On Something You Want and Something You Need: Keeping Christmas Special on a Budget

I always feel a sort of push and pull at Christmas time. For years, I’ve been trying to learn to live more frugally, and, in the last year, as we’ve worked to simplify and work less, sometimes, I do feel like things are a little too austere around here.

I should provide context. Austere for me is certainly not austere for most. Although we grow as much of our own food as we can, we buy organic food at the grocery store for what we can’t grow, and, as a family, we eat very well. We also have a comfortable house and a reliable vehicle.

But I’m pretty sure 90% of my socks have holes, and since we gave the family car to our oldest son, sometimes, I really miss having a car. But that’s about as austere as it gets around here, so I shouldn’t complain. I hope I’m not.

Still, since it’s Christmas time and it feels like it has been a really tough year, I’m having really strong urges toward “retail therapy,” but I’m trying to keep my head.

I have a long history of struggling with materialism, mostly in relation to my boys. I think mom guilt played a role. For example, when my youngest was a toddler, I had a particularly demanding job. I worked about 70 hours per week and had to travel quite a bit. I missed my family so much, but I think it was hardest being away from my little one. So, every time I traveled, I would shop for him way too much and shower him with gifts when I came home.

My husband expressed concern about this, but the problem with this mode of operation really hit me in the face when I arrived home after some travel for work and my husband and little one met me at the airport. The first thing my toddler said to me was, “What did you bring me?”

Yep. I knew I had been making a big mistake at that point, and, really, that was one of the moments that caused me to start rethinking things, to figure out how I could exchange money for time. To get more time would mean less money, but it felt like a necessary move.

But Christmas is still a struggle in materialism for me.

To help, my husband and I read about a plan to keep Christmas simple and still make it special. I read a blog post last year about a family who kept a plan to give each person four gifts and four gifts only—something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read.

I loved this idea and thought that we should try it this year, especially since we would have to be more budget minded than we usually are. But I loved the way this plan kept Christmas special.

So, this year, we’re doing it! I made a little grid for each member of our family, and my husband and I have been figuring out a gift for each category. The most fun has been the “something to share” category, and I’m excited to see how this works out. We’ve been looking at games, fancy chocolates, and other fun presents for this category, and I’m excited for all of us to share a present with one another.

christmas-present
Photo credit: Ben White, Unsplash

This seems like a good plan for our family. I do believe in keeping Christmas special, even though I totally understand that it has turned into a terribly commercial holiday. But life can be a grind. It feels good to take a break from it and celebrate. I mean, that’s what holidays are for, right? Humans have been doing this a long time. We need a holiday break from the grind, and I believe holidays are necessary to overall happiness—however we choose to celebrate.

But I don’t want to charge things on the credit cards either. I believe we have a plan for balance, and I’m excited to see how this goes this year. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, what are your plans to keep the holidays special without breaking the bank?

 

 

 

 

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On Summertime Sadness: Saying Goodbye to the Maine Summer

It turned chilly outside this week. After a very long and very hot summer, you would think I would be thankful. I am, after all, a Texas girl who moved to Maine, in part, to escape the heat. But, today, I feel the melancholy—the melancholy for summer that I feel in Maine more than anywhere I’ve ever lived.

I love all of the seasons in Maine, maybe even mud season because I know what’s coming next. Well, the season after black fly season. Yes, that one. Summer.

Growing up in Texas, we didn’t have seasons like we have here in Maine. It went from long hot summer to like two weeks of fall right into a messy, icy, windy winter. Fall is the best, right? I hated not having fall growing up. In Maine, fall is heavenly, magical, but thinking about fall leads me to a melancholy for summer.

Summer in Maine is like nowhere else. Even though my husband and I work way too much in the summers, the culture here reminds us to take breaks. Swimming is important. Hikes are important. Enjoy the water. Cook out. Watch the fireflies—and the stars. These things are valued here, and this makes summer extra special to me.

The summer is winding down. My oldest son is going back to college. I will begin longer homeschool days with my youngest son soon. And, pretty soon, the beautiful fall will be here.

