“The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom

Last night I stayed up reading a novel till unmentionable small hours of the morning. I couldn’t put it down. I tried but couldn’t sleep. I had to know how things would turn out for these ordinary yet heroic Hollanders who hid Jewish people in their Haarlem home in World War Two. The fact that this story is true and autobiographical added a bittersweet poignancy which really captivated me.

I can’t recommend this heroic story enough. But be sure to buy Kleenex, and some strong coffee (preferably Dutch) for the mornings after you stay up way too late reading it on the edge of your seat. The sacrifice of sleep will be worth it to renew your faith in the amazing ability of humanity to survive in the most horrific circumstances…and not only to survive, but to thrive, at least interiorly. The women in this story suffer deeply, but instead of becoming darkened by hate, they become luminous…in the midst of evil, they glow. Love does this. Faith does this. Unshakable determination to do what is right does this.

I was extremely inspired by the ten Boom family, whose loving description reminded me a bit of the family in Little Women. It made me feel that my struggles are very small indeed, and that I want to pray for greater heroism in overcoming the bitterness and self-pity that can creep in through the cracks of exhaustion. Corrie, who is a watchmaker in her 50’s when she joins the Dutch underground movement, makes it very clear that any good she did came not from her own virtue or strength, but from the faith and love infused into her soul. God’s providence runs through the story like a shining golden thread.

What is amazing, besides all she did to save her fellow human beings, especially Jews, during the war, is what she does after the war, having been through harsh prisons and concentration camps. She opens homes for victims of war, where they can live in a loving home, grow flowers and vegetables and find hope again. Beyond that, she travels the world sharing her story of the power of love to overcome evil, and that God’s loving forgiveness that exists for all, no matter how dark their past. She does not neglect Germany, the land of her wartime fears and captivity, when sharing her message of peace.

The Hiding Place resonates with me in a very personal level because I have Dutch family who hid Jews in their home during the war, and my Opa himself, who worked for the Dutch radio, hid from the Nazis when they wanted him to spew propaganda. When soldiers knocked on the door, Opa Koenig would quickly open the floorboards in the attic and lower himself into a little hiding place. My cute blonde, blue-eyed Dutch stepdad and his sister would then throw a blanket over the area and sit on it playing with their toys. Thankfully, the soldiers would simply look around the room, pat their little heads, and leave. I can’t imagine the stress of this on kids, but Opa survived the war and was never caught, unlike so many others.

If you’re looking for a book to read this November as we approach Remembrance Day, try “The Hiding Place.” It’s the kind of book that touches your soul and leaves you forever grateful for the goodness of the ordinary heroes among us.

Kid Clutter: Experiments in Decluttering Toy Tornadoes

The floor: for many of us parents, the sight of a bare floor is an amazing and rare spectacle, rather like the sighting of a double rainbow or a shooting star–beautiful and hauntingly brief–before it is submerged under a deluge of toys again.

I’ve tried many things to deal with this problem, like buying more toy bins from ikea and sorting the toys into them…repeatedly! Storage is not the solution, when everything is just going to be dumped out again. I’m also constantly decluttering and making give away bags of clothes and toys for Big Brothers Charity to pick up from my doorstep. I’ve even tried my sister’s method of toy jail, except sticking a box or bag of toys out in the garage temporarily. She told me:

I grabbed a garbage bag every night and a laundry basket. Set the timer. If things weren’t put back where they belonged they went in the garbage or into the “toy jail”. Then the jail went up on the fridge till they earned their toy’s freedom.

She was much more disciplined about doing this every night to establish a habit of tidying up. By the time I hit evening, I’m often too done in to do this. Or I’m just as overwhelmed as the kids by the sheer amount of tiny things to be responsible for. Hundreds and hundreds of little things to pick up, sort, organize, and put away. It’s a lot of pressure to deal with all this stuff.

