How I Started Having Weekly Special Time With My Kids

Oct 26, 2018

I've written before about the lightning bolt of habit change. It's where a new idea sparks an instantaneous habit without any real effort. You just think it, do it once, and the habit is there, "without preparation, without small steps, without wavering," as Gretchen Rubin puts it.

Lightning bolts are rare, but one of them happened to me last December. 

I was gearing up for the start of 2018 and trying to decide what my focus should be. I hadn't yet stumbled upon the quote that would be my guiding light for the year, but I knew one thing: I wanted to make sure I was putting my time and energy into the Most Important Things, and my kids were sitting right at the top of the list.

A couple of weeks before that, Ralphie of Simply on Purpose had talked about doing special time with her daughters--essentially, fifteen minutes of one-on-one time every day. 

I was intrigued. Of course, the idea of spending individual time with my kids wasn't new, but somehow this sounded more doable. It wouldn't require going out for ice cream or spending a couple of hours at the zoo on an official Mommy-Son date. Ralphie talked about setting a timer for fifteen minutes and then fully engaging with that one child in whatever activity he wanted to do. 

That same December, our family was participating in the Light the World campaign, which consisted of 25 service-oriented activities over 25 days that helped (in small ways) increase the light and hope and goodness in the world. One of the daily scripture prompts was "suffer the little children to come unto me," and I knew that this was my chance to try out special time.

And so that morning, I told the boys, "Today I'm going to have special time with each of you. For fifteen minutes, I am yours. You choose the activity, and I'll do it with you."

And just like that, the Lightning Bolt struck. 

Thereafter, special time became a regular part of our weekly schedule. 

I think it stuck so easily for two reasons. First, my kids fell in love with it immediately. They understood what it was, how it worked, and thought it was so fun (except Maxwell, who, as usual, took a little more convincing). They propelled it forward because they were quick to ask me, "When are we going to do special time again?" It was obvious that we craved and needed that one-on-one time together. 

And second, it was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be. It doesn't require any preparation, or even any thought, from me. My kids are the ones who decide what to do, and, for the most part, I always agree to it. That's part of what has made special time such a success: they know that this is their chance to get me to jump on the trampoline or play chess or do any number of activities I would normally avoid. (There have been some really bizarre ones, too, like the time Maxwell had me watch him slide down the stairs on his knees, and every time he came back up to the top, I had to read him a Shel Silverstein poem. What??????)

Ralphie advocates doing special time every day, but I knew if I did that, it would become a burden rather than a joy. I would constantly feel like I was falling short because, let's be honest, even fifteen minutes can be difficult to find on some days, and when you multiply that by several times, it becomes close to impossible. And I don't think it would just feel that way for me. I think my kids would get burned out if we attempted to squeeze it into every day. It also would lose some of its intrigue and specialness if it was happening so often.

The other thing is, even though we're only having that dedicated one-on-one time once a week, we spend time together in many other ways: reading aloud at night, working on piano pieces, having conversations in the car, working on homework, running, watching a movie, or going on adventures as a family. We might only do special time once during the week, but that doesn't mean we aren't spending other quality time together.

So this is how it works for us: Sometime during the week, when I have an open chunk of time, I ask one of my kids if he wants to do special time. Nine times out of ten, we seem to do it on Sunday because we're just less scheduled and busy on that day. I ask him what he wants to do and almost always agree to his request. There really are only two rules when it comes to the chosen activities: it can't involve any kind of screen, and it has to fit into the fifteen-minute time frame (so, no climbing Mt. Olympus). I then set a timer for fifteen minutes, and we begin. (The timer, I discovered, is a very important component of special time. One time I didn't set it with Clark because I had a lot of free time and didn't think there was any reason to cut us off at fifteen minutes. He got very upset and said it couldn't be special time if I didn't set the timer. I guess having it timed actually makes it feel more special, not less. It's one more way I'm showing them that this is their time. I'm carving it out just for them and setting a timer so the whole world (or at least the whole family) will know that this time is off limits for anyone else.)