But, for now, I feel melancholy that summer is passing. Though I enjoyed it, I always feel as if I never enjoy it enough. I want to do more, to take more of Maine in, to spend more time relaxing in the sun, watching the chicky girls eat watermelon, and listening as the hummingbirds zip by to the feeder.

A couple of years ago, at the end of summer, I heard a hummingbird commotion one evening on our back deck. We had two hummingbirds who had been visiting our feeder and our hearts all summer—a male and female we named Mack and Clara. We could tell them apart from the other hummingbirds because Mack was particularly short and stocky, and Clara had an unusual shape to the back of her head. They hung around a lot and seemed to have a nest in a nearby tree.

We loved watching those beautiful birds.

One evening in late August, I heard Mack and Clara making a lot more noise than usual. When I looked out the door, I was mesmerized by the beautiful dance and play Mack and Clara were engaged in. I had never seen them play like that and for so long—and with me so near with the camera.

It turns out that Mack was saying goodbye. It seems the male hummingbird will head south early to find a place for the couple. We never saw Mack again, and, after about another week or so, we never saw Clara again.

I had hoped that Mack and Clara would find us again the next year, but it was not to be. We had more adorable hummingbirds, but they definitely weren’t Mack and Clara.

When I think of those beautiful birds and the summer and how soon both the birds and the summer will be gone, I definitely feel the melancholy. I start to feel regret for the things I have wanted to do all summer but didn’t.

But, in writing this post, I have decided that it’s not too late. We bought a canoe this summer but haven’t taken it out on the water yet. This must be done. I’m also determined to make it to the Blue Hill Fair another year to mark the end of my summer with a James McMurtry concert. But, most of all, I want to take an afternoon nap in the warm air with the wind blowing through the leaves in the trees, making that magical whishy-rustly sound.

And I want to hang out with my husband and boys just a little more, just doing nothing, just visiting. We are always so busy with work, the chickens, the house, the garden, running to activities. For a bit, I want to stop time with my family and just do nothing. Surely, that’s possible in the summer time, right?

These are my goals. I don’t want too many summer regrets this year. What are your goals for the end of summer? How can you avoid summer regrets?

Let’s make a deal to say goodbye to this beautiful Maine summer (or summer wherever you are) with meaningfulness, and share your thoughts on summer in the comments below. I really want to hear them!

On Birthdays and Big Dreams

boy on fence

This week, I’m late with my post. I have a very good reason for being late. My youngest, my baby, turned 7 this weekend!

I actually spent Friday feeling a little guilty that I had not managed to get my blog post up on time, but then I remembered what my blogging self would tell worrying self: This is your child’s birthday. The blog can wait.

So it did. Until now.

I just put my youngest son to bed at the end of his 7th birthday. Right as he was getting into bed, he paused and said to me, “Now, I have to wait a whole year before it’s my birthday again.”

Then, he said, in a thoughtful tone, “It wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be, but it was still really good.”

“I totally understand, sweetie,” I told him. And I do understand. But I was a little taken aback by his wisdom in the way he spoke this.

He said it like he understood that this is just how it is. You build something up to be so great in your head that it can’t possibility live up to your expectations. But it’s okay if it’s still good. In fact, I’m sure that was his tone, and since he just turned 7, I was surprised by his seemingly deep understanding of this concept.

I always want his birthdays to live up to my son’s expectations, but I know there’s just no way this is possible. I hope it doesn’t seem like my kiddo is spoiled. He’s not. He’s actually this beautifully and honestly grateful kid most of the time. Well, I’m sure he’s a little spoiled, but I’m firm believer that we should all be a little spoiled, at least by love.

But he has this great imagination. No a fantastical imagination! And that means he dreams really, really big, even when I can tell he’s trying to be realistic. It’s pretty fantastic, actually.

Reflecting on the way my son dreams so big got me to thinking about my own dreams for myself and my family. I’m generally such a cautious person, but I’m trying all the time grow and change. I think “adulting” every day makes me forget how to dream big, however.

