Cinnamon Toast

My kids love cinnamon sugar toast. And invariably, it ends up as a sticky, grainy disaster in my kitchen.  Today, my friends, I elevated myself to Genius status by solving that dilemma.

Cinnamon Toast Butter

Mix 1/2 cup softened real butter, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 tsp. cinnamon in a bowl that has a matching lid. Keep in the refrigerator. Kids can spread to their hearts’ content, and the sugar stays on the toast.

You’re welcome. 😄

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The Trenches

You have seen them. Maybe you are them. The perfect manicures, stylish haircuts, beautiful (new) cars, white capris, expensive shades. The moms that have it all together.

And then, there’s me.


The rumble of barely contained chaos follows me everywhere. There really must be a unit of measurement for the massive potential energy of young children. I could probably light up New York City if we could harness the humming, seething masses in my house. Watch out, world; domination is imminent. As soon as I can find my cup of coffee and convince my army that they need to finish their math so that we can conquer together. Oh wait… FRACTIONS. Never mind. World domination will have to happen tomorrow, we’ll be here a while. Teaching fractions with slices of cheese.

The trenches for a mom of young children are deep and filled with laundry and dishes. Some days you feel like you will never dig your way out. Some days I feel like I am on top of my game, kids have their chores done, school is humming along and I realize… It is 5:00. The day has vanished, and I need to start dinner. Some days the sibling bickering is so intense that if I hear “Moooom…” in that time honored, sing song, tattle tale voice One More Time, I swear- the example of the old lady who lived in the shoe comes to mind. Broth and bread and bed for everybody, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

And on the days that are the most ridiculously draining…the days when an isolated cabin in Alaska looks like paradise… It is on those days that I am so thankful for my friends who are also in the trenches. 

My friends who completely understand when I say “Hey, it is the end of the day, the house is mostly intact, and no one is permanently damaged. It was a good day.” The friends who, far from judging me, offer to show up with cold beer and pizza at the end of those long, long days. The friends who have seen my perfect children misbehaving in a shocking manner and still love us anyway… partly because I have seen their flawless offspring acting like the little sinners that they were born to be as well. 

Real, honest friends who don’t feel the need to pretend are oxygen to a drowning man. Where did we get the idea that we needed to act like everything is postcard perfect? I will just say it- Christians are the worst. Somehow the Redeemed got the idea that they weren’t supposed to have bad days. Jesus makes everything rainbows and roses. 

He doesn’t.

And He never promised that it would be. Quite the contrary, actually.  “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 

I have felt His hand so often- on the beautiful, blue skies and precious giggles days, as well as on the I Want To Crawl Under A Rock days. And very, very often, His hand is manifest in other people who are familiar with the gritty reality of parenting and just offer encouragement at the right time. Most often, it is my hero and partner- he makes it all ok when he gets home, whether it is fixing the broken chair, replacing the microwave when it goes out, or dealing with teenage attitudes that have me at my wits’ end. He helps me see the ridiculous, laugh at it, and maybe create some more. 

But often it is my friends who are there with me, my nonpretending, honest friends with imperfect lives and amazing testimonies of an incredible God. Their input and companionship on this crazy parenting journey is simply…priceless.

So to those friends who are beside me in the trenches- here’s to another day of keeping each other sane. We might not talk every day, but I know you’re good for a rescue mission if necessary, and perspective and a good laugh if it isn’t. You know who you are, and I am profoundly thankful for you.

Entropy

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is stated as follows:

The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time, or remains constant in ideal cases where the system is in a steady state or undergoing a reversible process.

Entropy is the tendency of all matter to degrade, fall apart, break down. Hence, my nickname for the children; “Entropy accelerators”. Would you believe, my little angels helped clean and put the whole house in order last weekend. The shiny “clean house” feel lasted about half an hour before someone spilled something. It was all downhill from there. 

