Category Archives: Home and Hearth

Saturday Snapshots

I promised to show a picture of the table runner I made. It’s not a
great picture, but that’s okay because it’s not a great table runner.
But I’m pretty pleased with it. The runner, I mean. The other side is
the same green floral as the ends here. The checked fabric—which has
green in it and isn’t as orange in real life as in this photo—was a
long scrap from the curtains I made for the kids’ craft room.

I had fun with Flickr’s "add a note" feature if you want to click through for commentary on the photo. Well, actually, it’s another photo almost exactly like this one, revealing what happens when Scott walks into the room.

I’ve been in a very handcrafty mood lately, as my last couple weeks’
worth of posts probably make obvious. I tried my hand at the zipper
pouch from Bend-the-Rules Sewing, inspired by Jenn’s lovely pink patchwork pouch. This was my first-ever attempt at putting in a zipper, and, well, it zips. Just don’t inspect the ends too closely…

And now that it’s finally feeling cool enough (in the mornings, at
least—we’re melting by noon) to think of baking, I’ve been pining for
my lost sourdough starter. We suffered a little fridge snafu a while
back, and room temperature was way too hot for my starter, which had
been living in the freezer through the hot months. It got moldy. Sob.
Also, ick.

So I’ve been tempted to order a new one, but I thought first I’d try my hand at starting one from scratch. Some sites describe this as a ridiculously easy undertaking.
Other sources say ominous things about poor success rates in arid
climates, which we certainly have here in the decidely dry eastern half
of San Diego County. But hey, a cup of flour and a cup of water is
pretty low overhead for an experiment. So on Thursday morning I mixed
up a batch and put it in a warm corner. By Friday it was already
looking promisingly bubbly.

I fed it twice yesterday, and this morning it looks frothy and
vigorous. (Blurry photo: snapped hastily in the midst of getting
breakfast for my little people.)

Think I’ll give it one more day to get established and maybe try it
in some biscuits tomorrow. Just about time to move it into the fridge,

And finally, a little backyard beautification project: the kids are
decorating our side of the neighbor’s big ole wall with sidewalk chalk.
It’ll last a long time here in did-I-mention-it’s-very-dry? San Diego
County. I think we’ve only seen rain once in the last four months.

Fresh Starts

Happy New Year!

I love beginnings, fresh starts. I am very, very good at beginning things, less adept at finishing them. But I’ve finished some projects this long weekend, and am on the verge of finishing two others, and that feels great.

(But I still haven’t done the Christmas cards.)

I completely made over my bedroom this weekend. For the year-plus since we moved into this house, our bedroom has been more like a closet with a bed in it. Books and video tapes shoved willy-nilly onto the shelves during the first frantic days of unpacking remained there, unsightly and gathering dust, all year. Our dresser was piled high with laundry and books. One corner (and this is a tiny room; there is scarcely any corner space to spare) filled up with empty cardboard boxes, more laundry, and random mateless shoes. Really, it was quite disgraceful. But this is the first bedroom off the hall, the easiest place to stash clutter behind a closed door when company is coming.

This has become the room in which I write. In the evenings, after Scott is home and dinner is over, I slip in here to work for an hour or two. When we moved into this house, I thought I was going to do my writing at our big desk in Wonderboy’s room (the only place that had room for the desk), at the quiet end of the hall. Somehow that never happened. I work in here, and I sleep in here, and I needed the space to be pretty, not cluttered. So I worked for two days and cleaned from top to bottom. I moved the haphazard piles of old video tapes to a back closet, put all the laundry away (imagine!), and switched the books around. I have shelves and shelves of lovely old books about Scotland and early 18th-century New England, all the resources I’d collected while writing my Little House novels. They are beautiful books and good friends. I feel quite uplifted now, looking across the bed to the inviting rows of titles: A Naturalist in the Highlands; Old Landmarks of Boston; Weaving with Linen; Our Own Snug Fireside.

I made it a sort of game to make over the room without spending any money. I had bought new pillowcases last month (our old ones were threadbare), a cheerful assortment of lime greens and fresh, cool blues, and it’s amazing how much they brightened up our old blue comforter. For good measure I added a flowery bedspread that used to be on Jane’s bed, long ago. The flowers made me feel so happy, I went rummaging in the craft cabinets and found some faux peonies and daisies I’d bought to make an Easter wreath last spring. The wreath never got made, but the flowers look awfully pretty on my dresser. The green glass pitcher my sister-in-law gave me, gosh, seven or eight Christmases ago, looks quite stunning beneath the peonies.

