Home group + children = real life

We began this journey in September, I read the sign up list for small groups at church and ours was the only one that said “children welcome”.  Which is totally normal for American church, I get it.  But we decided from the get go that if we were going to host a community group in our home, it would have to be all of us.  The logistics of a weekly sitter wasn’t even the real issue.  The much more significant factor was that we saw great value in figuring out how to build community with our kids in the mix.  They are after all, an integral part of our life.

After much consideration we decided last summer that we would host a Sunday evening group and meet for dinner at 5:00.  We thought maybe no one would sign up for our family oriented group.  We had no idea that we’d end up spending the better part of a year sharing life with these 21+ people (11 of them being children 10 and under!).

Here are a few reflections and lessons learned from our first year doing this:

  • Sharing a meal together weekly is a major investment – but it is tremendously worthwhile.  Everyone has to eat right?  So why not figure out how to do it together?
  • Simply eating together poses all sorts of opportunity to get to know people better.  You gain understanding of food allergies, favorites and how people tend to eat in their own homes.
  • By delegating the components of each meal, the load can be shared reasonably well with the whole group.
  • NOT delegating means me cooking dinner for 20 people.  Which happened more than once.  But it was my poor planning and failure to ask for help.  Lesson?  Next time we will choose 5 or 6 favorite meals and simply rotate each week through the options.  This would require much less of me (who already plans and prepares about 18 meals a week for 6 or 7 people).
  • Hosting a small group does not require impeccable housecleaning skills.  Sometimes the guest bath smelled terrible.  Sometimes the counters weren’t cleaned off.  Sometimes there was still laundry about.
  • It’s more than okay not to have your house in tip top shape.  It’s real and real is good.  What matters far more is that your heart and attitude say “welcome” when people walk in your front door.
  • If you’ve been having a spat with your hubby and aren’t on speaking terms, it might be slightly awkward to have a load of people over, discuss a book and pray together all the while offering a cold shoulder to your spouse.  Dealing with your issues would have probably been better.  However, this again, is just life and sharing it with others is part of the journey.  No one has it together all the time and its okay for other people to see that!
  • When you don’t feel well and you want to stay in bed, throwing sweats on and saying “come on in” anyway is enough.  There is something intimately wonderful about inviting others into your (imperfect) life and home.
  • Your children will at some point be very loud or very naughty or very naked and it will be embarrassing.  This.  Is.  Life.
  • Half way through the year I told everyone “You are like family now and it sometimes takes me 2 or 3 days to finish the dishes from us all eating on Sunday!  So I really need some help in the kitchen after we eat.”  Problem solved.
  • Paper products are expensive and wasteful.  I couldn’t see buying and using them every week.  So we use real dishes.  This wouldn’t work for everyone (which is totally okay, you’ve gotta do what works for you!) but we made it work.
  • While kids played after dinner, we could discuss the chapter in the book we were reading together and then pray for one another.  Yes, we were interrupted at times.  Especially in winter it was a little hard and loud.  But the kids learned over time that they needed to wait till after we prayed to ask for dessert or to come see their shows.
  • It is a tremendous privilege to be able to pray for others and even more amazing to watch those prayers be answered.  Every family in our group including ours came up against some tough stuff this year.  Being able to share those burdens is a beautiful picture of love in action.
  • And last but certainly not least – everyone could use a Roger in their life…
Roger!

Don’t ask me how he got dubbed “Roger”, I’ve absolutely no idea.  But Kyler, in this particular costume, is Roger.  And he has entertained us many Sunday nights.  Tonight’s year end final show was as unique as the rest:

finale
the crew

 

End of year wrap-up!

I love reading what people have used for school and what they’ve loved (or not!).  It is fun for me to look back on the year on what were the highlights in terms of material we went through.  It’s also helpful as I look forward to what’s next!  So, here are a few reflections on this year:

While I realize that many large families use the same boxed curriculum for every child and often rely heavily on workbooks and independent learning, this isn’t how our family works best.  Yes, it means more work and planning for me.  Yes, it means more mess and exploration.  It has other implications as well.  We are still finding a balance.  But being able to tailor our children’s education is a gift.  One of the many reasons they learn at home with us is so that we can enjoy that freedom.

