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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Day of Giving

This year at the Carver Thanksgiving we had a family conversation about Christmas and having, giving and appreciation.   I was sitting there realizing that in many ways I prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because the focus in on spending time together, rather than on mountains of gifts.  We all agreed that none of us needed anything and that our kids have so much stuff that we don't know where to put it all.  All the adults were concerned about how much the kids love to receive and that they don't always know how to really appreciate what they have.  

I like giving my kids gifts, don't get me wrong.  Whether right or wrong, it is an amazing feeling as a parent to create a Christmas morning full of surprises that lives up to a child's hopes and dreams.  However, I also have a true need for Christmas to be more than about gifts and managing credit card statements.  I need for there to be meaning and depth, awareness and appreciation, goodness and love.  

A few years ago we began a tradition with my side of the family to make Christmas gifts to exchange.  This brought a new level of mindfulness to our Christmas celebration and involved the kids directly in the giving.  I like how this has transformed our traditional celebrating and focused us more on time spent together and being generous in spirit rather than an over focus on what, for the love of everything holy, is inside that wrapped box.  Our families have exchanged homemade doll quilts, fleece blankets, scarves, photo gifts and one year I got the best wooden helicopter from my nephew. 

So this year we decided to do something a little different with Sandi's side of the family, especially to better help shape the minds of the children.  We decided to do a family Day of Giving.  Sandi and the girls and I did this as part of a different local group a few years ago and not only was it great fun, it was also deeply touching to our kids to experience directly giving to people in need.  (A massive shout out to the Bangor Elves for the inspiration and for all your amazing and wide-reaching generosity!).   

We are generous people but to our children, most of our giving is rather abstract.  We talk about the kids who don't have toys and encourage them to donate their toys to these unseen, unknown children (and they have done this all their lives) but the loop is never really closed.  All they see is me take their donations and put them in my car and they forget about it.  They know we write out checks for different charities but there is nothing for them to relate to in that.  

We tried to focus our family Day of Giving around fulfilling true local needs as well as just spreading good cheer.  Ella and I came up with the idea to make gift bags for the people at the homeless shelters.  Calls to the adult and teen shelters in our areas let us know that the items these folks most need are personal hygiene items.  So, as part of homeschool, we made a lengthy and multi-cart trip to the local Dollar Store to purchase enough items to fill 58 bags.  Ella helped me count and add 58 tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, pairs of socks, gloves or hats, Chapstick, deodorant, ear plugs and of course, some candy.  

What a wonderful lesson that day was.  It made me love homeschool.  It would be impossible to categorize and compute all that was learned and, to me, that is the essence of homeschool.   

Brevan and Ella sorted the stuff into piles so we could fill the bags assembly line style.  

The checklist

It was so heartwarming to hear the two of them talking as they worked.

"Oh someone will love to get these!"
"This girl is going to get the cherry Chapstick AND this yummy lotion."
"I wonder how long this toothpaste will last."
"Is it okay to put a few more pieces of chocolate in this bag since it seems kind of small?"

I was SO proud of these kids.  They worked nonstop for 2 hours.

The next day we made our way to the Bangor Homeless Shelter and the kids actually got to hand out some of the bags to the folks who were there having lunch.  They were so proud to do it and the people were so gracious and thankful in receiving them.

Now I tell you all of this not because we want any sort of props or kudos for it.  I tell you because it meant so much to us and, more importantly, to our children.  If you are combating some entitlement and material demands from your children this time of year, or any time for that matter, this physical involvement in giving is profound. 

No parent wants to hear their child say, "Is that all?" when they are given a present.  And what I have found is that even though we have taught our kids not to utter these vile words, what we really wanted was to change their entire way of thinking.  No small task.

We have spent so much time actively sheltering our girls from much of the harshness of the world, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment.  We have certainly tried to teach about people being less fortunate and of sharing when you have all and more than you need.  We have always been a family to donate but I think in some ways by not directly involving them we have done them a disservice.  They are old enough now.   It did them so well to have a day that wasn't about them, where they didn't ask for anything or get anything.  It was so real to them to understand that some people don't have a roof over their heads, a family or even their own tube of toothpaste.  

