel all jumbled and disordered inside. There are many things I do quite well and I need to be reminded of that. If I blog about those things I can remind a few others while I'm at it. But I am also prone to despair. I bite off more than I can chew and I want to make everything perfect all at once. I need to take small steps forward.

So, an experiment. Robyn challenged me to write every day for one week. I'm going to further refine the challenge. I'm going to try to write every day for one week on one thing I've done towards becoming a better homemaker. If the exercise is encouraging and motivating I will continue. I define homemaking very broadly and I will still be an urban-dwelling Catholic through all of this. But I need a focus. I need a project. So, here I go . . .

(Oh, and pardon the "dust". I'll be fiddling with the template as time permits as well.)