When I was in college, Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe versus Wade to the Supreme Court when she was in her 20’s, visited my college. She gave a talk about dreaming big, and I remember thinking that this was an important lesson. Her message was that someone has to do the big things, so it might as well be you—if you want it to be. This felt like such a powerful message to me.

But I grew up and forgot it.

As I thought about my son’s big dreams tonight though, I remembered my own. My husband and I want to start our own independent publishing company. In our family, my husband is the real writer, and reading his writing makes me feel like I’m just wasting words. He’s really talented.

I think we could do it. I think his writing could help us get our publishing company going, and I so have my own dream of writing a children’s book about chickens.

Many days, however, this feels like a fantasy, but, as I write this post, I remember that talk from college and I think my son’s ability to imagine so much greatness. He really does do everything with gusto, and if it doesn’t quite work out, he’s at least had a really good day.

boy on fence
I snapped this picture of my son, still in his jammies, standing on a stool looking out at our newly-fenced yard and appearing so thoughtful. I don’t know what he was thinking about, but I imagine it was something awesome.

So, tonight, as I finally get to my blog post for the week, I write it in honor of the most beautiful 7-year-old boy in the world to me. He has taught me to love bigger, think bigger, and, now, maybe tonight, to dream bigger. I hope, if you read this, you will dream bigger, too!

On Motherhood Lessons from Chickens

chicken coop

It has been just over a year since we brought home our first baby chickens, and they’re all big girls now. We got another set of babies in March, but they’re almost big girls, and just this week, they moved into the “big girl house,” the chicken coop.

chicken coop
Here’s the “big girl house.” My husband hung flowers by the fence, so the girls’ house is all decorated for the summer–and the big move in.

I was so worried about this big move. I love my big girls, but they are Rhode Island Reds. And while we picked a breed of chicken that was intelligent and winter hardy, I didn’t even think about temperament. Apparently, Rhode Island Reds can be stinkers and can be bullies, and this made me worried about the little girls moving in with the big girls.

But we followed the guidelines from all of the wisest chicken bloggers we could find, and it worked. After quite a few weeks of a slow introduction process, the little girls were big enough to move into the coop, and the first night was so hard on this chicken mama. My husband built a new roost, so there would be plenty of room in the coop, and, one by one, we brought the little girls in to sleep with the big girls. I was so worried that I stayed in the coop a long time with them, and when I had to leave, my husband stayed.

Thankfully, all went well. I was so proud of our little girls that I took pictures. My babies were growing up!

This experience with our babies growing up and moving in with the big girls got me to thinking about the kind of chicken mama I am and the kind of human mama I am. Our chickens have taught me many things about myself, but one thing that I find most interesting is how raising chickens has caused me to reflect about the kind of mama I am to my boys. I think reflection is an important part of growing as a person, and our chickie girls often make me reflective. I think that might be one of my favorite things about them.

Lesson 1: I’m an “elephant mom.”

First, I’ve learned that I’m definitely an elephant mom. If you haven’t heard of this, here’s a great read from The Atlantic on what being an elephant mom involves. Essentially, an elephant mom is super nurturing and supportive when her children are young but then gradually lets go and pushes them, when the time is right, into adulthood.

I’m definitely super nurturing as a mom. I spoil both our boys and all of our chickens. But I have one boy who is 19, and I’ve been able to be tough when I’ve had to. I know he’s got to grow up and become independent, and after he graduated high school, I made him go to work and learn how to handle his business at college. I didn’t want to be a helicopter mom.

My oldest especially didn’t like the going to work part, but I know it’s good for him. So even though my heart is sad that he has to sometimes work long hours and deal with grumpy customers at his job, I know he needs to do it. And I have faith that when my youngest needs that push, I’ll give it to him, too.

I’m the same way with my chicky girls. They’re spoiled rotten, and I baby them too much for sure. They get bagels in the morning, grapes cut in half to make them easier to eat in the afternoon, but when they start bullying and acting like this is Orange Is the New Black around here, I’m a tough mama. I stomp my feet and scare those girls into better behavior.