So I finally hit a wall of frustration last weekend and decided to be a little more drastic. I brought in huge rubbermade bins from the garbage and dumped all the toy bins in them. I gathered up all the toys from the floor, everything but the toy food from in the toy kitchen, and a stuffie or two on each bed, and I put it ALL in the garage.

I waited for an explosion of outrage. For complaints. For tears. For…anything! But nothing came. The kids barely seemed to notice. My three year old Eddie turned all the empty toy bins into a toy train.

In his bed he has his Spider-Man doll and his Star Wars book. He’s perfectly happy. He has his siblings and his imagination. He has space to run and jump and play, instead of living in a toy tornado. We might bring some toys back in after a while, but not until they are specifically requested. So far, in a whole week, only one toy has been asked for, so I’ll go fetch that one thing.

I share this anecdote to demonstrate that sometimes we put too much stock in material things, thinking our happiness depends on them. It is a greater happiness to live the adventure of participating in making the world a better place. Life has much more savour and zest when we are not trapped in the tunnel of thinking mainly of ourselves. I read a great comment by a woman named Lauren in comments in We Are That Family blog:

My pastor said that we expect our children to be grateful when we shower them with gifts, but the only way to be really grateful is to live without.

I think the sheer amount of gifts children receive really cheapens everything. It’s so hard to really care about that many things. Especially when an empty box is just as fun to play with– or more!

We are still a fair way away from Christmas, the season in which loving relatives attempt to drive mothers insane by dumping down the chimney a sparkling deluge of tiny toys, to be picked up and sorted and lost and cried over and fought over approximately 2946393 times.

May I suggest, for those who may be thinking ahead, to consider experience gifts instead? Like taking the kids to a play or paying for an art class? Kids will love it! Nothing has brought my 6 and 7 year olds greater joy than their art class at 4 Cats art studio this fall. They are growing in confidence and learning new skills. Mothers all around the world will thank you for not bringing a million more tiny collectible toys to their house, especially every night when they go upstairs to read their kids a bedtime story, and can actually see that much coveted and beloved object: a clear floor!

As an added bonus, buying less toys is better for the environment, and helps preserve a more beautiful world for our kids to grow up in. Win-win!!

Some days

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Spread far and wide

And though I’ve tried

My patience fails

My heart, it quails

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

The toddler roars

And slams the door

He lets me know

Who runs the show

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

The baby cries

The empress queen

Will be obeyed

Or price be paid

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

I’m losing sleep

And with is goes

All the wisdom

That I know

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Chalk in the sink

Paint on the floor

Stamps on the wall

Pens on the door

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

My mind forgets

My plans do fail

Behind me lies

A messy trail

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Mistakes rubbed in

Do sink my heart

Under their weight

I fall apart

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

I write this poem

Take refuge in

The secret world

I hide within

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Every Child Matters: September 30th

This September 30th was the 5th anniversary of my daughter Josephine’s birth. And death. Stillborn. It’s a bittersweet day for me, as we mourn and remember and celebrate her, especially by planting fall bulbs which will fill our garden with colour in the spring. We try to fill her birthday, one haunted by painful memories, with as much love and beauty as we can. We feel the wordless warmth of her love in return, across the temporary divide into the next life. The prayers and kind messages of friends take the sharp edge off this poignant day.

Josephine’s birthday is also Orange Shirt day, the special day assigned to commemorate the suffering of First Nations children separated from their families and put in residential schools. Having lost a child myself, I feel a stab of sympathy when I think of these families who had their children torn away from them. They had the additional torture of anxiety for their children’s happiness and well-being, knowing these were being violated. So from the heart of a mother which has been broken by grief, I send all my deepest wishes for healing and hope to all who have suffered in this way.

I was touched by the slogan below when my sister sent me this poster:

Every child matters.

No qualifying statements: no ‘if/then clauses’ like if they’re wealthy, they matter; if they’re white, they matter; if they’re wanted, they matter, if they’re old enough, they matter. No.