Giving feels so very, very good.   And it is just plain fun. 

The rest of our Day of Giving was made up of a random acts of generosity.  We had made up about 50 bags with some candy and a note sending love and happy holidays to people and gave them out.  We took about 10 of those bags and put in half a roll of quarters and gave them out at a laundry mat.   The kids took around a bag of small toys and stuffed animals and gave them to other kids they saw.  We all shopped for items from a couple of angel trees and some general donations to another local agency for the homeless.  

We focused much of our time at one local store where we felt people who are trying to stretch their dollars might be shopping.  We gave out gift cards to the store to people in line.  One woman was so touched she began to cry and told me that recently her food stamps had been decreased by $170 a month and she was struggling.  When I wished her a Merry Christmas she told me that she appreciated our kindness so much because she was alone on Christmas now that her mother had died.  I felt such compassion for this woman, such gratitude for my busy, messy, chocker-block-full-of-love life and a certain level of shame that I would ever take a speck of it for granted (even when keeping up with feeding and doing the laundry of 4 people is a bit much).  

It is very humbling to buy for people who need diapers, clothing, a bouncy seat for their infant.  Specifically for Maya, we shopped for a 4-year-old who adored Elsa (from Frozen) and wanted anything Elsa to open on Christmas morning.  Maya also adores Elsa and covets the same things.  It was so touching to watch both our girls get excited for what they could give this little girl.  It was something they could so deeply relate to.  

I took the girls with me to drop off the Elsa dress, shoes and magic wand and we talked about how happy this would make this child.  They gratitude from the staff at the agency who received the gift was so heartfelt and I know my kids left feeling good about what they had done.  

That night Jingles hid in one of our goody bags.  (Please try to get past the asphyxiation worry here.)

Giving at this level felt so good I found that it was all I wanted to do.  When I was out shopping, I wanted to pay for the groceries of the person next to me and buy a new winter coat for someone else whose coat looked worn.  Like anything, generosity is its own habit.  

Without a doubt, this day will be one of the best of our holiday season and will become a new family tradition. What you give matters less than that you give.   Buy a stranger's coffee.  Give a homeless person a pair of warm gloves.  It doesn't have to cost a lot.  What I learned most from this experience it that the best way to teach kids generosity and gratitude is to involve them directly.   I was amazed by how this experience impacted them.   

Whether your arms are around a person or a hot cup of tea, may you spend more with your heart and less with your credit card, may you find some light and warmth in this cold, dark season and may you love and be loved.  May you find the movie "Elf" as funny this year as in every year before.  If you celebrate love and light or the baby Cheez-its, may your heart be filled enough to share.   Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

elf on the shelf

Now I know that many people find the Elf on the Shelf either a little creepy or just too much hype.  I know the shift in years past from unobtrusive shelf observer to more active, and possibly mischievous, house guest has not been welcomed by all busy parents but I have to say that in our house there is lots of fun being had.  

Our Elf's name is Jingles and he is not only part of Santa's spy network.  He also oversees a "magic mailbox" which messengers info and treats to/from the North Pole.  If the flag to the mailbox is up, the kids can check it for notes or small goodies from Santa.  

I mean, really, how can such an opportunity be passed up?

Underwearing the tree 
If you are wondering if this elf bomber jacket was purchased and if this airplane was hand constructed out of wood and then painted and decorated as the "Holly Jolly Glider" I will have to say to you: don't be ridiculous. 

Our elf is certainly not above stealing ideas.  These elves are doing all manner of creative things in houses across the land.  Luckily people are willing to share their elfish experiences.  One detail I discovered in my research: if one is to simply insert some medium gauge wire into the arms and legs, bendable limbs multiply your elf's possibilities indefinitely.  

Yes, in case you are wondering, homeschool on this day consisted of elf surgery.  Don't worry.  We provided ample amounts of anesthesia.  


Hanging in a bowl of Maya's favorite cereal. 

Ella's idea to bring in the American Girl dolls.   Yes, that is an elf baby bottle.  