This year’s keepers:

  • Story of the World Volume 2 – we used the text (which is wonderfully written in story-type form) as well as the audio CD’s (which are just the text read aloud – fantastic for when we were on the go) and the student activity book.  The activity book is chock full of ideas, projects, narration/copywork suggestions, review questions and other super helpful things.
  • Spelling Power – a comprehensive, clearly laid out and proven method for teaching spelling.  Love that ONE book has all levels of spelling I will need to teach.  Our third try at a spelling curriculum and it has been an excellent fit for about age 8 and older.
  • Answers in Genesis (science) – God’s Design for Life – We used only two of the three (Human Body as well as the World of Animals) in this set but thoroughly enjoyed both of them.  It is set up well for multiple ages which is wonderfully helpful.
  • Teaching Textbooks (math-for our oldest two) – nothing not to love here, our second year using this and such a big help for non-math me.
  • PAL program from Institute for Excellence in Writing – their first offering for the youngest crowd so I waffled a long while before buying it.  This was perhaps the greatest highlight for the two younger learners.  We had “school time with mom” at 9 AM most weekday mornings all year.  They got my undivided attention while we went together through the PAL materials.  They learned so much but more than that we had a fantastic time together doing it.
  • Institute for Excellence in Writing – Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales book (oldest two) – We went through this with an informal co-op of 12 other families and it was excellent.  This was our first introduction to IEW’s material and I only wish we’d begun sooner.  Our kids have grown a great deal in their observation of quality writing as well as their ability to write creatively.
  • Copywork/handwriting – we used some workbooks for this as well as just copying things from our history material which worked quite well.
  • Pathways readers – A gem of a book series that my friend Kim tipped me off to.  Wholesome, interesting, affirming of values that we hold to in our home, these books were a great, inexpensive addition to our collection.  Each one has a workbook to check for comprehension that I offered but didn’t require our kids to do.
  • The Ultimate Homeschool Planner – Worked well for me all year and was flexible enough that I could fill in lesson plans for all the kids.  After a school year’s use, it’s still in its’ binding and that is impressive!
  • A Child’s Geography (focusing on the Holy Lands) – While the honest truth is we started this part way through the year AND we aren’t near completing it, the material is worth using and well put together.  The kids loved all that we read and we will absolutely pick it back up next year some time.

On the shelf for another season:

  • Right Start Math – I won’t even tell you what lesson is bookmarked currently.  Tried out for Kyler.  This was confusing and complicated and frustrating for me.  I’m sure it’d work well for some.  Just not me/us!
  • Picture Smart Bible – this is an incredible Bible curriculum that I wanted to work for and include all four oldest kids.  In reality it would have worked best for our third and fourth grader.  The younger two were distracted and frustrated that they couldn’t keep up.  I will certainly give it another go around in the future!
  • Daily Grams Grammar – fine and adequate but we are changing it up next year for something a bit more interesting I hope.

Last year the list of no-go’s was certainly longer.  It is really fun to be getting the hang of things a bit more each year.  Next year poses all its own challenges and adventures and we are ever so thankful for the respite of summer before we tackle them!

 

Farm kids

If you’ve visited us here, you know I use the term farm loosely – it’s more a hobby farm.  We don’t have land cleared for growing our own food, I completely gave up on gardening this year, I don’t even have one single tomato plant growing (I do have hundreds of seeds that I’d hoped to plant this spring!).  But we do have all sorts of animals (including goats we will breed next year so that we can have fresh milk), chickens that provide our eggs and various wildlife that call our back forest their home.