I was watching a nature documentary one time about a family of elephants. There was an incident where a baby elephant fell into a deep mud hole and couldn’t get out. The baby’s mama was a young mama. It was her first baby. She kept trying and trying to get the baby out of the mud hole, but she couldn’t do it. I started to panic, as I was sure I was about to see that poor baby elephant be stuck for good, but then the grandma elephant, who had been watching the whole time, came over to her daughter, pushed her out of the way, like with a swift kick in the butt, and then pulled the baby elephant right out from the mud hole.

It’s good to be nurturing, but, sometimes, I guess you just have to give ‘em a kick in the butt.

Lesson 2: But I can still let go.

Second, I learned that letting go is hard but possible—and necessary and important. When my oldest was little, I couldn’t imagine what I would even do with myself when he grew up and moved out of the house. I realize now it’s a process, and you have to let them gain their independence, mainly for their own sakes. There are many days I hardly see my oldest because of his work and school. And, when I do see him, sometimes, he’s so grumpy that I feel more than ready for him to get his own place, but mostly, he’s a good boy—well, young man. And he’s learning, gradually, how to “adult.”

Seeing our little chicky girls move in with the big girls and be totally fine with it helped me think about the importance of letting go. I was so worried that the little girls would get hurt or be sad, but most of them actually seemed quite happy to be with the big girls. And the couple of little girls who seem to be more mama’s girls and daddy’s girls got used to things after a day or two.

little chickens in coop
This is one of the “proud mama” pictures I took of the little girls on their first night in the coop. Our grumpy broody hen is in the background, not liking any of it.

Interestingly, the letting go part and learning I can do it has led me to the greatest epiphany about myself as a mother.

Lesson 3: It’s important for me to take time. 

The biggest thing I’ve learned from my chicky girls and, well, also from having a son who is nearly grown, is that they do grow up fast. You had better stop in any way you can and take a minute to take it all in.

Not everyone can manage it, I know, but working part time is the best thing I could have done. Though we’ve had to learn a lot about frugality, it’s my time that’s priceless to me.

My youngest son is little, and I want to enjoy this. Raising chickens is a good reminder for me that I need to slow down. I mean, they’re babies for just like six weeks. When they’re babies they are so adorable, so sweet, and so funny. But it seems like overnight they’re grown up, moving into the big girl house, and fighting over the top roost.

If you’re a mom or a dad, I encourage you to take this one lesson from my chicky girls and make sure you take some time out to treasure the days when your little ones are little. It’s not always easy. There’s work, errands, cooking, school, activities, and so much more, but I know we need to make sure we make an effort to slow things down.

Being reflective reminds me that I need to take time to go say hello to the chicky girls, admire the Lego creation my youngest built, and really listen when my oldest is telling me a story about a crazy customer at work.

The letting go is coming, but you have to try to treasure the time before the letting go.

On Homeschooling–Even When You’re Not

image of decorated letters

I’m a former university professor, and I spent nearly 20 years teaching freshmen in college. One of the biggest lessons I learned from my students is that something is happening somewhere in our school systems that makes many children lose their curiosity toward learning. Of course, I’m not saying this happens to every student, but it happens too often. It worries me.

But I was even more worried as a mom when my youngest son was being sent to the principal’s office in preschool and came home from school one day calling himself “the bad kid.” I knew I had to do something different.

image of decorated letters
This is an example of how much fun we have homeschooling! Notice the decorated letters. And here’s the best part–no principal’s office.

Our family made the decision to homeschool. If you’ve been following my blog, you know this meant quitting my full-time job and learning to live much more frugally. But we decided it was worth it.

As a teacher, homeschooling was an opportunity for me to teach one of the most important people in the world to me, and I’ve enjoyed our first year doing it.

The key lesson I’ve learned from homeschooling my six year old is that everything is an educational opportunity for children—from baking scones to visiting our neighbor’s beehive. Pretty much all activities provide us with “teachable moments,” and learning is everywhere.

When my children were in public school, I had the notion that they were learning at school, so if I could get in some extra learning at home, that would be great but not necessary. I now understand just how necessary it truly is, and it’s not as time consuming as you might think.

