Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Kid Lit Concierge

It's the end of May, which means that the public library's summer reading program is just one week away.  Our awesome public library is kind enough to include adults in the fun, and I'm excited to start logging my reading hours alongside the boys on my grown-up form, even though we all know most of my books will be from the children's section.  A few years ago, I won a library coffee mug.  A vessel that encompasses my love of libraries AND coffee?  Best. Prize. Ever.

Summertime is my favorite time to visit the library because the children's section is swarming with families looking for something fun to read, and as I've admitted here before, I'm a bit of a children's literature evangelist.  I can't even help myself.  I love putting great books into kids' hands.  Also, it's the closest I'm ever going to get to becoming Kathleen Kelly.

Hanging out in my natural habitat. 

Every once in awhile I write reviews of some of my favorite books, which can be found under the "Story Hour" tab on this blog, but I recently started an Instagram feed devoted to kid lit that I want to share with those of you who are looking for some fun summer reading for your kids (or yourself).  You can find me at @kidlitconcierge on Instagram.  My goal is to snap a quick picture of a book for kids and write a short and sweet review a few times a week, ranging from picture books to young adult reads.  It's basically like having a personal concierge in the children's section of the library, right on your phone.  

  It's been a fun little project and a great way to connect with other children's literature fans and add to my ever-growing book list.  I hope you'll join me!  See you on Instagram!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Joining Ranks With the Sisterhood


“Kids Have Surprising Results If Mom Works Outside the Home”

“Wealthy Moms Receiving Wife Bonuses for Raising Families”

These are the headlines this week.  They are the headlines every week, the words simply rearranged, a different study found in the footnotes, a variation on last week’s vitriol in the comment section.

I’m not here to talk about these headlines, not this week or next week or the week after. 

I'm here to make a promise to you:  I won’t ever use this blog as a platform to participate in the media-driven mommy wars while there are actual wars on mothers and their children.  

I won’t use this platform to debate the merits of choices we are privileged to even make when a woman like Sozan has to choose which children to bring in a shipping container that doesn't have room to carry them all to an uncertain future where their safety is not guaranteed.  

Sure, I’ll talk about parenting, and share my own struggles and tiny victories.   I’ll use my voice to speak up when our freedom to make choices is threatened, but I won’t use this platform or my mental energy to decry a loving and intentional parenting choice that is different from my own when there are thousands of children without a parent to make any choices on their behalf at all.   

I want to have a different conversation about women, with women, for women, and I know that a great many of you do to.  I want to have a conversation about what is possible when we refuse to participate in an orchestrated argument with one another and instead reach out and boldly declare that we belong to each other.  I want to talk about what is possible when we come together to use our talents, our gifts, our resources, and our privilege to lift up women here and abroad.  Because the truth is, if we have any energy left at the end of the day to fight with a stranger on the Internet about breastfeeding or sleeping arrangements, we are coming from a place of privilege and that privilege can be squandered or it can be gifted right back to the sisterhood of mothers.  

This week, there is a particular struggle that is weighing heavily on me.  I read the piece linked above about Sozan yesterday, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to take a moment to do so now.  It’s written as an open letter to the North American (Christian) Church, and while I certainly believe that the church is an appropriate recipient of these words, I also believe that Sozan’s story and the stories of thousands of people and families murdered and displaced by ISIS are for everyone to hear.  

I don’t have a single political or militaristic solution for the escalating violence in Iraq.  Not one.  But I keep coming back to the same place I always do in times of violent conflict in this world.  I keep coming back to those who fled, those who declared through their furtive and terrifying escapes that they want no part of this terror, that they want to live, that they want to see their children survive.  I may not know what to say when I call my representatives about how to intervene in conflict, but I know that I will plead on behalf of the refugees.   

If you have read this far and want to take action on this particular issue, I’ll include some additional resources and organizations to consider supporting at the end of this post.  There are many more out there, and many people more knowledgeable than myself on this issue.  Please share your resources, I’m listening.   I will also include the contact information for your representatives, as well as information about current legislation impacting refugees.  

I want to say one more thing.  I’m asking you to consider donating to women in desperate situations but I understand that you might not have extra money in your own bank account.  I get it.  Our family lives on one income, follows a tight budget, and doesn’t have a lot left over at the end of the pay period either.  But yet, I spend money every day.  I spend money on groceries or utilities, I spend it with every shower I take, every sprinkler I run, every time I fill my gas tank.  I spend some of that money with little thought to the opportunity cost, and I’m challenging myself to really think about that.  I can pass on a new swimsuit this year so another mother can dream of a better future.  I can let my yard go a little brown as my sprinkler sits dormant so another child can get access to fresh drinking water.  

I’ve spent the last few months letting go of material possessions that brought little meaning to my life.  When I mentally add up the cost of it all … I can’t finish typing this sentence without crying.  It guts me to think what that money could have done.  