The two most popular choices for special time are playing a game or reading a book, but we have done all of the following:

1. Go on a walk
2. Jump on the trampoline
3. Color a picture
4. Cut out snowflakes
5. Fold origami
6. Get a back rub
7. Play duets on the piano
8. Have a dance party
9. Play a game (Yahtzee, Labyrinth, Tenzies, Skip Bo, and Hoot Owl Hoot are favorites)
10. Put together a puzzle
11. Read: a picture book, poetry, one chapter, or a magazine
12. Make slime
13. Sculpt play dough or silly putty
14. Bake a treat
15. Make a free-form craft (see photo below)
16. Pretend play with playmobil or other little figures
17. Relax in the hammock
18. Build Legos
19. Play laser tag
20. Go on a bike ride
21. Play basketball
22. Listen to music
23. Draw a picture
24. Swing
25. Do perler beads

Special time has produced moments I never would have had with my kids otherwise. One time, Maxwell got out a stack of paper and explained that we would give each other drawing prompts, and then we would both have to draw it. I can't even draw a decent stick figure, so I was immediately out of my comfort zone, but I did it. I think Max might have come up with it specifically to test me: was I willing to do something I didn't like to do? For him?

Another time, special time came a day after a big argument with Aaron. He requested a back rub, and that provided a quiet moment where I could apologize and we could discuss the situation that had initiated the argument, but this time in a calm and safe way. We ended our fifteen minutes with good feelings restored and better communication in place.

One afternoon, Clark asked to jump on the trampoline. This is not my favorite activity (read: I've had five babies). But as we jumped around, I saw his little creative spirit in full light and I just basked in it. He is so fun-loving, and we laughed and laughed while showing off our cool moves. It was one time where I distinctly remember thinking, I would have missed this if not for special time.

The quote that has most impacted my 2018 and been a guiding force in all of my decisions has been this one by Elder Richard G. Scott: "In quiet moments when you think about it, you recognize what is critically important and what isn't. Be wise and don't let good things crowd out those that are essential." I have had many inward conflicts about how to best use my time and how to know which things are the most essential, but my dedication to special time has been a clear choice: those fifteen minutes are precious, even sacred, to me, and I won't let anything else take their place. 

What I Read in September

Oct 5, 2018

September reading consisted of starting multiple audiobooks and finishing almost none of them. The hold lists at the library are killing me right now. My books all come in at the same time. Most of them I've been waiting on for weeks, if not months, and feel compelled to listen to them so I don't have to go back in the hold line. But some of them are particularly time sensitive because I need to finish them before a specific date (i.e., when book club meets). Anyway, it's a difficult shuffle of prioritizing and choosing what to abandon (for now) in order to finish what is most pressing. Also, unrelated, the boys and I started Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and that thing is massive. And I also decided to screen four parenting books to decide which one I actually wanted to read for my parenting book goal. So what this all comes down to was that I started a lot of books in September but finished only three of them.

1. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
You've probably seen the cover of this book floating around on the Costco table or being displayed in a bookstore's front window. It's a popular one right now (a fact that is attested by both of my book clubs, who happened to choose it for September and November).

I jumped in knowing almost nothing about the book (except that many called it a "hard" read), and I liked it that way. It's one of those stories, not unlike a Kate Morton novel, that begins with a lot of questions and moves back and forth between two time periods, slowly answering them and filling in the details. Oh, and there's a twist (not to the level of The Secret Keeper, but startling nonetheless).

I'll keep the particulars brief so you can enjoy fitting the pieces of the puzzle together for yourself. The two key players are Rill Foss in 1939 and Avery Stafford in the present day, and both of them are intimately affected by Georgia Tann, a real woman who stole children, hid them away in the Tennessee Children's Home Society, and then marketed them to wealthy people who adopted them. And this is where you say, "Truth is stranger than fiction." Because it is.

This is just the kind of book I love getting lost in. And overall, in spite of the heavy content, it's a clean book, too.

I felt like the ending wrapped up things a little too neatly and happily to match the rest of the story. Don't get me wrong: I love a happy ending. But at one point, Rill said, "I want a pain I understand instead of the one I don't. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone. This pain is changing me into a girl I don't even know. It's changing me into them. I see it in my sister's face. That hurts worst of all." And I kind of felt like there was a certain point in the story where that pain kind of disappeared, and I just didn't quite believe it.