It’s just about seeing everyday activities, things that are a part of everyday life, as “teachable moments.” The former university professor in me wants to tell you how important these kinds of things are for helping your child grow into a curious adult. The mom in me wants to tell you how much fun this approach is and how much you’ll learn as well.

 

So I created a Top 5 “Homeschooling When You’re Not” list to get interested parents thinking along these lines.

  1. Cooking

Cooking with your child is a great opportunity to learn math, reading, and an important life skill. It’s just about emphasizing these things while you do it. Talk about what you’re doing with each step. It can be tough when you’re busy, but if you can take the time to slow down for this a couple of times a week, it’s totally worth it.

  1. Animals

At our house, we have lots of animals—chickens, ducks, fish, cats, a dog—and we have wildlife that visit us, everything from wild turkeys to chipmunks to crows. I’ll write more later about the “kindness lessons” animals can help teach our children, but animals also provide amazing educational opportunities for learning about the lives and habits of different species.

crow picture
We try to find learning opportunities everywhere, so when we saw we had crows visiting our yard, we researched just how brilliant and interesting they are!

“Why do crows like shiny things?” and “Why do ducks whistle?” are just a few things we have researched, but you can teach your children about habitat, the environment, and animal behavior just by talking about animals in and around your home or the ones that visit your bird feeders. I know our chickie girls have taught us more about the amazing personalities, intelligence, and resourcefulness of animals than I ever could have imagined.

  1. Reading

Just read. I’m a literacy teacher. I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. Take 20 minutes every day, maybe every night before bed. And don’t worry about making sure you’re reading “great literature.” You want reading to be fun. Once you get that, the rest will work itself out. Comics, graphic novels, we even sometimes just read short articles in the National Geographic magazines on space because my son loves anything related to space.

I know parents are busy beyond on all reason, but taking 20 minutes a day makes all the difference.

  1. Outdoor Exploration

When I was a kid, our parents just sent us outside to play, and we played all day. While I often hear adults from my generation romanticize those “good old days” and while I do think outdoor play and even a little boredom is very important, I’m talking about outdoor exploration together. For homeschool geometry, we measured the circumference of the trees in our yard. We found we had one that was 88 inches in circumference! This is great stuff, and you don’t have to be officially homeschooling to do it. If you know your child is studying something at school, see if you can find a connection in your yard. Talk about it. Explore it.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in place like Maine, there are parks, hiking trails, the ocean, the mountains. Take a day trip when you can. Our family has some day-trip goals for this summer, but more on that in a future post!

  1. The Internet

While I know screen time gets a really bad wrap these days, there are some amazing educational videos and games out there. And, when you take 30 minutes and play the game with your child, it’s all the better. Ted Ed has some amazing YouTube videos on everything from the size of an atom to narrative structures in literature, and they are so much fun.

I’ll write more about free online educational resources in future posts, but one great idea I wanted to share now is “Question of the Day.” We started this in our family, and I’m learning a ton of stuff as well. I mean, I’m here to tell you. If you’re in your 40’s like me, the field of science has way more information than it did when we were in school.

 

Homeschooling my youngest son has been one of the greatest experiences of my life so far. I’ve learned about how he learns, how he thinks, what works for him, what doesn’t, and what inspires him. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, and I’m looking forward to our second year together. But I know not everyone can do this. Not everyone can quit their full-time jobs, and not everyone feels comfortable as a teacher.

But, if you’re a parent, you’re a teacher. You don’t have to be a formal homeschooling family to bring homeschooling into your home. It’s going to do great things for your children, and, ultimately, it’s going to do great things for the bond you have with your children. It’s just about taking advantage of even the smallest opportunities.

On Making Good Dreams (with Help from Quilts)

Quilt Fabric

This one is about making quilts–well, mostly.

In my grand designs to become more self-sufficient or at least a really good maker, I have many skills I need and want desperately to learn—knitting, canning, making jams, and maybe making wood furniture, but I don’t know how realistic that last one is since I’m terrified of even the smallest power tool. It’s like a phobia or something. I hear a power tool, and my heart just races. I worry about my husband all the time.