EVERY CHILD MATTERS.

When I saw a petition for equal health care for Inuit babies, I was a bit naively shocked….what do you mean, some babies in Canada often don’t receive equal care?? It seems that in their more extreme climate, many Inuit babies suffer seriously from RSV (respiratory virus syndrome), and some even succumb to it, despite the existence of a preventative antibody that is normally given to at-risk babies. It is not standardly given to them. I’m at a loss to know why. Cost, perhaps? Since when have we put a price tag on human life? Moreover, why is that price tag different depending whose child you are? Every child matters.

To say that some babies matter more than others is to commodify human beings, that is, to turn them into objects of variable worth…mere things whose value is determined by other frail human beings. This makes no sense. Either all babies matter, or none do.

Canada is such a gift. A beautiful country which is filled with so many diverse peoples. Let us please work towards making it a place where it is truly clear that every child matters, no matter what.

Homeschool Fun: Making Butter

Recently we did a simple science project from my daughter’s Behold and See 6 workbook: making homemade butter out of whip cream. We poured a litre of whip cream into a glass jar, closed it up, put on some fun 50’s music and proceeded to dance about shaking the jar like crazy. It’s a lot of work, so we all took turns….even the toddler lugged the giant jar about for a few minutes, at her own request.

After some time, and a change of music to Nintendo theme songs, requested by another child, we discovered it had become whip cream. We snuck out a small bowlful, sprinkled it with granulated sugar and dipped chopped fruit in it.

Then back to work with lots more dancing, jumping and shaking, and plenty of admiration for the ladies of old who did this by hand every week, like Ma in “Little House in the Big Woods,” which we are reading together. Eventually the jar started to slosh around again with buttermilk, which had separated from the large yellow clump of butter inside. After a bit we took the butter out and rinsed it off, to get out the buttermilk which could make it go rancid more easily.

After the water which we rinsed and kneaded it in ran clear, we took it out and put it in out butter dish. Voilá!

It’s yummy! Another time maybe we will add garlic and herbs and spread it on a warm loaf of bread from the bread-maker! The litre of whip cream only made about a half pound of butter, which made me better appreciate butter’s price!

This Life

This life–

so beautiful and terrible,

so full of horror and sunsets,

of crushing sadness,

kissable babies toes,

and mellow evening skies through the treetops.

This world of ours,

pulsing with life,

yet ever falling into death.

What is is life, Lord, without you,

who holds all things in being,

from inexpressible richness

to indescribable pain,

from grandmother’s smiles

to pizza.

You stretch our caterpillar spirits,

–too often content

to curl up comfortably at home

in our protective layer of fur–

until we become as expansive as butterflies,

wings dancing across the entire sky,

exposed to the sun and wind and starlight,

and intimately close to you–

face to face,

forever.

Silent Salute

I look with longing up the hill

to where my little sweetie lies.

A strip of tall, green trees topped with crimson

stand at attention along the oft-walked road

like a line of fire

through the graveyard

and up the hill where my baby ever sleeps.

Glorious fall silently saluting the fallen–

my heart shouting without sound

as the bus rumbles by and whisks me away too soon.

10 Homeschool Hacks from an Experienced (not expert!) Parent

Often when people hear I’ve had eight kids (seven here on earth and one gone ahead), they get wide eyed and exclaim something like,

Oh, how do you do it!? You must be an expert!

I always feel a little awkward, because how do you tell someone you just met,

Actually, I struggle just as much as the next mom…my only expertise could be in making mistakes. I’ve probably made more than most people.

I’m no expert; I’ve had lots of experience with babies and kids, but I’m still learning every day. So I don’t have an expert e-course to offer, or a fancy printable for your fridge, helpful as these things can be. When I share any of my adventures in parenting with you on my blog, it is in the spirit of one friend speaking to another over coffee. I hope we will both laugh and come away encouraged. Maybe you’ll be able to skip making some of the makes I have, or at least to know you’re not alone if you do!