Why were these things stashed away behind cabinet doors?

Two years ago my resolution (inspired by Robert Frost’s poem, "The Armful," about juggling a pile of slipping parcels) was to "keep hold of the important things, stopping to restack the load as often as necessary," and I think that pretty well describes what I did during these past two years. I had an armful indeed: new baby, cross-country move, work changes, all sorts of adventures. We’ve caught our breath now. This year my resolution, if I have one, is to look closer at the ‘beauty’ part of our family Rule of Six. My bedroom, though not fancy and decidedly low-budget, is really beautiful now. Now that I know we’ll be in this rental house another year, I’ll keep focusing on small corners to make more beautiful. The rooms I tackled during this past week have already brought much joy to our family. It’s an extremely gratifying project.

I like this idea of choosing one focus in particular out of our list of the things we
want to be purposeful in making a part of our daily lives: meaningful work, imaginative play, living books, ideas to ponder and discuss, encounters with beauty through art, music, nature, and I would add to this the home arts as well, and prayer. I think last year, the part of the Rule I focused most on was prayer. That is probably why it was such a good year despite all the hiccups.

This year, then, beauty. I’m ready.


Here’s part of a post about where our family’s Rule of Six comes from:

It got its start, as so many helpful principles do, in the writings of Charlotte Mason. In A Charlotte Mason Companion,
Karen Andreola wrote that Miss Mason believed children needed three
things every day: something to love, something to think about, and
something to do.

I remember it was shortly after we moved from New York to Virginia
in 2002 that I looked at the bright faces of my three little girls in
their big blue room and made a silent promise to myself to give them
that good soul-food every day: something to love, to think about, to
do. I thought about what that meant in practical terms, because a
concept has to translate very clearly on a practical level if there is
any hope of my pulling it off. It’s the logistics that get you, every
time. Broad principles are like umbrellas, and you need a hand to hold
the umbrella with.

And that’s how I got to our Rule of Five. (Yes, five. It was Five
for the first two or three years. Item number Six didn’t join the list
until later—which is why I’ve been tickled to see all these Rules of
Six popping up, because ours was the Rule of Five for so long.) I
thought of it as the five fingers of a hand, the five things that I
strive to make a part of every day we spend together:

Good books

Imaginative play

Encounters with beauty (through art, music, and the natural world—this includes our nature walks)

Ideas to ponder and discuss (there’s Miss Mason’s "something to think about")


When Mary borrowed my list, she put prayer at the top to reflect its
overarching importance, which makes perfect sense. I have it at the
bottom for the very same reason. I always figure that you’re most
likely to remember the last thing you hear. If I put the most important thing at the bottom of the list, that’s the word that echoes in my consciousness afterward.

Also, when the girls were younger it worked so beautifully with a
little fingerplay we would do at bedtime. We would hold up a finger for
each thing on the list. "What did you play today?" I would ask, and
eager stories would bubble forth. "Who remembers what books we read?"
"Where did we meet beauty today?" It was such fun, at the end of the
day, to listen to their reflections about what we’d done since
breakfast. At the end of the list, we’d all be holding up the five
fingers of a hand, and then we’d clap our hands together and that meant
time to pray.

For us, as Catholics, the word "prayer" in my list is meant to
encompass the whole range of religious customs and practices that are
woven through our day, celebrating the feasts and seasons of the
liturgical year.

But what about the sixth item in my Rule of Six? You see, of course,
what’s missing from my original list: work. That’s because when I first
came up with the list, my oldest child was only six, and play WAS her
work. A couple of years later, the list grew—like my children. I added "meaningful work" (as opposed to busywork) to express the importance of doing useful things cheerfully and well, with reverence and attention.

And the five-finger visual works even better now, because you can
tally off the first five things on the list and then clasp your hands
together for the sixth, prayer.


For the Commonplace Book: The Hidden Art of Homemaking

"On the route to Aigle from Ollon, where we live in Switzerland, one passes an orchard. Neatly planted rows of trees are beautifully pruned and trained to form straight aisles for fruit-picking, with a grassy carpet beneath. But the thing which causes most passersby to turn and look, and look again, slowing up the car if they are driving, is the touch of an artist indeed. Planted at the end of every row of trees is a lovely rose bush, and in midsummer these bushes are a riot of color in a variety of roses. There is just one rose bush at the end of each line, but this is enough to lift the entire work, which could be merely efficient fruit-farming, into a work of art, enjoyed by hundreds who pass each day—bringing influence into lives as well as being a subject of discussion, and bringing about, in other gardens, results of which the ‘artist’ may never know."