But, taking the other side,  I also loved this bit of wisdom, and I think it makes a case for how one can move on past hard things: "Life is not unlike cinema. Each scene has its own music, and the music is created for the scene, woven to it in ways we do not understand. No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn't suit the moment." So good, right?

2. A Stash of One's Own: Knitters on Loving, Living With, and Letting Go of Yarn by Clara Parkes
For me, knitting has been kind of a lonely hobby. I have very few friends who know how to knit, and of those who do, none of them love it the way I do. Most of the time, I don't mind. I can be, after all, a rather solitary creature and so knitting suits my need for quiet time alone.

But there are times when I would really love to talk to a friend about a new pattern or a favorite yarn or a cool technique. And not just a friend who will nod politely and say, "That's nice" but someone who will actually match my enthusiasm with some of their own.

But since that's not currently possible, this book was an acceptable substitute. It's a collection of essays from knitters, and I felt a little like I'd found my people (granted, on just one level, but a level where none of my real friends reside). The essays spoke specifically to the topic of a yarn stash, a collection that all knitters have, although the size of said stash can be wildly different.

It was rather fascinating to read about all of the emotions and feelings and turmoil that can be tied up in yarn--and to relate to a good deal of it.

Of course, I didn't relate to every single knitter, but I thought each essay was interesting nonetheless. My favorites were "Triptych" (about the careful balance between a stash that feeds creative energy and one that burdens it), "Without a Stash" (which most closely aligned to my personal philosophy), "Yarn: a Love Story" (the sweetest story about turning yarn into a career), and "The Comfort Yarn" (about how knitting navigated the dark waters of grief).

I debated sharing the very last paragraph from this book because I thought it was so hilarious, but I decided it probably wouldn't improve the general population's opinion of knitters, so you'll just have to wonder about it . . .

3. Heartwood Hotel: A True Home by Kallie George
At the beginning of the school year, I thought it might be a good time to try out a chapter book with Clark. Up until then, he hadn't really listened in on any of our readalouds, usually opting to go off with Mike and read a picture book or two instead.

I was pretty sure he was ready to handle a longer, more complex story though because he loved listening to slightly longer picture books/early chapter books, such as Mercy Watson or The Princess in Black.

In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a tried and true favorite of ours, one that I'd already tested out with my older kids. But instead, I went with a recommendation from Janssen for the Heartwood Hotel series because she and her five-year-old daughter had loved the first book. It looked so cute, but I knew my older kids were well past it, so it seemed like the perfect book for Clark and me to read together in the afternoons.

Except . . . we just didn't love it. It wasn't so much that there was anything wrong with it as that it just didn't hold our interests. The protagonist, Mona (a mouse), loses her home in a storm and gets carried away down the river. When she finally scrambles out, she finds herself at a large, beautiful tree, which turns out to be the Heartwood Hotel, where the motto is, "We live by 'Protect and Respect,' not by 'Tooth and Claw.'" She doesn't have any money, but Mr. Heartwood hires her as a temporary maid. But Mona quickly falls in love with the other members of the staff (except for standoffish Tilly) and the guests, and she longs to have a real home of her own.

I think part of the problem, for Clark at least, was that there were just a lot of characters to keep track of. Even with reviewing them before we started reading each day, he still was always asking, "Who's Ms. Prickles? Which one is Lord Sudsbury?" And then, the story was just a little too gentle and quiet to keep him engaged. Luckily, in the last half, Mona stands up to a bear and a pack of wolves, and that helped perk up his interest considerably.

All in all, it was a cute story, but not the right one for us. We still finished it, but I don't think we'll read any of the others, and now I feel like I need to redeem myself a little with our next choice so he actually likes longer readalouds. Recommendations?

Have you read any of theses (I'm guessing not the knitting book . . . )? What did you read in September?

A Little of This and That in July and August

Sep 21, 2018

Well, here we are, nearing the end of September, but this monthly update is actually for July and August. Those were busy months for us, but also so much fun, I wish I could do them all over again. I love the weather of spring and fall, but the laid-back structure of summer is my favorite. We spent our time . . .