Many things that come to some people a bit more naturally, like being organized or planning ahead, are a huge challenge for me (squirrel!) so lots of the things I’ve learned might be things you already know. Hurrah! You’re doing great.

Homeschool Hacks

  1. The Myth of Multitasking…Make a Time for Things

Women are often praised for being great multitaskers. It’s true that we often need to juggle many things at once, and can. But is it ideal? Is it actually the best approach? For years I’ve been trying to homeschool the kids, answer the phone, plan activities, cook meals and clean the house at….well, basically the same time. It’s exhausting.

Finally I took an awesome, practical and insightful online homeschool planning course from Pam Barnhill, called: Put Your Homeschool Year on Autopilot. One of the best takeaways for me from this course was the idea of having a basic but flexible schedule so that I wouldn’t always have to be deciding what’s next. I always resisted the perceived constraint of a schedule, but I realize now that having a set time for school to end, for example, means after that, I’m free to do other things…like mark and plan, or cook and clean, without feeling like I should be doing educational activities with the kids at the same time. Relief.

2. Professionals Don’t Pick Up

Another thing that’s been helpful this year, because I’m more clear when is school time, and when is not, is that it’s easier to be more professional about my teaching, and avoid distractions. So I leave my phone and iPad upstairs when we are in session in the school room, and just check messages at lunch and after school. It’s hard for me to resist being always available to everyone who might call or text, but it’s more important that I’m fully present to the kids while we homeschool.

3. There’s no such thing as “just one more thing.”

It’s easy for people to assume that because we homeschool moms are generally home, we are generally available….and therefore free to do them little favours or errands…”just this once,” “just once a week,” “just for an hour,” or whatever. All these little “justs” can completely derail homeschool days. Also, for the busy mom with an ongoing to-do list of 18,264 things, the last “just” could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

I would encourage homeschool moms (actually, any moms) to really mull over any new activities before agreeing to them, and even to consider any current extra obligations: do these things bring you life and joy? Do they fulfill you and make you feel enriched? Great! But if they cause stress, emotional drain, or additional fatigue…then…maybe they just need to go! Quitting some extra’s is not failure; it’s intentionally choosing where to invest your precious and limited energy, so you can give your family your best.

4. Accordion Binders are Magic

As I already mentioned, I’m pretty scatterbrained, and while I have lots of good ideas, I’m also good at forgetting them. And losing things. And wasting time trying to find them again. The dollar store came to the rescue with lovely accordion binders. I got one for each child, so they can easily slip their work into the right labeled slot, and close it up, instead of piling their work on my desk to get lost. Little ones have no trouble with this, the way they often do with using a hole punch and metal ring binder. Also, when our homeschool coach comes to visit, their work should be much easier to find!

I also use a binder for my own projects, such a my second poetry book that I’m slowly compiling and editing. Now my precious papers aren’t lost, and I can grab the whole thing to take with me on rare times I’m out alone and can work on it…even if it’s just on the skytrain.

5. Sticky Notes Save the Day

I can’t believe it’s taken me till now to realize how awesome sticky notes are! I got beautiful coloured ones, a different shade for each child, for them to keep their places in the textbooks and workbooks. It makes marking so easy because I know where the kids’ current work is. Sticky notes make their work easy to grab and get started without wasting time trying to remember what we did last and looking for the right page. When you multiply 4 text or work books by 5 kids–considering it takes a minute to find your place if it’s not marked–I figure sticky notes save us at least 20 minutes a day!

When they don’t have mistakes, I move their sticky note forward to the next new page. When there are corrections to be made, I leave it where it is, and move it after marking the next assignment. If we miss a day of a subject, we just look for the note and start again. No problemo.