—The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer

Hiding from My Kitchen

I just finished cleaning out the fridge. Allll the way out. The problem turned out to be a broken starter. We found out a day too late to save the food.

Kids: "Mom, isn’t that all the stuff you bought at Trader Joe’s the other day?"

Me: :::groan:::

But to keep it in perspective, one need only recall that over 1200 families in this county lost their homes and everything in them just a few weeks ago. There are harder burdens than having to pitch a brand new tub of Blue Cheese and Pecan Dip.

There is one defrosted item that need not be thrown out. When the weather got too hot for baking last summer, I froze my sourdough starter. It woke back up yesterday, so we fed it and returned it to its countertop crock. Now we must wait to see how our little bacteria buddies survived cold storage. There’s been some bubbling action in the crock, but only a little so far. We fed them some more. We’re hoping for another vigorous starter this year.

Mmm, I can almost smell that fresh-baked sourdough now.

I Would Comment on This, But I’m Too Distracted

You know that thing you do (you KNOW you do) when you’re picking up the house, and you never finish a single room because you pick up the socks on the living room floor and carry them to the bedroom, and while you’re there you notice laundry you didn’t finish folding, and when you’re putting your kids’ clothes away in their room, you are walloped by the mess in their closet, and you hunt them down to make them come clean it up but they are in the middle of a craft project and there are bits of colored paper all over every flat surface in the craft room, so you order someone to start sweeping and you’re still standing there with folded laundry in your hands which is now mixed up with the dirty laundry you started to pick up from the kids’ closet floor before deciding to make them do it themselves…? You know that thing?

Well, there’s an internet version too. Boy howdy, isn’t there.

(Evidenced by the, I’m not kidding, 368 emails in my in-box—AFTER the deletion of all spam, billing reminders, and VistaPrint ads—awaiting a reply. I would answer them, but I’m still holding the laundry.)

Nuts, Bolts, and Pegs

(Part 3 of The Not Supermom Series.)

Kristie writes:

One quick question…
Language arts…looking at your day, do your kids write, do dictation, read etc. or is this in tides (besides the reading, it is obvious that is the lifestyle in homes where literature is loved..)
Thanks so much

Betty asks:

Now for the nitty gritty. When do you find it best to shower? What type of language arts do you do (I saw that was asked already)? Do the kids do chores? I think half my battle is just getting the children to work on their little jobs and then 2 yr. old starts getting fussy, and soon it’s lunch time and the only thing anybody has done is copywork.

These are great questions, and they cover a lot of ground so I’ll probably answer over a couple of posts. Let’s start with Betty’s nitty-gritty: showers, chores, practical scheduling concerns. (I’ll tackle language arts tomorrow.)

Like many homeschooling moms, I love looking at people’s daily schedules, like the ones in the Large Family Logistics files. It can be extremely helpful to see how other mothers order their days. With that in mind, I thought I’d sketch out part of our typical day’s routine. Mind you, this is our spring new-baby routine. When the community pool opens in June, this schedule will go out the window and we’ll discover a whole new flow to our days. But thanks to what my friend Leonie calls “pegs,” the most important elements of our day will remain in place even if the time of day they happen shifts around from season to season.

It was several years ago that Leonie introduced me and the other moms on the Catholic Charlotte Mason list to her habit of “pegging” one activity to another. The basic concept is that there are certain things that happen in our homes every day: meals, getting dressed, bedtime, and so forth. These things may not happen at the exact same time day in and day out—dinner might be at 6:00 one night and 6:30 the next—but they do happen pretty much every day, occuring within a fairly consistent general time frame. These activities, Leonie explained, can serve as “pegs” on which to hang other activities. An example from my home is the way we have pegged music to breakfast: I pick one piece of music per week, a symphony perhaps, to play every morning while the girls are eating. Breakfast is the peg, the fixed activity which I know will happen every day. Music is the secondary activity I have hung upon that peg.

Most households already make use of pegs, whether the family realizes it or not. If you read your kids a bedtime story every night, there’s a peg: the read-aloud is pegged to going-to-bed. When FlyLady tells you to shine your sink every night or wipe down your bathroom counter after you brush your teeth, she’s preaching pegging, though she doesn’t call it by that name.