Sometimes I think that, just by breathing, children accelerate entropy. The mysterious sticky goo in their carpet? Nobody knows nuthin’. It just appeared. Coalesced out of the ether,  right onto their carpet. The jeans stiff with mud? Well, I slipped and got a little wet, Mom. Oops. Forty-seven cups in the sink? Nobody used them, at least Not Me.

Now mind you, we do have controls in place. Each child has their own (different) cup. Their own plate, their own bowl, their own bath towel. Names on them and everything. The mystery to the wildly accelerated entropy comes in when every single towel that we own is in the dirty clothes or on the floor, and honest to goodness, I haven’t observed anyone violating the Use Your Own Towel rule. If I could CATCH them, it might be different; I might be able to stem the towel tide. Same with the cups. They seriously just magically appear, but I never observe anyone drinking from one not their own.

The marker on the walls, on the other hand, is easier to figure out. It helps that the offender signed his name. The childish scrawl of a small person so enthused about learning to write their own name (albeit missing a letter or two)… and they wonder how I caught them. Denied any knowledge of said marker or said wall at first, until confronted with the evidence, and the signature. The orange fingers on the right hand also were a match for the case. So that makes me wonder… If I DNA test all of the mysteriously used cups and towels, and then present that evidence to the offending horde, would it bring about a change in behavior? Maybe. But human nature being what it is, until I can reach the hearts of the perpetrators, all the evidence in the world isn’t going to make a dent. It will just help them find more creative ways to not get caught. They will have to take ownership of the reality of their actions, and actively work to change them. Oh, what a beautiful life lesson. If I can teach this one, and ONLY this one, I will have done a half decent job of raising these little people. Actions have consequences. The consequences affect not only one’s self, but all people around you. And the only person you can control is the guy in the mirror; you can’t MAKE your sibling follow the rules, you can just make sure that you do.

Yes, entropy reigns around here. We beat it back on the weekends when we can invest a concentrated effort (and bribe the minions with movies and ice cream), but if you come to my house and find towels on the floor, dishes in the sink, or a mud trail from the back door to the bathroom, just remember that word. 

I shall henceforth be known as Mrs. Entropy.

 Schooling eleven

Today is the first day of school for some local districts. But for us, over the summer, school never stopped. 

The blessing and the curse of living with your teacher: the blessing is that you can sometimes sweet talk her into making your favorite breakfast. The curse is that you are under her feet all the time and she has to find things to keep you busy, like… school. Stretching your brain. And if you cop an attitude, your live-in teacher just might impose more spelling words or essay writing as part of your punishment. Don’t even try appealing to the Principal for relief-  he backs her up in everything. If you have to deal with Principal Dad, you have really messed up. You might be digging ditches into next week.

When I tell people that we are homeschooling our eleven, they typically give me a blank stare. You can just see the data refreshing. Finally, the “system error” screen pops up and they ask, “But…how do you DO that???”

Well… my first answer is a question. How many kids does a typical classroom in a typical public school have? According to the NEA’s website, the national average in 2013 was a student-teacher ratio of 15.9:1, with California at the top end of that range at 25:1 and Vermont at 9:1. So our student-teacher ratio still looks pretty good.

Logistics are key to keeping us moving forward in our day. We typically start by rolling the kids out of bed around 7:00am, and they start their chores (caring for animals, cleaning rooms, cooking breakfast, etc.). The small pre-K and kinder sized people don’t have a lot of chores, so they get Mrs. Mom for the first period of the day while older siblings are busy working. Then their job is to play happily outside in the dirt with their trucks (or inside with Legos, if it is raining) and be tranquil little angels while the bigger people do their school work.

Around 9:30am, chores are done and we all sit down to start the school day. Math and spelling are first; each does their math while I work with one level at a time on spelling. When it is your turn, you get a break from math. (Yippee!!!) If you have trouble with something, either get someone who already knows it to help you, or wait until Mrs. Mom has a minute to explain. The other subjects follow, we break for lunch somewhere in there, and we are typically done by 3:00pm when it is time to leave for football practice. 