6. Clipboard Checklists Keep Things Running Smoothly

One of Pam Barnhill’s great tips was to give each child a clip board with a notebook on it, and to write their daily checklist of assignments on it each day. When I take time to do this, usually right after school while the kids have a quiet time show, the next day runs more smoothly. Right away the kids know what’s expected, and can work ahead. If they don’t feel like doing the first one right away, they can also choose to do a different activity on the checklist, knowing they are still getting the day’s work done.

The clipboards are also super handy for filling with any printouts the kids will need that day, as well as additional quiet activities like colouring sheets, mazes or word searches in case they finish before the others. I have a clipboard, too, which I write my basic daily plan on. When I’m writing it, it reminds me to grab all the books I need and stick them in my teacher basket on top of my desk. (You guessed it! Another handy tip from Pam: visualizing your school day to make sure everything you need is at hand.)

7. Plan as if you’re having a new baby

This year, before starting our new homeschool year, I did the same prep I’d usually do if I was expecting a newborn–that is–anything to make life a bit easier! First we delayed starting school for an extra week in order to clean the house. Then my Dad bravely took me on a giant Costco shop (we don’t have a car) and we filled the poor vehicle to the brim with every possible staple, easy school snack, freezable meal, and even some really cool homeschool books and science kits.

I got the toddler, who thinks that she is Van Gogh and every surface is a canvas, a giant erasable-marker ABC book she can lie on the schoolroom carpet and scribble on. I picked up some new alphabet stacker blocks for her, too, and some superman books for her preschool brother, who has a desk and sits with us, too, during school, when he’s not rolling around on the ground wrestling his older brother or attacking people with a sword.

8. Not every meal has to be fancy

Since the kids are often out at extracurricular activities later in the day, my husband had the good idea that we have our main meal at lunch and then do simple sandwiches and fruit, or wraps and veggies, etc, for dinner. This way I can pack sandwiches for kids who will be out, and have them ready for the others who are home. Also, I don’t have to spend the evening doing tons of dishes, because dinner was really simple with minimal mess.

I find I have more energy for cooking mid-day, anyway, and it gives the kids a welcome break mid-school day to go practice music or hang out a bit between lessons. My handy instant pot makes it easy to make things like curry or stew quickly. I save leftovers for my husband’s dinner, and with the kids help, get things cleaned up from lunch before we continue school.

9. Loops are Lovely

One of the other insights tips from Pam’s course was how to use loop schedules. We have basic blocks within which we do certain topics, but they are on a loop. For example, I have a language arts loop, with things like spelling, writing, and grammar, and in that block the kids just do one topic after the other until the time is up, and then start at the next part of the loop next time. There’s no need to feel pressured or behind, or to assign dates to every page…you simply keep swimming! Here’s a list of potential topics for various loops:

This concept of flexible routine is so helpful, kind of like a dancer’s arms: they are firm enough move their own body with them, but supple enough to respond to changes in their partner. Have a plan to ground you, and be flexible enough to smile and give the chocolate pudding covered toddler a bath in the middle of math class! (Math and morning snack always go together for us…but this time was a rather sticky combo!!)

10. Kids Matter Most

All of these plans and tools are meant to serve your family, not to cause stress, if they don’t go exactly as hoped. To paraphrase Todd from The Smiling Homeschooler: Ultimately, curriculum doesn’t matter, your plan doesn’t matter, your schedule doesn’t matter, your kids matter. They are the reason for it all. Watch their faces….little smilo-meters. If they’re generally smiling, you’re doing well. Not that there won’t be challenges each day, but if they’re always frowning, stop and reassess your priorities. Relationship is first.

Todd’s wise wife Donna’s motto is: “If we’ve laughed a little, and learned a little, we’ve accomplished a lot.” I love that! When things go sideways, and kids are too worn out for another lesson, I remember it and pull out the storybooks for a cosy break. Sometimes the unplanned moments create the best memories.

Do you have any favourite homeschool tricks or general teaching tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!