Leonie’s brilliantly simple notion was the best piece of household advice anyone ever gave me. Thanks to pegs, no matter how topsy-turvy our lives have become (and believe me, we’ve spent a lot of time upside down), I’ve been able to make sure that the things I hold dear have not dropped by the wayside in times of stress. Children must always be fed, so why not peg music to one meal and poetry to another? If the baby naps every afternoon, it may be convenient to peg big sister’s science experiments or arts-and-crafts time to baby’s naptime. If you go grocery shopping on the same day every week, a trip to the library might be pegged to the outing. If dad does the bedtime read-aloud, mom might want to peg herself a shower at that interval. Pegs help ensure that the important but non-essential activities don’t get lost in the shuffle of essentials.

For me, a really helpful aspect of pegging is that it provides rhythm and pleasant structure without binding us to a strict minute-by-minute schedule. I cannot guarantee that the baby’s nap will be the exact same length of time every morning. But if I know that she will nap every morning and if I’ve pegged, say, a read-aloud and math to her nap, I’ll be sure to grab that read-aloud as soon as the baby goes to sleep rather than fritter away the nap checking mail or chatting with a neighbor. The kids know that they can count on baby’s naptime for some one-on-one with mom. Children like their days to have rhythm; they like the quiet security of a routine. Pegs allow us to provide the routine without getting stressed about the ticking away of minutes on a clock.

So here are some of the pegs in use around here.

• Music—pegged to breakfast (as already mentioned).

• Kids’ morning chores (brush hair, brush teeth, make bed, wipe bathroom sinks)—pegged to getting dressed.

• Kids practice piano—pegged to my shower/dress/make bed/clean bathroom time.

• “FlyLady Time”—not a peg exactly (nothing is pegged to it), but a regular part of our routine. This is when we do our daily housework following a plan based on the FlyLady and Large Family Logistics schedules.

• Morning lesson time. The schedule is fluid and subject to spontaneous abandonment but its chief elements are: morning prayer, Latin, math, history read-aloud, and poetry. Other activities include science experiments, drawing, nature journaling, picture study, German, sign language, geography (with Mr. Putty), or whatever the children are wrapped up in at the moment.

• Morning walk—pegged to lunch. For half an hour or so before we eat lunch, we try to get outside every day. We haven’t gone on a real nature walk since a month before the bairn was born (but I am hoping to return to that before long). For now we are just puttering around the yard or walking to the neighborhood playground…during Grandma’s visit, Wonderboy fell in love with the swings.

• We used to have a read-aloud pegged to lunch, but ever since the baby was born it keeps slipping off the peg.

• Wonderboy’s nap: Several things are pegged to this. First, as I’ve written about before, the girls all have an hour of quiet time (to read or play alone) while I eat lunch, read mail, pay bills, etc. Twice a week Jane does a written narration during this block of time.

• Then (still during the nap) I have one-on-one time with each girl. OK, the nap isn’t long enough for EVERYONE to get one-on-one every day, but I can fit in half an hour each with two of the girls, so we just sort of rotate through everyone. During Beanie’s time, I read picture books to her. During Rose’s one-on-one, she does her Greek and/or I read to her—”A read-aloud all of my own, Mommy.” (Jane often gets computer time while I’m doing those things.) Often, Jane’s one-on-one is spent helping me with dinner prep: an activity she adores and I pretend to. (Jane is reading this and laughing. She knows I don’t like to cook. She knows I know she loves it. She knows I try to put on a game face and act like I’m having fun, and she knows that nearly always turns into real fun. We call this the Uncle Jay Rule of Life in honor of a piece of advice Scott’s brother gave him long ago before some unappealing social event—which is to say, any social event, as far as my hermit-like husband is concerned: Act happy, and you will usually find yourself being happy. As usual, Jay is quite right.)

• After Wonderboy’s nap, he likes to cuddle on the couch and have his yogurt smoothie (part of our endless quest to fatten him up). To this pleasant time of day I have pegged read-aloud time with the girls—either our current Shakespeare play or current novel.

• Afternoon play time—usually pegged to my writing time, but I have one more week of babymoon left.

• Kids’ dinnertime—on this peg we often hang some music: Scott plays guitar and I sing while the kids eat. We used to do this almost every night; now it is more sporadic.

