Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cooking with Apples

Every fall we look forward to the apple harvest: going up to Hartland Orchards and coming home with several bushels of apples. After we went this past Sunday, my husband and daughter couldn't resist plunging right into cooking and baking, even though it was a day of rest. Having said no to buying caramel apples at the orchard, my husband proceeded to create them from scratch when we got home, using sugar cooked slowly on the stove. And I decided to try my hand at apple strudel. Though I cannot make my pastry so thin that newprint can be read through it, as my Czech forebears could, my efforts were crowned with success. So were my husband's. But then again, it's difficult to ruin anything that contains lots of brown sugar, cinnamon, and fresh, tart apples.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Favorite Baby Distraction

For a long time, I've wanted to post about this secret distracting toy I use to keep my toddlers occupied, especially during conferences or retreats. When I sat in on a few classes of the truly excellent Act One writing program, I had my baby Thomas in tow. I packed toys to distract him during the five-hour classes, and this is one I always brought along.

It's deceptively simple: eight satin-brocade covered rectangular and square cardboard boxes backed into a square tin: small, light, noiseless, and unbreakable, if not indestructible. (The boxes were sold as a set on Montessori Services. I found the tin on my own.) But for whatever reason, toddlers find them fascinating.

The Montessori exercise, which my two-year-old is performing here, is to take the lids off the boxes, and then try to put the correct lids on each box, matching both the shape and the color of the box. She then puts them back in the box, which is a little tricky as you have to line up the squares and rectangles to get them to fit.
But younger babies find them just as intriguing. They take the lids off, they gnaw on them (which is the one way they can be destroyed, btw, eventually), they stack them like blocks, they throw them, they put them in and out of the tin... I don't know what makes these boxes such good "distractors" during grown-up activities like talks where baby activity is not appreciated. Maybe it's the colors. Maybe it's the fact that they don't make any noise when they're played with. Maybe it's the way they loan themselves to hide-and-seek and surprises (I've put Cheerios and treats inside each one). All I know is, when I'm off to a talk with a toddler in tow, I put this bag inside my tote or briefcase. I've replaced the boxes over the years, and I tend to keep it packed away, so that's it's always a "new toy" when I bring it out.

(Note: I tried to find the boxes at Montessori Services, but they don't seem to be on the site. Perhaps they would know where to find them, though. Blog reader Deeny found a similar item at this link for wedding favors. Let me know if you find any other sites that sell them online and I'll link to it.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Victoria for a new generation

I finally happened upon an issue of the revived Victoria magazine, and was delighted. After perusing a copy, I realized that here at last was a woman's magazine I could share with my growing girls. Not only because it was "safe" but because Victoria, as the magazine was originally conceived, gives girls a vision of womanhood worth aspiring to, in an age when so much that is truly feminine is denigrated and mocked.
I remember sadly cancelling my subscription some years ago as the models in its pages began showing clothes that were more exploitational than gracious, and the articles seemed to be chasing after the emptiness of radical feminism and sexual liberation. It is with joy that I have rediscovered the magazine that delighted me as a teenager. I wrote immediately for a subscription, together with a letter expressing my sincere hope that the new staff of Victoria will continue to dedicate themselves to the original vision of beauty and womanhood that enlivened this delicately and mischieviously counter-cultural journal.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Simplify Your Domestic Church!

In the past month I've made a new friend and become acquainted with a wonderful apostolate: Abby Sasscer and Home as Haven. Abby's mission is to help Catholic homeschooling moms (or any Catholic moms) simplify and organize their lives. Since she lives in my area, I was able to take advantage of her free home assessment (she accepts a donation to cover her costs). Two weeks ago, she came to my house, went over our entire home, and made recommendations tailored to my needs.
Armed with her pep talk about detachment, simplicity, and generousity, I went through all my storage (some of which hadn't been touched since we moved here three years ago) and gave away nearly two dozen garbage bags of clothes, household goods, books, and toys. What a tremendous difference it has made in our home! My husband is more content, even though most of the clutter was out of sight most of the time. I reorganized my laundry room and have even more plans to optimize it.
Although Abby noted that I already had some organization plans in place, one of my problem areas was labeling containers, so that other family members could take advantage of my "systems." (I suppose I'm one of those people who had the system "all in my head" -- but no one else could ever figure out where things went.) So I've been going through the home making labels -- the ones for the children's rooms were hurriedly written on tape, but now I'm making more sophisticated ones for our public areas, such as the kitchen, on our computer printer with Fontcraft demo fonts.
So I'm very grateful to have found Abby's work, and I encourage you to take advantage of her free downloadable book, Simplifying Your Domestic Church. It's wonderful to have a book on home organization that includes Catholic spirituality: don't we all need more motivation to organize and clean?
And since Abby and I have found that we come to many of the same conclusions despite our different viewpoints (she is motivated by achieving order, I by creating beauty), we are talking eagerly about a joint venture: perhaps a book on housekeeping for Catholics that can incorportate both motivators? Stay tuned, and in the meantime, peruse her book and website!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Corner Spot