Those are the dry, boring facts of life homeschooling lots of kids. The fun parts are like when the little boys unearth some insectoid creature in their outdoor excavations,  bring it in all besmeared with filth, and want to know what it is (hopefully it doesn’t have a stinger). An impromptu entomology lesson then ensues. If I don’t know, we Google it.

Maybe we will switch up the schedule on a non-football day and go to the local WWII former POW prison camp for a tour and history lesson. Or go and buy breeding stock for our 4-H rabbit projects, and get an agriculture lesson from the friendly rabbit breeder. I believe that one reason homeschooled kids are such good students is that they have been immersed in a culture of learning and exploration. Really, our school day never stops. The books might be closed, the pencils might be in their box, but the minds of the children are soaking up life at an astounding rate. My hero has an insatiable appetite for knowing How Things Work. Even when I am ready to go on autopilot and just fix dinner already, he is digging the root end of the lettuce out of the compost bin, sticking it into a bowl with some water, and showing the children how it will root and grow a whole new head of lettuce from what we would have thrown away. Lesson #43 in sustainable agriculture. Or when I jokingly ask him for a plant for the front porch, and he sends the kids in to me with… ginger root from the grocery store.Yes, it grows quite happily here. Lessons in creative solutions and botany, coming right up.

Schooling eleven is far from easy. Matter of fact, you might even say that it is a challenge. But I am watching these amazing small people work together, help each other, challenge each other, learn from each other-  and even on the days when nothing goes as planned, I know that their lifestyle of constant learning will pay off.

Baby book

When the magical day arrived and our two families became one, we knew that our task was not for the faint of heart. Eleven Independent Variables (or as I like to call them, Entropy Accelerators) make life interesting on a consistent basis. But when you factor in outside influences, the tally of possible situations increases exponentially.

A couple of weeks after the wedding, the children went to church camp. They had the time of their lives. They made new friends, got some sun, one of them surrendered to Jesus. Good times. Fast forward a month. “Mom, my head itches.”

“It’s the heat and sweat, baby. Wash your hair.”

“Mom, my head still itches.”

“Must be dandruff. Try this shampoo.”

“Mom, my head really itches.”

The cold realization gripped us and we looked. And our hearts sank.

Lice.

My plans for the evening suddenly changed. Instead of a relaxing family evening, we were stripping beds, spraying furniture, cutting hair, an emergency run to the store for Rid shampoo, washing, combing six long haired girls (LONG hair. Not just shoulder length.) Researching, Thinking, wondering where in the world…??? Camp. It was the only thing we could think of that was different in our routine. By the way, as much fun as camp is, I am beginning to rethink the whole idea for my children. The last time the blue eyes went to camp, they came home with impetigo. This time, lice. It would seem that the risk/benefit ratio isn’t in our favor. Because what is an annoyance to a smaller family becomes a Big Deal in a really large family like ours. The jury is still out on that one.

We made it, after many long nights and extra loads of laundry. Bug free. And just about the time we were sounding the all clear and coming back into polite society…

“Mommy, my tummy hurts.”

There wasn’t much discussion on that one. The projectile vomit spoke for itself.

I really should be taking pictures and making a baby scrapbook for our fledgling family. 

First trip to the movies together. (That was different. One small person decided that the movie didn’t suit, and stood on their head and fussed the entire time.) 

First dinner at a restaurant together (one large person had a chip on their shoulder and fought with anyone seated near them the entire time. Nearly was banished to Siberia). 

First experience with lice (The picture would include girls with clear plastic shower caps covering tea tree and coconut oil soaked hair, along with mountains of laundry). 

First stomach virus (not sure how you would take a picture of me in three different rooms at once helping four vomiting children. That did happen, in defiance of all known laws of physics). Yes, as far as sheer excitement, the stomach virus takes the cake.