Here are some snapshots from the past week or two of life around here…

taking an ice cream break on operation "put together play set" day!
taking an ice cream break on operation “put together play set” day!
Rylee and her sweet pal Ellie mowing Rylee's patch of the back lawn
Rylee and her sweet pal Ellie mowing Rylee’s patch of the back lawn

these brave ones came closer to the house than usual - I'm fairly sure our noise level here isn't conducive to their being super close but this was sure special!
these brave ones came closer to the house than usual – I’m fairly sure our noise level here isn’t conducive to their being super close but this was sure special!
the view from the kitchen window that morning...
the view from the kitchen window that morning…
a few mornings ago, I heard Finn leave the garage, when I caught a glimpse of this I ran right back in to snap a photo (he had no idea I was there the whole time)
A few mornings ago, I heard Finn leave the garage, when I caught a glimpse of him I ran right back in for the camera (he had no idea I was there the whole time).  Truly, this pic is the essence of my boy in so many ways.
Upon quietly following him, I realized he'd gotten handfuls of goat treats and was heading out to doll them amongst his goat friends.
Upon quietly following him, I realized he’d gotten handfuls of goat treats and was heading out to doll them amongst his goat friends.
He reached up to throw the last treat over to see who could snatch it up fastest - then headed back in to find some other fun thing to do.  The boy is more resourceful than I can possibly express.
He reached up to throw the last treat over to see who could snatch it up fastest – then headed back in to find some other fun thing to do. The boy is more resourceful than I can possibly express.

Mud and mothering

Friday found us exploring mud flats an hour north of here at a spectacular estuary where many small rivers flow out to a flat, shallow plain.  It is a totally unique and rich habitat for many creatures.  We learned first at the local visitor center more about the area, then set out to explore.

There were bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, snow geese and a multitude of other smaller lovely birds.  I squealed with glee more than once at the sight of something interesting, different, special.

Escorting five children under ten to a mud flat was a new thing.  New things force me to plan very well since there are likely variables I don’t know about and we are often far from home.  I planned and packed for two days.  To heighten the anticipation (and survive the long drive) I put little booklets together for each child.  Word searches, crossword puzzles, coloring sheets, vocab lists, creature charts – all related to the unique environment of the estuary.  I even brought out my always fun laminator and made color picture identification sheets so they could name the things they found.

Planning and preparing aside there was still the inevitable moment of crisis the morning of where we needed to go but someone had worn their boots in (not around) the creek and they were completely unusable AND when I said (taking deep breaths, trying to be kind) “I’m doing all the work here, please would someone help us get out the door!?”.  When I figure out how to depart for a big adventure and NOT have that happen, I promise to let you know the secret.

Back to the mud.  As soon as we were all properly booted up and loaded with our supplies and Finn was tucked safely in the Boba pack, we emerged onto the flat beach.  The day couldn’t have more perfect, we’ve had so many weeks of rain.  Cold, just about freezing rain that makes outdoor play last only 10 minutes and the view out my kitchen window gray and drab most days.  But there was no rain cloud in sight.  Only a vast, panoramic view of the archipelago that sits just beyond the shore of this body of water.  Little islands, bumps of all shapes spitting right up out of the water, green and rich and beautiful.

There were crabs to be found, mud snails to collect and compare and mud, glorious mud to sink into.  I wasn’t quite so brave, sporting a 30 pound toddler on my back, but the kids didn’t hold back.  They explored out into the water, found the deepest, stickiest mud and moved rocks at least half their weight.  Oh how boys thrive with the chance to grunt and lift and catch and discover!

When there seemed to be more mud ON my children than on the mud flats we decided it was time to wrap it up.  Oldest boy had already weathered the losing of his boot in the mud and walked several steps to me while someone retrieved the boot.  I thought that might be the end right there.  But did he ever rally and pull it together and we forged onward.  There had been sitting in the mud.  Digging deep in the mud.  And falling straight into the mud.  I promise we added at least ten pounds to our clothes/boots by the time we found dry ground.

A head to toe change of clothes was required for entrance back into the van.  A cup of still-warm cocoa from the thermos and a brownie from the pan was also in order for all.  We sighed when we discovered the running water was turned off for winter.  Baby wipes just don’t hold a candle to this sort of filth!