I’m hopeful when I think of what it can still do.

So this is it, the only type of mommy war I’m willing to engage in.  I’ll speak for my sisters whose voices are silenced, and I’ll advocate for children who don’t have parents to make choices for them.  I’ll support women who are trying to build a better future for their families.  Because the mommy wars?  They’ve got enough foot soldiers.  I’m joining ranks with the sisterhood.   I hope you’ll join me.

Additional Resources: 

The UN Refugee Agency
Refugee Legislation





Friday, May 15, 2015

How Grover Cleveland Got His Banjo

For the last few months,  I've written a lot about the stuff that is leaving my home, why, and where it is going. 

Over that same time period, I've noticed a trend occurring.  Anytime one of my friends invites me over (okay, anytime I invite myself over to a friend's house), they preface the invitation with an explanation of how messy their home is.  I think some of you might be envisioning my recently de-cluttered space as a lot more pristine than it actually is, so today I want to clear the air about a couple of things.

1.  My house gets messy too. 

Seriously messy.  Every single day.  This house is lived in.  We learn, play, eat, sleep and dream in this house, and that means that on any given day, we use a lot of stuff.  It's also not a big house, which means that we do all of those things in the same, multi-purpose area.  In addition, we have a dog whose favorite pastime is taking our dirty clothes or smelly shoes and decorating our furniture and backyard with them. One of our children still insists that he likes his room better messy, and I'm not fighting that battle (except on Fridays...I fight it a little on Fridays).   We also have a small obsession with our public library that leads to random piles of books on all surfaces of the house.  Just last night, Jason was clearing our table after dinner when he looked over at me and declared, "We're weird."

"What do you mean, we're weird?" I asked, taking the bait.

He proceeded to show me the assortment of items he was cleaning off of our table:  several library books, a sign up sheet for a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament one of our boys created (complete with "official" member ID numbers), a jar of fake money, the latest iteration of a chore chart, three rocks absconded from a local creek bed, a postcard from a family in New Mexico that we don't actually know, and a tiny banjo in a tiny banjo case.  And we had eaten dinner at that table without paying a bit of attention to any of those items. 

So friends, please don't feel like you have to prepare me for the level of mess in your home.  Even if my home were truly minimalist and perfectly swiffered (which it's not), you still would not owe me any explanation or apology for your home.  I love my friends for who they are, not how they keep house, or what they keep in their house.

Which brings me to the second thing I need to tell you.

2.  We still have stuff.  And a lot of it is... um... interesting.

Meet Grover Cleveland. Grover is our indoor garden gnome who recently became unemployed when he failed to manage his only task of keeping the succulents in our master bedroom alive.  Grover has been lonely and a bit despondent since he lost his job, so we decided to find him a new hobby.  Enter the tiny aforementioned tiny banjo.  We realize we could have just purchased him a new indoor plant to care for, but frankly, we're not sure Grover is up to the task.

Sure, we may use poor Grover as an excuse for our own inability to keep our houseplants alive, but the truth is, Grover's unlikely presence in our master bedroom brings us joy.  It's illogical joy, but joy all the same, so he stays. I've said before that joy is subjective, and Grover Cleveland certainly illustrates that point.  I'm sure there are plenty of you thinking that a garden gnome in a master bedroom is the first thing that you'd get rid of, and that's okay.  I'm not about to tell you what should bring you joy.  

Grover is not the only thing that made the cut.  


This, my friends, is a mantle fish.   You put this fish on your mantle and it keeps evil spirits away.  You probably want to know how you can get your hands on one of these.   Lucky for me, my husband makes them, but in very limited editions.  I know.  Back off ladies, he's taken. 

There's more.  We kept all of our musical instruments, piles of art supplies, a whole lot of Legos, two shelves worth of board games, an assortment of costumes for dress-up play, more hats than one family needs and a broken lawn mower.  We've still got some work to do, but for me, de-cluttering is not intended to be the end, but a means to an end.  For me, that end looks like creating a space that amplifies the values and interests and purposes of the members of my family.  At the end of the day, I'm not hoping to arrive at a truly minimal house without any possessions, but rather a house that is a place to grow and learn, to live and love, a house in which our possessions don't possess us, a house that isn't always clean, but when we do pick up the stuff, that stuff brings a smile to our face.  A house where friends and family are welcome to just drop in, even if I didn't sweep that day or put away the rock collection.  A house in which a quiet little gnome like Grover Cleveland can be both a gardener and a renowned banjo player.   In other words, a home.  