But I digress…

One of the things I can make is a quilt. Now, I’m not the greatest, though I used to be pretty good, but I can make some decent quilts—at least I can very slowly. Recently, I was actually very slowly working on a quilt for a friend, when I had a quilt emergency: We decided it was time for our youngest to sleep in his own bed. He’s six years old and a pretty big boy, so my husband and I, even in our king-sized bed, were running out of sleeping space.

Now, if you’re one of those people who is going to say “What in the world are you doing letting your kid sleep with you?” let me just say that you can save your breath or text trying to change my mind on this point. We researched it thoroughly, and my husband and I made a conscious decision to let our son start co-sleeping with us when he was little.

We read all the advice from every major theorist and child psychologist out there and settled on this point—we wanted to get some sleep. Also, we believe in the health and bonding benefits of co-sleeping—but mainly we wanted to get some sleep. But, if you’re a new parent and interested in some of the research on the benefits of a family bed, please message me.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, our youngest made the big move to his own room and his own bed. The first night was hard for me, and I cried a lot. But, by the second night, I was like “Oh, this space is lovely.” “Oh, it’s nice not to be kicked in the back.” And, “oh, I love getting to keep the covers on me.”

However, much like his mama, our youngest is afraid of the dark and has a vivid imagination, so I have decided to make him a “good dream” quilt to keep him safe. It will be complete with a shied of love from mama on it. This is definitely a quilt emergency, right?

This is a picture of the plans I sketched out under my son’s direction. It’s all wrinkly from carrying it around at the fabric store.

Quilt Plans
This is my sketch based on my son’s directions. I have poor drawing skills, but, hopefully, this quilt will turn out well.

So, inside the dream tree in the middle, I told my youngest we could put all the things that make him feel happy and safe. Here’s what he chose:

  1. a Pi symbol
  2. a basketball
  3. a present with a red bow
  4. a pink heart that represents mom and dad’s “love shield” as he calls it
  5. a Pac Man
  6. a Minecraft block
  7. and a green canoe (something our family has wanted for a long time)

It all sounds great, right? I’m so excited just writing about it.

The problem is I barely have time to work on it. In all of my efforts to simplify, I still struggle to get everything done at the end of the day, and I am even, realistically, always a little behind. I still work at least a half day every day, and that includes weekends, and with homeschooling, cooking, planting the giant vegetable garden, and helping to care for the animals, I run out of time at the end of every day. Of course, right now things seem to be worse because the animals are little and the garden planting is a slow, tough process when you’re tilling with a shovel, and there’s just no way to plant carrots quickly. Those seeds are a tiny nightmare!

So I’m determined to make the time. It turns out that, in my efforts to be more of a maker, one of the things I’m going to have to learn how to make is time. Quitting my full-time job helped, but I’m still partially immersed in the academic world, and sometimes, the push and pull between that world and our little hobby farm leaves me with so little time at the end of the day.

But this quilt is important to me because I think it will be important to my little boy. When my oldest son was little, there was one Christmas (my first year of teaching full-time) that I couldn’t afford Christmas presents for him. I made him a star and moon quilt, and he still has it—and seems to really care about it. For his high school graduation, I made him a second quilt because, of course, high school graduations are important. He sleeps under it every night.

Now, it’s my youngest son’s turn. This dream quilt is important, and I am determined to make this quilt for him. It feels representative of my efforts to simplify, make, and find out what’s important. It’s not easy, but it’s what I want. I have my fabric selected. This weekend, I will get this going.

Quilt Fabric
I love these colors. I think this is going to be beautiful!

I think the lesson here is that it’s going to be hard for all of us to find balance in our lives. We all have so much going on with work and family and about a million other things we must balance. But I’ve learned that you have to set your goals about what’s important to you and then just take the time—or make the time—if you want to be a maker like I do and still have time to enjoy yourself and your family along the way. Life’s just going to pass us by otherwise, I think.

I’ll keep you posted on the quilt…