Another new venture that should go in our family baby book is my metamorphosis into a Sports Mom. It is not yet complete- I haven’t volunteered for anything yet- but getting the whole crew and my two manly football players to their practices four days a week is a logistical task that rivals Moses’ exodus. A whole city on the move. And their stuff. We can’t just hang out and watch the practice, or play on the playscape or the nearby field. We must also bring along coloring books to blow away, toys to forget and lose, water and snacks to spill and fight over. If I didn’t also pack my sense of humor and my patience, it would be a long and painful endeavor. 

I have to say, that is one thing that is absolutely indispensable to me about my hero. His sense of humor. Life with kids requires a good one, and life with lots of kids demands a Saturday Night Live brand of zany, kooky, off-the-cuff nuttiness. We have a lot of fun. Heads up to any intrepid potential babysitters: the children are learning well from their father. The pranking has begun. (Shaving cream in the hand and a feather to the nose for teens that won’t get out of bed, anyone?) Oh, the squeals and shouts and running for dear life before brother or sister catches me. But the madness and mayhem are the sounds of two broken families becoming one whole; they are the sounds of healing and hope. 

Yes, I really should start a family baby book.

Brokenness

To understand how amazing our journey has been, you have to know a little more of our story. Like the beautiful painting that you admire, until you find out that the artist painted it…with his mouth. Because he had no arms. Our story is lovely on the surface, until you look closer and see the absolutely shattered lives that God has not only salvaged, but made into something new and beautiful.

I grew up in a wonderful home, on a dairy goat farm in Texas. We were in church or Bible study regularly, we worked hard, lived wholesome honest lives. My mom homeschooled all of us kids, we played sports; it was an idyllic childhood. At a pro-life event, just as I turned 20, I met a man.

I didn’t date at all in high school. I had too many things going on, too much focus on what was important to me, and had watched too many friends go through the heartache of dating and then breaking up. I just wasn’t interested in playing that game. But here was this guy, and there was this energy. He spent a lot of time with my dad after that event. My dad gave him a summer job, hanging vinyl siding. I got to know him on the periphery, and my attraction to him grew. How easy it is to deceive the innocent.

I married him nine months after I met him. He was moving to California for grad school, so even though I didn’t know him well, I figured that a successful marriage is more about commitment than being in love. So on a whole host of prayers and boundless faith that everything would work out for the best, I stepped into my new life with enthusiasm and anticipation.

I never could have anticipated the years of pain that I was facing. If now, I could go back and talk with my younger self, what would I say? I would say “Hold on. Hold on to Jesus with everything that you have, because everything else will be taken from you.” I will gloss over the eleven years of nightmare, years that hammered me and molded me and broke me, years that are redeemed by my six beautiful, funny, creative children. They are proof that good things can come out of awful things. But after holding on as hard as I could, and fighting as long as I could for a marriage that wasn’t much of a marriage- more like legal slavery- it all crashed in on me inside of three days. My fragile strength was no longer enough to hold it, and my world exploded into a million pieces. 

But.

And with God, there is always a ‘but God’. 

But God had gone before me, and had already made a safe way out for myself and the children. A house, owned by my parents, on an acre of land and near my family. A job- cleaning houses and caregiving for elderly, flexible with my schedule as a suddenly, newly single mom. In a horrible school district, but since homeschooling was not foreign to me, I defaulted to what I knew. My pride and work ethic wouldn’t allow me to enlist in government aid unless I was simply incapacitated, so we economized, made do, were cared for by God’s people; we thrived on what most people would consider a completely insufficient income. We joined a homeschool co-op to broaden the children’s education and give them more social time. I taught a class and fell in love with all of “my” kids, but most particularly these little brown eyed pixies. One day my daughter was begging for her brown eyed pixie friend to come play at our house, so I had to speak with her father. 

I had studiously avoided men. I had severe trust issues, had no desire to date, and had plenty on my plate just being mom and breadwinner and teacher and chauffeur and church member…but I spoke with this man with eyes that literally, truly sparkle and a smile that could melt butter, and my determined shell of indifference slipped a little. He was a single dad with full custody of his kids, and that alone told me a long story without any words.