Peeking out of the American Girl locker.  (Yes, we have one of those.)

Repelling off the chimney.

Due to the recent increase in Cheez-it attention and consumption, there was a large volume purchased during a recent shopping trip.  And then this happened. 

Purple milk or pink milk? That is the question. 
And I think this is my favorite.
I mean, seriously. what is there not to love about this?  Except maybe the remembering.  I confess, the remembering is rather dicey.

But then there is this:

Monday, December 22, 2014


Christmas is heavily observed in our house.  Less from the religious angle, we enjoy so much of the warmth and sharing of Christmas, the abundant light in the darkest part of the year, time with friends and family, treasured traditions, the music, the good cheer and goodness that abounds (mostly) everywhere you go.  Christmas is such an open-hearted time of year and so many things seem possible.  

We rather seriously decorate our house for Christmas, with a strong emphasis on the snowman.  There are lights strung,  Santa bath mats, a Christmas village, Christmas throw blankets and accent pillows, holiday welcome mats, jingle bells and candles on timers in all 28 windows.  Sometimes I feel a bit like a Who down in Who-ville when Sandi says to me, "Really?  Our tree topper doesn't light up?"  

I can't quantify the amount of time it takes to decorate and undecorate for Christmas except to say that in our minds it is worth it.  And then Ella says to me the other day: "When I grow up I'm going to decorate like so and so.  There is Christmas stuff EVERYWHERE in her house."  

This Christmas season in an ongoing attempt to preserve my sanity, I am doing less. I am made the decision to really and truly not embark on my over-the-top holiday baking.  I said that last year and only managed a down-scale.  This year, though, I was very clear there was simply no way to fit it in.  

Except of course, the staples of holiday baking tradition with the girls. 

Ella has taken to borrowing my headbands and scarves and let me say I am entirely flattered that this fashionista likes my things. 
Our family takes tree selection very seriously.  There is generally a lot of trekking and comparing and back and forth with lots of contemplation with discussion dedicated to the height and the girth and attempts to find a tree you had previously liked in a sea of trees that look nearly exactly the same.

This year we walked into the field and said of one in the first row, "That one looks good."  Wait.  That was much too easy.  So I offered the obligatory, "Well, have you seen THIS one over here?" and we hemmed and hawed for a weak 5 minutes and then went and chopped down the first one.  I think we are becoming light-weights.

We tried it in a new spot this year and I love it. 

Whenever I set a limit with myself something comes along to test it.  This year it was the Trek Across Maine fundraising bake sale.  Can I make cake pops again since they sold so well last year?  Sure I can!  I am a team player.  While being a brand spanking new homeschooler?  Yeah, maybe not.  If anything, this solidified for me that I simply couldn't do my traditional holiday baking.  I made about 80 of these bad boys and they seriously took me close to 8 hours total with all the various steps and the individual packaging.  

There was also the annual gingerbread making gathering.  Wow, are these kids getting big.  

simply beautiful

And a holiday play date with our favorite twins. 

These weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas always go way too fast for me.  As the kids are counting down the days until Christmas, I am begging time to slow down.  'Tis the season of letting people go in front of you, of holding the door, of having getting the mail be fun, of seeing grown men wearing Santa hats as you go about your day.  This year it also the year of talking to the lovely customer service people at American Girl a few too many times and of possibly abusing the benefits of Amazon Prime. 

These are some of my favorite days snuggled up in the cozy living room with Christmas music on, of the excitement and buzz and endless magic sharing this season with kids brings.  We started a new advent tradition of counting down the days of Christmas by  unwrapping a Christmas book each night (the kids love this and don't even care that these are our books that they have read so many times) which we will end with "The Night Before Christmas".  They get so excited to see what number we are on each night and unwrap the book!

This season also brings a bunch of busyness and overextending and I am working hard to stem that tide.  I am so treasuring my girls this holiday season.  They make everything about this time of year sparkle.  I lay in bed early a few morning ago, trying to get a restless Maya back to sleep so she wouldn't be up for the day at 4:40.  I swear there is nothing sweeter in the world than tracing the curve of your child's nose with the tip of your own.  I read a quote recently: you will never have anything more valuable around your neck than the arms of your child.  How very true.  I see things people write this time of year about missing their loved ones who have passed away and I am gratefully reminded to relish my life.  