I could only laugh, what else does a mother do with all these kids and all this mess?  It spoils the fun right out when I choose the freaking out over the finding joy.  These are the things we’ll not forget.  These are the things that leave me feeling just a tiny bit more brave for the next adventure we find.  These are the things that are so very worth all that is required of me to make them happen.

When my hubby called and my pocket answered without me knowing, he would tell me later, “I heard you talking…oh my were you excited, going on about the day God gave you and how blessed you all were and the beautiful this and that and so on”.  I replied, “Well, in case you wondered, now you know.  I’m the same expressive, optimistic me when you aren’t here.  Even when I don’t know you’re listening!”.

Lest Finn be left out of the giant mess of fun – about one minute after we departed, all clean, him having made the whole endeavor on my back – he gagged on a cheese stick and promptly vomited his entire lunch all over himself, the car seat, floor…everywhere.  I had to pull over, strip him down and use the remaining 15 baby wipes to try and get things under control.

The jeans weighed so heavy and Chris took one look at them and said no way they were going in the washer like that.  An hour later and a driveway covered in mud flat mud, they had been hosed sufficiently to go into the wash.

I learned the same lesson I wrote about here, again.  I love learning it.  Sometimes during the learning but always after.  We can do more than we think.  The joy of conquering great things, mud flats or the like, is one of the ways we weave a family.

Will I remember this?

In this season with many littles, I ask myself these questions a lot:

Will I remember this in a year?  Will my kids remember this in a year?

When it’s Bible study night and we haven’t met for a month and I’m looking so forward to 90 minutes of fellowship – and Phineas sobs when I try to leave him with sweet Ava.   When I give up trying to go and scoop him right up and head to Bartell’s down the street to get a binky because we forgot one and he’s sleepy and that’s partly why his face is so crumbled. I tell Ava, “I know this might seem silly, driving to go buy a binky and all….but someday, it really won’t seem so crazy!”.

When I resort to going up and down the elevator with him while I wait for the other kids and he won’t take off the enormous sound proof headphones because he associates them with the tractor and his daddy and he spent an hour sitting on it just saying “daddy, tracker?” over and over with the ridiculous ear muffs on.  We quit pushing buttons and I am thankful for this little 5×8 foot space so we just stay there.  I tell myself not to be embarrassed when someone pushes the button and finds me inside the elevator, sitting on the carpet with a box of bunny grahams and a happy toddler with headphones that say he’s an air traffic controller.

When I hurt a boys feelings for telling him he’s silly and he yells so long because I hurt his heart.  I have to apologize and his eyes are so sad it breaks my heart.  I hope he forgets how unkind I was to him.

When we let everyone go outside till 10 PM to make snowmen in the dark and they are frozen but delighted to the core.  Even Finn keeps up with the snowball making and cries when we have to go inside.

When little girl asks me, because she really needs to know, “When is Finn going to change the world Mama?” and I realize she heard me say that to a friend about her vivacious baby brother.  I tell her with a smile, “Oh he’s not the only one….you all get to change your world, whatever place God takes you – you get to change it for good if you choose!”.  And I mean that with my whole heart.

When I finally figure out that for the one who loves people more than anything, doing math alone was the end of the world.  Math with siblings is “the most fun ever, Mom!”.  How am I so lucky to get to teach math to these eager little people?

When I sit rocking a teething toddler after bedtime and he lets me cradle his 30 pound self like a baby and the instant he sees my face at his door his flowing tears stop and he breathes out “mama” as if I were his very life.  and he says the same thing over and over until I understand:

Song?  Do you want a song?

Yeah.  Fong.  Unshine. Away.

I sing the same song about sunshine over and over until he’s trying, in sleepy, baby, binky-in-mouth fashion to sing it with me.  It’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard in forever.  He lets me hold him for what feels like an eternity.  He points to my eyes, ears, nose, “mouf” and names them all in the dark.  My legs hurt.  I recall the work I still have to do and the sleep that is beckoning me.  But I stay.  I sing again and my voice catches because this, this is a moment I want to remember.