My hero had a similar story, in reverse. Maybe not as extreme,  but an unwanted divorce had rocked him to his core. He shared my struggles of trying to juggle the home, the kids, and work- but he worked more than full time, which made the juggling harder. We each understood the awful road the other had walked; the complicated emotions, the confusion, the agony of watching our children hurt and being unable to fix it. Our children’s friendship became our friendship as well, and when he asked me to take him on as a cleaning customer, I said yes. Our problem was that we couldn’t quit talking. My two or three hour cleaning job became six or seven hours, dinner, cross country rambles on his family’s land. We both knew there was more to this friendship than a Platonic companionship, but I fought it hard. My trust issues were a huge obstacle, until I realized that I didn’t just like him. I needed him.

My boys were growing, and they needed a father- A man to teach them how to be bold, exemplary men. My girls were growing, boys were noticing, and they needed a protector- A man to affirm their worth (and scare off icky boys until an appropriate time). And I needed a mate. I needed the missing part of the equation. I needed him on a level that I didn’t know existed- not merely practical or romantic, but the other half of myself that I didn’t know was lacking until now.

Somehow, simply by being himself, my hero quietly conquered my darkest fears and slipped past my defenses. The years of abuse did a beautiful thing for me; they gave me perspective. Ladies, I will warn you now- I have precious little patience for any complaining about husbands not picking up their clothes, or forgetting anniversaries, or any of the common gripes that women have about their men. My hero is not a perfect man. There are things that, had I not gained the perspective of those awful years, would drive me nuts. But he is a good man. He works so hard for us. He is faithful and kind and funny and he LOVES OUR KIDS. And we have both chosen every day to appreciate the good and forgive the failings of the other. The hellish pain of divorce is not something that we are willing to taste again. 

So when he took me on that moonlit walk those months ago, and we came back into a house full of giggly children who all lined up and yelled “Will you marry us?!?”… when they brought me the most perfect ring ever, and he whispered “Will you be the one who drives me crazy for the rest of my life?”… The answer was easy. 

Yes. Every day, yes. On the fun filled, happy days, yes. On the days we are both pulling our hair out, yes. Even the hard days are more bearable as a team. My heart has never been so full, or more at peace. 

My God is faithful. His hand has stayed on us through all the breaking and crumbling and rebuilding, and He guides our future. I know that whatever we face, His word is true: 

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten… you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.” Joel 2:26

In the Quiet

The rain drips off of the metal roof listlessly, quietly, steadily. The antithesis of my life at this point. There is no quiet to raising eleven children, unless (like right now) they are all asleep. But in the dark and the peace at 5:30am, after my hero has left for work, I can gather my energy and prepare for the starting gun- the first child awakening for the day. From that point on, you just go go go, there is no stop, no down time.

My husband and I have been married for two months. Maybe I will tell you all of our story one day, maybe I won’t. What you do need to know is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, life deals you a dirty hand and you get to make the best of it. And when you put your best into God’s hands and stumble and fall on His mercy, He has this uncanny ability to take your meager best and then turn it into something so glorious that it blows you away. That is our story- the story of pain and brokenness and struggle becoming wholeness and joy. My husband had five brown eyed babies when we got married. I had six blue eyed ones. Life as a single parent is a crucible; the pressure and heat from being father and mother to these precious souls and knowing that you are failing miserably because your task is impossible, this heat brings to the surface every single impurity of soul and mind, puts it on display in front of God and everybody, and leaves you feeling like there is precious little left. Maybe familiarity with the ragged edge of desperation makes me uniquely suited to the mad scramble that blending two large families creates. Maybe it just certifies me as crazy. Regardless, I sit here in the quiet, sip my coffee, pray a little… and wait for the pitter  patter of feet that launches my day into its usual insanity.