So my favorite thing about this Christmas season so far (I will tell you about my second favorite thing in follow up post) is a story about, you guessed it, our hilarious Maya.  Every now and then Maya's hearing loss provides some really awesome comic relief.  Sandi had pulled up a video for us to watch of some gowned and glamed female singers performing a song (I believe it was "Away in a manger").  Maya took it all in and when it was over she asked, "Why are they singing about baby Cheez-its?"

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Our kids are lucky enough to be the kids that have so much stuff that I cringe at the thought of the gifts they will receive for their birthdays.  And with their birthdays breathing down the neck of Christmas, I feel like there is a 2 month period where I am involuntarily involved in the maddening game of and where can THAT go?

This year we decided to do something different.  Instead of gifts we planned a birthday trip to Boston, a destination the girls have been pining to visit for a while.  Oh for the history, you ask?  The Red Sox?  

No, don't be silly.  Boston has the AMERICAN GIRL store. 

But more on that later.  First off, we learned to take the T!

This was the conversation we had with the kids (Maya) about the T: "You need to stay with us all the time.  You need to be holding our hands when we get on and off the train.  If you do not, you could get left on the train or the platform without us and it would be very difficult to find each other.  It would be very scary for everyone.  So hold a hand and don't test the limit.  Got it?"

Maya held fast to us like glue.  It might be the most obedient she has ever been in a public place. 

We went to Faneuil Hall and met my Aunt Rita and Uncle Jeffrey and my cousin Clare and her family.  It was indescribably lovely to see this part of my family.   And our girls played so well with Clare's girls, ages 4 and 6.  I guess these girls were second cousins?  Or first cousins once removed?  Regardless, they adored each other. 

Can we talk about how nice it is to take your kids somewhere with their own spending money?  They had birthday money burning holes in their pockets and found some gems in Quincy Market.  An orchid necklace for Maya (don't worry- it wasn't delicate and it certainly did not break on the second day and require a second trip to the Quincy Market vendor to replace it) and a dream catcher for Ella. 

We happened to be in Faneuil Hall the night of the big tree lighting and it was packed.  There was a ceremony/show with all sorts of performers which we watched on the a massive screen from the back.  When Megan Trainor came on to sing "All about that bass" the girls were wowed.  When we explained that she was up at the front of the square performing, a mere few hundred feet away, they were floored.

All that city fun wore our girls out.  Waiting for the T when you are tired is hard.
The next day was all about the Museum of Science.  What a cool place!

They have a butterfly garden! This was the big draw for Maya.  She was bound and determined to have a butterfly land on her (they ask that you not take them off their perches but just allow them to land on you).  The more fierce she became in her effort to will a butterfly to her, the more they alluded her.
It was the coolest place with hundreds of stunning butterflies flittering in the air and all over the tropical plants.  You could even observe the chrysalis stage and, if you are lucky, watch a butterfly emerge. We got to see one just after as it rested and let its wings dry.  Amazing.  For those unsure about miracles and some sort of divine imprint, the life cycle of a butterfly offers more than its share of wonder.
Maya decided to put this flower necklace down to entice a butterfly.  I love this picture because it represents the quick mind and strong will of our Maya.  I call it The Faceoff.
When it became evident that we could never in fact leave the butterfly garden without success, the compassionate custodian of butterfly-kind took pity on us.  She brought Maya an orange wedge with a butterfly on it and said, "I know this isn't the same, but hopefully it is close."  Mercy.  Thank you.

Naturally, the zen of Sandi was an easy landing place for this little beauty.  
There was a Mayan exhibit at the museum and Maya was thrilled to see her name everywhere, including in giant letters on the outside of the building.  She took to calling it the "Museum of Maya". (Second favorite picture.)
Ella, Molly, Madison and Maya

Inside an Apollo spacecraft!