So there you have it.  My home still gets messy, and it still holds some truly random stuff.  But moreover, I want you to know that I'm not comparing my home to yours.  This de-cluttering journey is really just an outward expression of my own set of issues, which I pour out on the internet mostly for your entertainment.  So friends, here's my proposition:  no more apologizing for our homes.  I won't apologize for Grover Cleveland or the bra you just sat on (thanks Hobbes) and you don't apologize for the dishes or the dog hair.  Instead, we'll just pour a cup of coffee (or open a beer, your choice) and enjoy each other's company, which is really what matters most. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Owning Our Hypocrisy

Hi, my name is Jess and I'm a hypocrite.

There.  I'm so glad I got that off my chest.  It was only a matter of time before the subject was bound to come up, and I would feel that familiar knee-jerk response to defend some statement or choice I've made in the face of accusations of hypocrisy, when truthfully, I would rather just acknowledge the truth up front.

I'm a hypocrite in myriad ways.  I'll share just a handful of examples, but trust me, there's more where these came from.  I believe that we use too many plastic bags at the grocery store, but I often forget my reusable bags and come home with my own armful of plastic ones.  I believe that laborers should be paid fair and ethical wages, but I own clothing I bought at Target at prices too low to assure this is happening.  I believe our dependency on fossil fuels and foreign oil is bad for both our planet and our national security, but one of my cars is a minivan. 

 These super cute reusable totes only make it out of my purse about half the time.  Total hypocrite.

And I know I'm not alone.  The thing is, I don't know anyone who is not a hypocrite in at least one area of life.  And in the age of social media, the 24 hour news cycle and an internet capable of storing every written word forever, it is even easier to find examples of hypocrisy at the click of a mouse. Yet despite its prevalence in all our lives, hypocrisy has become the ultimate insult leveled against humanity.  Hypocrisy is defined as" the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform,"  That's it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Basically, it's a part of the human condition, yet most of us live in fear of it.  And we are all worse off as a result.

There are really only two ways to avoid hypocrisy.  The first is to attempt to align all of our actions to our values at all times.  Many of us try to choose this path, but we continue to stumble through the journey because of our aforementioned humanness.  Even our best examples on this path have been accused of hypocrisy and there is probably some truth in those accusations.  If we choose this path, it's unavoidable.  The other choice is to lower our moral standards so far that no action could possibly fall outside of them.  In an effort to avoid hypocrisy, we instead choose cynicism, apathy, even cruelty towards other humans, but at least we won't be labeled hypocrites.  Anything but that. 

Friends, we've got to get over this.  There are worse things than being a hypocrite.  I'd rather own my hypocrisy and move forward than be reduced to inaction and apathy out of fear of it.  None of our actions will ever be perfectly consistent, and when we choose our paths towards making the world a better place, we are certain to stumble and fall short in ways big and small.  But we can stand back up, dust ourselves off, and do better next time, because failing on the road to a better world is a better choice than paving the smooth path to its destruction.  Or, to put it in lovelier words than mine:  "For all the risks of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, it’s better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all." - Nicholas Kristof

So, I'm a hypocrite.  I'm also inconsistent, an idealist, a dreamer, a fool and a believer in ridiculous things like forgiveness and hope

You too?  Welcome to the club.  





Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Reset Button

I'm writing this post in the middle of Screen Free Week, an event sponsored by Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood that we've participated in for many years now.  In fact, we've been at this so long I remember when the week was called TV Turn Off Week, back when television was the most prominent screen vying for our attention and the iPhone was still a figment of science fiction imagination.  I like to think of the week as an opportunity to press the reset button on our family's electronic use.  Even though we already place limits on screen time, this week allows us to take a more dramatic step back and assess how we use that time and what type of screen interactions we actually miss and which we could maybe do without.  Every year, we end up making some adjustments as a result of particpating.  It's only Wednesday and I'm already processing some lessons learned (like the surprising discovery that I miss Facebook this time around).  

The reset button is such a useful little thing, but it's not always the first tool I reach for when I find that the things I value are getting away from me in one or more areas of my life.  Sometimes I just want to call tech support and let someone else magically fix it, but then I remember the first thing that tech support always asks is, "Did you restart your device?"  Um, yes.  Sure, yeah, I already did that.  Of course I didn't call for help without rebooting the system on my own.  

Oh, wait.  Yes.  Yes, I did.

I have learned to love the reset button and I find that there are three times of the year that always seem to prompt more resetting than usual:  the start of a new school year, New Year's and when the weather finally turns warm enough to believe that summer is on the way.  I'm in the middle of that late spring reset right now, which generally starts with throwing open the windows and washing the glass panes and then winds its way into various forgotten corners of life.  Here's a handful of reset buttons I'm pressing right now:

My Bike -  You know the old refrain, "It's just like riding a bike?"  Well, it turns out that riding a bike is in fact just like riding a bike.  A few weeks ago, some friends invited me to go riding and geo-caching on the Katy Trail with them.  I was so excited to spend a few kid-free hours in the company of these ladies, but I'm not going to lie.  I was also a little scared.  These women all seem to actively engage in this thing called moving your body on a regular basis, and I tend to hibernate in the winter.  I was sure I would slow them way down on the trail.  A few days before our ride, I pulled my dusty bike off the garage wall where it has been hanging since we moved here nine years ago and took it for a short ride on our neighborhood nature trail.  Five minutes in and the tears were streaming down my face.  How had I forgotten to ride my bike for nearly a decade?  In the midst of teaching two kids to ride their bikes, how had it not occurred to me to pull mine off the wall and use it too?  I used to love riding my bike.  I rode it all through college, often escaping the city on game days to take to a local trail for hours of solitude.  I rode it when we moved to Austin, Texas as if it were my car.  I took it grocery shopping, to work, I even rode it to get a CT-scan once (not my wisest move).  I rode it recreationally in Madison, Wisconsin on the beautiful city trails.  Then after my last move, I just forgot to ride it.  I am so grateful for the invitation from my friends to ride that day (which was a blast, incidentally, and I did not get left behind) and I've been riding it every week since.  For a girl who doesn't so much love exercise, this has been such a great rediscovery.  Fitness, reset.


Gardening - While that bike was collecting a decade's worth of dust in my garage, I did pick up a new outdoor hobby - gardening.  We planted our first garden bed when we moved to Missouri nine years ago and quickly added two more beds the following year.  We battled rabbits the first few years and finally put in a fence.  We faced down squash bugs and finally quit growing squash.  We've composted in the open, in a homemade compost bin, and currently in one of those rotating composters.  We've had gardens completely overtaken by seeds from our compost bins, years that the drought won and we've had years that brought so much produce we got to share with friends and neighbors.  We've had a summer that we didn't garden at all, and a summer or two that we only gardened in containers.  I've got big garden dreams, small gardening abilities and an even smaller budget, but I'm not giving up.  This year, I'm trying something new after a couple of container-only summers and using a tiered raised bed.  I'm hoping that raising the bed to a signficant height will help with some of our pest issues, and maybe eliminate the need for such extensive rabbit fencing.  As much as I want to jump right in and plant three more of these beds, I'm resisting the temptation and just waiting to see how this first one goes.  Green thumb, reset.


Chores -  I've written about how often we change up our chore system in this house (as often as we need to) and it's time for another change.  It feels like we've done every idea on Pinterest on rotation over the years.  This time around, I'm printing up a weekly chore chart with all of the things that need to get done on any given day and passing it around the table during our family meeting so everyone can take turns filling it out.  I'm not expecting this plan to last more than a month, but it was pretty funny to see what everyone chose that first week.  One of the boys chose the same chores every day, while another chose the majority of his chores on one single day.  We'll see how this goes.  Clean house, reset.

 There is one dollar left on this board (many months later) for cleaning out the van.
  Shocking that no one wants a whole dollar for that job. 

Cooking -  We're attempting to prepare all of our meals at home this month (with just a few exceptions).  This means no eating out, no take out, no pizza delivery.  We do this one or two months a year, and the purpose is really two-fold.  One, we tend to take this step when we've been falling outside our food budget.  Guilty as charged here.  This one month pledge usually saves quite a bit of money and heading into summer, it's easy to stay motivated when we've got a vacation around the corner.  Two, much like Screen Free Week, we need the dramatic change in routine to get us back in the habit of cooking all of our meals at home.  Often, we end up grabbing food on the run not because we want to eat out, but because we didn't take the time to plan and prepare in advance.  It's a habit, like anything else, and so this month we are planning ahead, packing lunches when we go on field trips, using the crockpot on busy days, and meal planning.  One of my favorite go-to's for freeze ahead meals is Five Dollar Dinners.  I've used a couple of the Costco plans with some modifications and a lot of success.  I'm also looking forward to the start of our CSA tomorrow, which always inspires fun, new home-cooked meals (I'm already dreaming of garlic scape pesto). Good eats, reset.

My Dog -  My dog Hobbes is the best dog in the entire world, save one major flaw - he requires an excessive amount of grooming.  He's this big, sweet, cuddly ball of fur and this winter, we let things get a little out of hand.  Okay, a lot out of hand.  By the time we brought him to the groomer for professional help, he looked like a muppet.  Rowlf, to be specific.  




You probably can't even tell which one is Hobbes, can you?

He's all shaved and trimmed and filed and clean again.  Not nearly as muppet-like, but a much better fit for his lake-swimming, trail-hiking summer lifestyle.  Shaggy dog, reset.


There are a few other things that need to be reset (like my morning routine) but I think that's enough changes for one month.  Am I the only one who does this?  Or do any of you also go through cycles of needing to press the reset button?  If so, what are you pressing reset on in your life? Tell me all about it, because if my pattern holds, I'll need inspiration for when I'm back at this again in September. Right after I call tech support, of course. 






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