This fall we have gotten our homeschool/meeting room to a nearly-finished stage (almost all the drywall is up!) so our homeschool cabinet traveled upstairs at last. And I moved my cedar chest (which I have been refinishing for years) next to our dining room table. Coincidentally, I won an Antibes Shelf from Ballard Designs on Ebay, and it turned out to be the perfect focal point for this little spot.
I moved a few favorite pieces to the area: my husband's wrought-iron lantern I bought him as a gift, a set of nesting flower bowls, an original scratchboard illuminated poem by Canadian artist Sarah Hockin, pottery glasses from our wedding, a silver tray, and my prize "real china teaset with pictures all in blue" that my children and I bought at Christmastime years ago. I spray-painted black the picture frame of an illuminated George Herbert poem by Canadian artist Sarah Hockin, and it fit perfectly. My husband was so charmed by the arrangement he made a special request that I blog it for him. Right now the scheme is green-and-blue (we are still in summer). I expect I'll change some of the pieces as the weather chills and I bring out my reds-and-greens for Christmas. But enjoy!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Humble Homage to Mother Teresa

My friend Melissa Yoder Ricks has her own fibercraft business, Wildhare Fiber Studio. A Catholic convert and expert knitter and spinner, Melissa creates unique yarns and knittings while raising her large family. I was captivated by these potholders she designed in honor of Mother Teresa and our Lady. On her Etsy store, she writes:
For her habit, Mother Teresa adopted a simple and inexpensive sari like those worn by the low caste Indians that she ministered to. This sari - white, with a vivid blue border - became known throughout the world, and is the inspiration for the first of the two dishclothes in this listing.
The second dishcloth is knit in Trinity Stitch in varigated blue cotton yarn. Blue has traditionally stood for fidelity and purity, and is the color traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary. The nobby texture of the Trinity Stitch makes a good cloth for scrubbing.
Mother Teresa believed that we are all called to service, whatever our station in life, and she embraced hard work and menial chores done with love in the willing service of others. Ideas upon which to reflect while doing the dishes...
Check out Wildhare Fiber Studio, if you're looking for a unique Christmas gift knitted with love. And her blog is if you share Melissa's love of fiber arts and family.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Christmas Gift Proposal

Well, as is my wont, I'm already planning for Christmas (I hate shopping for gifts in December!). And right now I'm talking with my brother-in-law about the very neat playstands he made for his daughters a few Christmases ago.

If you're not familiar with a Waldorf playstand, a playstand is a simple movable wooden shelf that children can use to create houses, have a little store, do a puppet show, or any other kind of imaginative play. Because most children use them to make houses or shelters of some kind, it's become popular to make simple canopy frame that fit over the tops so that older children can play in them as well. Two playstands plus a sheet makes a playhouse: and unlike the traditional playhouse, this one can morph easily into a castle, store, or cave with the addition of a little child imagination!

Now that we have a playroom, I'm hoping to have a set of playstands made for our family for Christmas. My brother-in-law Mike Schmiedicke (his little on-the-side company is Strong Oaks Company) makes them out of antique southern yellow pine reclaimed from an 1800's carriage house/horse barn. I think they're so much more interesting than the pale birch ones you usually find for sale. He made a deal with me: if I can help him sell five playstand sets this Christmas, he'll make me one for free.

Magic Cabin sells their playstand set for $279 + 29.99 shipping. and Nova Natural sells a pair of theirs for $318, plus oversize shipping. Mike will make a set of playstands for just $250 plus shipping (and if you live local to us, you can pick up and save yourself shipping!).

If you have toddlers and don't need or want the canopy frame, you can get just the playstands for $180 ($90 apiece).

Mike's playstands have two shelves and a thick top bar for extra sturdiness. They are finished with an all natural non-toxic honey beeswax and citrus oil finish. Mike says he's open to using a lacquer finish for an additional $40. If you would like to have the stands unfinished, he would take $20 off the price.
So if you're interested, please email me at for further details! Thanks!
And wish me luck in my quest for Christmas presents!

UPDATE: Mike has a store at Etsy where you can see and order the playstands! Also the approximate dimensions of the playstands are: 42"Wx40"Hx11"D.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Anniversary Picnic Remains

Funds being what they are after fourteen years of marriage and seven energetic children, we decided to celebrate our anniversary with a grownup picnic rather than a night on the town. But thanks to Trader Joe's, (my new favorite store) we managed a rather elegant one! Brie cheese, crackers, grapes and French bread were paired with cold pre-cooked london broil (for him) and sushi wraps (for me). And you can't go wrong with TJ's famous two-buck chuck: I picked Honey Moon (appropriate title!) for sipping out of our silver wedding champagne glasses.
Silver platters and linen napkins for the food packed just as nicely as paper plates and plastic. And romance was found in a half-dozen red roses and a selection of Trader Joe's gourmet chocolates.
We picnicked at a local winery after hours, toasted one another under the shadow of a mountain peak and a rising moon, and brought home these leftovers and sweet memories.