Next stop: the unforgettable, totally-worth-the-money Duck Tour.  

We got to spend 85 minutes on an amphibious vehicle that toured the streets of Boston and then drove right into Boston Harbor with the one of the most hilarious women on the planet.  Thanks Flo for making us laugh till our stomachs hurt whist giving us some unusual and lasting history lessons.  And look whose driving the bus/boat!

I even got a turn.   Yes, I am sporting a beak.  It is a duck tour after all.  When your tour guide gives you the signal (ours was for her to yell, "Knock it off!") we were all to reply with a hearty "QUACK! QUACK!"  I admit, I was into it.

I kinda fell in love with Boston.

Day two was the New England Aquarium.  The girls were a little excited.

So cool to feel these guys in the touch tank and hear the educational information provided by the staff. 

Perhaps most importantly,  we met this beauty: Myrtle the sea turtle.  Ella was over the moon since we have been doing an in-depth study of sea turtle in homeschool.

And last, but certainly not least, it was time to travel just outside the city to the Natick Mall for the pilgrimage to the American Girl store.  

We had a little birthday party just the four of us complete with birthday tiaras for girls and dolls (and thankfully NOT mothers) and an entire mini-cake.

Also, this happened.

As well as the inevitable: an armload of bags.  Which is hard to do at that store considering the asking price of the merchandise.
 The girls simply loved Boston.  This was their first taste of city life and they thought it was all that.  Scary thought that it is, I found myself pondering:  I could so see our girls going to college here. 

Red light, green light and trying to catch Maya.

photo bomb

Have you ever seen the New England Holocaust Memorial? It is gut wrenching, powerful, riveting and brilliant.

Here is quote about the memorial from the website:

The Memorial is designed around six luminous glass towers, each reaching 54 feet high, and each lit internally from top to bottom. The number six has many meanings here: the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust; the names of the six main death camps; a row of memorial candles; and the six years, 1939-1945, during which the infamous “Final Solution,” the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, took place. In addition, six million numbers are etched in the glass, representing the infamous tattoos inflected on many of the victims’ arms.

on the walkway as you approach
The memorial is always open. As you walk through each of the 6 towers a gust of hot steam blows onto you from below.  It is the most visceral experience. Seeing the numbers of the survivors etched in the glass, each one so tiny, stacked up on each other in neat rows and columns, six panels high in four separate walls to make an entire tower is arresting.  Then to know that this repeats 5 more times.  Six million is a staggering number.

It was hard to explain to a very concerned Maya why I was crying.  It was hard to feel like it was enough to whisper, "I'm so sorry.  Please forgive us."  It was painful to know that Sandi was trying to explain what all of this meant to Ella who would now never be without the knowledge that such an atrocity could happen in a world we have taught her is full of goodness.

I have forever been held by the story of the Holocaust: the evils, the profound and immeasurable devastation and loss, the social and political mechanisms that allowed such an event to take place over so many years, the profound will of so many to survive.

As we left the memorial, Maya said: "Let's not go back to the place that made Momma cry."  Ella said: "How could a man that hurt so many people be a VEGETARIAN?"  The Holocaust is hard to fathom on any level I suppose.

Back to happy things: none of us wanted to leave the city.  There was still so much to do and see!  But alas, it was necessary to return home and replenish our checking account.  As much as they loved the city, our country girls were happy to return to our great state of Maine.

The trip was a success by many accounts.  It was the first family trip we took where our kids were old enough to stay up late and not break down.  They could walk without too much complaint.  They could drink cocoa on the T and only slosh half of it down their coats.  We got to spend some wonderful time with my family.  I got to eat the most amazing sushi I've ever had.  Ella got to visit the Cheesecake Factory,  a place she hadn't even known she was missing (she LOVES cheesecake).  Sandi got some awesome new boots.

And Maya?  Well, aside from the orchid necklace and the semi-butterfly landing, we didn't lose Maya in Boston and we are all proud of that.

The American Girl explosion all over the living room the moment we returned. 

We heart you Boston.  We are already talking about when we go back.
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