I want to be all here.  Though these days require more than what I feel like I can give, I won’t ever get the chance to do them over and I want so bad to remember all the little gifts along the journey.

A little bit of give…

It was the worst kind of day to go downtown to the big city.  Sideways sheeting rain/sleet, the last minute frenzy of holiday shoppers and the ever so tentative relationship with my GPS.

Construction met us at our destination and kids hushed knowing this was the hard part.  Having learned the hard way that our big van is too tall for nearly all parking garages, we searched for street parking.  Four trips around the block and we finally spied a 30 minute loading spot.  Perfect.

Each one grabbed their bag of men’s socks to donate to the shelter.  Kyler’s co-op class had collected them and our family volunteered to deliver them.  70 pairs of men’s socks.  When you have to walk around all day and some nights, your socks get pretty worn out I’d explained to them on our drive.  We hustled across the street in the pouring rain, rang the bell and noted that all the windows were covered with metal bars.

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The director (Rick, who is in the video on the link above) met us at the doorway, welcomed us in and thanked the kids for the socks.  He offered to show us around.  We walked through their kitchen where they prepare and provide meals every night for the homeless of Seattle.  He showed us the dispatch office where they work every night to match people with shelter.  Freezers full of donated food and Christmas gifts ready to be wrapped, socks, scarves and the most basic things.  And I just wasted an entire evening stressing and fretting over finding the right gift for someone for Christmas.  It seems so very meaningless now.

We walk upstairs and are overwhelmed with the smell of cigarette smoke.  I watch kid faces and no one says a word.  They tell me later “I had to breathe through my mouth mama, my nose was burning!”.  I would tell them I was proud they hadn’t been rude and had listened with respect.  He shows us a room where they offer long term housing for seniors, most of whom are coming out of homelessness.  We meet a sweet old man in their common dining room.  Their idea of housing is one small room not even the size of my daughters’ bedroom.  Shared bathroom and kitchen.

I catch myself so many times, the magnitude of the need is so great, the weight feels so heavy.  And the reality of life, of Christmas, as someone without even a bed to sleep on?  Truly, I can’t really even imagine what that feels like.  So instead of crying this time, I treasure that we got to be the ones to bring the socks.  That we could have a tiny part in warming cold, worn feet.

No matter who you are or what your resources, there is something EVERYONE can do to change their part of the world for good.  My sister saw a need and created a fantastic monthly event at her church, deemed it “Diapers and Donuts” and they provide diapers for mom’s with little ones and provide something even more vital, community, love.

If we all did the small things we were able to in the circles of life we walk in, I honestly (perhaps idealistically) think the world would be a different place.

We left the shelter and headed to our next stop and as we drove by the upscale trendy shops in the heart of the city, one exclaimed from the back of the van….”Oh look, they must be loading food boxes for Children of the Nations!” It was actually a box dropping off the latest merchandise for Macy’s.  Slightly cynical, I explained no, it was in fact not meals for starving children but more “stuff” that people were convinced they needed and they would likely spend the next few months paying for.  In their young minds, it made more sense that it was boxes of meal packets.

COTN party!

I remember how I skipped my beloved coffee spot on the way to pack meals on Tuesday night, not because I’m awesome – I’m anything but, an absolute sinner every day, swimming in a sea of grace.  But because I was calculating in my head that at $.25 per meal, my cup of coffee could buy 16 meals to fill the bellies of kids who have NOTHING.

Socks, coffee….small things yes.  But the sum of all the small stuff, all the little things we think no ones notices or don’t matter?  It does.  It makes a difference for someone.

When Christmas is sad

It’s impossible not to feel a pang of guilt getting to wake up this morning, snuggle my kids on the couch and spend the morning making Christmas treat bags for our neighbors when there are parents planning funerals for their kids who are the same ages as these pajama-clad ones around my living room.  Impossible.