• Dinnertime for Scott and me (we usually eat after the kids)—kids do evening chores. (Put on pajamas, clean room, brush teeth.) They nearly always peg a Jim Weiss story tape to their chores (or if their room is really messy, they put on the Annie soundtrack and belt out “Hard Knock Life”).

• Scott reads to girls—pegged to bedtime. I read to Wonderboy—ditto. And reading is pegged to our own bedtime, too: but I usually fall asleep before I’ve gotten far. (Alas.)

I’m sure we have more pegs, but these are the primary and most consistent ones. The simple principle of attaching a “want-to-do” to a “must-do” has, more than anything else, helped us to keep up with the pursuits we care about and to enjoy our daily chores, even in the wake of a toddler’s surgery, a parent’s book deadline, or a delicious new baby’s arrival.


(Part 2 of The Not Supermom Series.)

The Deputy Headmistress directed me toward this post at Dominion Family, and I have come to trust the DHM’s recommendations.

Writing on the importance of educating both mind and soul, Cindy says:

“This does not mean I shy away from rigorous study. I love rigorous study. It is just that I don’t confuse taking a test with learning. I try not to forget the things that can’t be measured: poetry in the heart, deep discussions, time for thoughtful reflections, love of beauty, the fellowship of suffering, the euphoric feeling of using the right word, honest toil, gentle breezes and warm days.”

Beautiful, and right on the mark.

This is exactly what I am getting at when I talk about striving for a joyful atmosphere in our home. As Cindy points out, Charlotte Mason has a great deal to say about the importance of “atmosphere” in education: Education itself, she says, is an atmosphere; it is a life. “Atmosphere,” writes Michele Quigley,

“is many faceted, from the actual physical aspects of the home to the tone and spirit of family life. In creating an atmosphere of learning, the child has easy access to the materials needed. Books are put where the child can get at them, art supplies are easily reached and musical instruments placed in a special but accessible area. There are beautiful art prints to look at and beautiful music with which to inspire the mind and soul.”

There it is again, that mind/soul connection that Cindy spoke of in her post. I am reminded of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family (Meet the Austins, The Moon by Night, A Ring of Endless Light—which last is one of my three Most Deeply Moving picks from Semicolon’s recent booklist). Life in the Austin household means symphonies booming in the background during housecleaning, family in-jokes about literature and art, animated dinner-table discussions about The Big Questions of Life, evening sing-alongs, a house furnished in books, and car rides punctuated by quotes from ancient philosophers. I wonder, sometimes, just how much my own idea of family life was shaped by my multiple readings of that series during adolescence. I reread them all last winter and found myself grinning at the depiction of an atmosphere I’ve been striving toward in my own home for some ten years. Well looky there, I thought. Here I’ve been trying to Meet the Austins in my own living room, and I didn’t even realize it.

I gave a talk once about atmosphere in the Little House books, for after encountering Charlotte Mason’s writings, it struck me that a large part of what appeals to me about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books is the atmosphere that suffuses the Ingalls home—no matter which little house they lived in. Here’s an excerpt from the talk:

The atmosphere of love and family bonding is so strong, so pervasive, that when you read about this family, you want to be a part of it. And while I’m sure Ma and Pa Ingalls had plenty of off days that didn’t make it into the books, the warm, loving atmosphere of the home they created was consistent enough enough to inspire their daughter to put her childhood memories down on paper so that they would never be lost. Look at the things that stick in Laura’s mind all the way to her 60s:

—Pa ruffling up his hair, playing mad dog;
—Pa telling stories as he greased his traps or made bullets—stories Laura never forgot;
—Ma making vanity cakes for Laura & Mary’s party;
—Ma letting the girls share the grated carrot used to color the butter on churning day;
—Pa’s music, right down to the words of the songs he sang;
—Ma putting aside her work to play games with the girls during the terrible three days when Pa was lost in a blizzard.

That last one is one I think about a lot. Imagine how hard it was for Caroline to keep calm and cheerful under those circumstances. I think she must have seen it as her duty to maintain that atmosphere of serenity and cheer for her children, lest they be consumed by fear for Pa’s safety. How would I measure up in the same circumstances? Would I allow my worry to let me grow sharp with the children? Or would I throw myself wholeheartedly into the task—because it is work—of maintaining an atmosphere of love no matter what?

We all know how hard it can be to maintain that atmosphere. A mother’s mood is the air her family breathes. When I become cross, impatient, distracted, so does everyone else. My mood can poison the atmosphere or sweeten it: it is up to me.

Tags: , , , , , ,