A decade or so ago I remember being twenty-something and pondering with a fairly light, optimistic heart that indeed Christmas must be sad for many but it surely was only joy for me.  I would think kind thoughts, do kind things and pray for those who must know sadness this time of year.  But the people I loved that were synonymous with holiday tradition, happy moments and love were all still alive….my parents weren’t divorced so I didn’t know what “splitting Christmas” or “trading off” looked like….I’d never truly gone without a basic need met.

As the years passed though, beloved grandparents died, friends dear to me had to navigate the challenges of broken families and so many different places to go every December to appease everyone, and our growing family made it just till payday on our food stamps balance more than once.

Then just a few years ago only 4 weeks after Christmas, Chris’ dad died on a hunting trip.  Our whole-family-Christmas photos were fresh from the photography studio and I was sure we had at least another decade or two of our Christmas Eve traditions.  Eleven months later my oh-so-precious Grandma who’d flown in for the festivities had a stroke the day after Christmas and passed away just before New Year’s.

The heavy weight of loss, the burden of sadness that threatens to completely overwhelm has so many times seemed just too much.  I can only imagine it seems that way to mama’s in Connecticut who already had gifts wrapped to put under the tree for their sons or daughters.

Just too much.

The brightness of the season dims a little (or maybe a lot).  And though we celebrate fully and delight in the gift of Jesus, sometimes the night is a little too silent.  Sometimes there is a face we want so badly to behold, a lame joke told that we’d love the chance to laugh at, a velvet soft Grandma-hand that we long to squeeze, a giggle we would give anything to hear, a baby-belly that was supposed to be growing – and that these things are missing?  Deep sadness.  There’s just no way around it.

Last night the weight pressed so heavy and I took so many deep breaths, kids stung with words and I ate dinner alone in my room.  I tucked myself in under the covers as if that would ease the hurt, take away the sense of loss I felt so acutely.  But it didn’t.  Nothing does.

Nothing but a quiet whisper under the darkness, under the sadness.  A whisper of love.  His words that are life to me, ringing in my mind “The Lord is near to the broken  hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)  It’s all I can do to believe those words for the families across the nation attending memorial services instead of Christmas parties.  And to believe it for me in my own sense of loss.

There is no way to know if the people who live on my street or the ones who live on yours have their own stories of sadness, but I’m pretty sure most of us do.  And one way I’m learning to lift my heart up is to love, to do something thoughtful or fun no matter how much I don’t feel like it.  Today it was putting together Christmas treat bags with goodies we made and cards the kids drew themselves, for each house on our street.  Most we’ve met, some we know.  There is something lovely and beautiful about spreading kindness.  In the process of blessing, we are blessed.

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First annual Ciderfest

We traveled north to visit some precious pals and spend the day celebrating fall and pressing apples for cider.  There is NOTHING like the smell of hundred of pounds of apples being smashed into brown cloudy liquid yum.

First the kids helped rinse the apples before tossing them into the (homemade=awesome) thing that chops them all up before pressing…

Then Kyler stood by with jugs, which were filled super fast because our apples were so darn juicy!

Our fall tradition

Though this post always looks strangely similar to the one last year, I will share anyway.  More for me than anyone else.  We made sure to schedule this fall adventure to the pumpkin patch BEFORE the newest member of the Jorgenson family joins the world this coming Friday!  My sister was such a trooper and didn’t complain one single bit traipsing her nine month pregnant self around muddy fields.

Audrey, rockin’ her big 80’s hair, just because she can
Rylee taking Finn for his cow train ride – how is my ‘baby’ old enough to go without his mama!?
the big four, taking up the whole quad teeter-totter
girlie cousins, taking their first shared ride in the cow train
taking a tractor trailer ride to get pumpkins
Kyler ADORES this little cousin!
finding the perfect mud puddles
my little (big) pumpkin
the ever famous, ever growing cousin photo
be still my heart, I could not possibly love this man any more…

 

this pretty much sums up how Phineas felt about the day
this was the part where we bribed him with two peanut butter cookies…