Cracking . . . the pumping code. One of Clark's summer goals was to learn how to pump. We spent many park dates practicing. I would give him a starting push and then coach him, "In, out! Push, pull!" Sometimes he would keep the swing going for a couple of minutes before throwing off the rhythm and coming to a halt. But then, one day, it finally clicked. He got it. And for any of you who have ever been near a child who finally understands what pumping a swing is supposed to feel like, well, it's pretty magical. Now he's swinging any chance he gets, and I'm sitting on the sidelines and cheering.

Swimming . . . as much as possible. By the end of August, I was feeling a little bit sick of the pool but not enough to stop going. Somehow it seems like if we go enough, it will sustain us through the cold, dark months of winter. However, on our very last day, it was just Bradley, Clark, and me because everyone else was all swimmed out.

Attending . . . numerous family reunions. Okay, really just one in June and two in July, but with activities going over many days, it somehow felt like much more. But as someone who only had the opportunity to go to one family reunion during my entire childhood, I count it a great privilege that my summers are now filled to the brim with family I love so much. (But, I'm going to be totally honest: the location for Mike's family's reunion was close to our house, so we opted to go home to sleep in our own beds. I may have been a spoil sport, but at least I was a well-rested spoil sport!)

Celebrating . . . a new ten-year-old. Those ten years zipped by, and Aaron's birthday had me feeling a little sad. I guess I'm probably moving out of the young motherhood phase. I don't think you can have a ten-year-old and still be a "young" mother. But I can't actually feel that sad about it because you know what? Having a ten-year-old is awesome. He's helpful and interesting and actually funny (as opposed to obnoxious six- and eight-year-old humor, which is decidedly not). He can bounce around like a maniac on his pogo-stick, play complicated piano pieces, and solve harder math problems than I can. In short, ten-year-olds are cool, and I'm happy to have one living with me. (Also, he loves BYU but not cake, so Mike made him a Y key lime pie, and it was pretty one-of-a-kind.)

Vacationing . . . in the Midwest. I already wrote extensively about our summer vacation here, but hey, it's another chance to share one more picture. And it was definitely one of the highlights of our entire summer.

Kayaking . . . with my family. My parents live very close to a little pond. They spend many early summer mornings kayaking there, but we only managed to go one time this year. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley can all go out by themselves now, which is pretty great.

Stopping . . . at Arches National Park for a quick hike. On our way down to Monticello for one of the family reunions, we took a little detour to Arches. It was a really hot day, but the short hike to Sand Dune Arch is almost completely shaded, and, as the name gives away, there is a lot of dry, soft sand to play in (although the tourists would have really appreciated it if our large family hadn't hung around for quite so long and messed up all of their photos, ha!). This was one more example of why we loved having the 4th Grade National Parks pass this year. Because we didn't pay to get into Arches, we didn't feel like we had to stay all day but we could just do what we wanted and then leave. It was great.

Making . . . friends with bugs. Max seemed to have a bug or two in his possession all summer long. Sometimes he kept them in vented containers or carried them around in his hands. One notable time, a grasshopper stayed on his hat for a couple of hours, going to a parade and on a long walk and even into Maverick for a slurpee. Max always names his bugs and gives them lots of love and friendship before sending them on their way.

Drinking . . . Bubly. Mike went on a sparkling water kick (he's still on it, actually), and always has a stash in the fridge. His favorite brand is Bubly (mine, too), so that seems to be the one he purchases the most. Sparkling water is something of an acquired taste (my sister made the most awful face when she tried some, and my uncle has always referred to it as "battery acid"), but I like it. However, I'm not a huge carbonation fan, so I can never drink an entire can by myself. Luckily, each time Mike cracks one open (which is usually four to five times a day), he pores a little bit into my cup. Just one more reason why we make a good team.

Finishing . . . the perfect basic sweater. I wanted to knit myself a comfortable, neutral sweater I could wear all fall and winter, and it turned out exactly like I wanted it to. It's long enough, has just the right amount of positive ease, and is a great color. Now if the weather would only cool down enough to wear it!

Feeding . . . hummingbirds. We noticed a couple of hummingbirds zipping and darting around our house, so we decided to get a hummingbird feeder and hang it on the tree in our front yard. Those little hummingbirds took to it right away and visited it several times each hour. We loved sitting out on the front porch and watching them. Now the weather is cooling down, so we haven't seen them in a couple of weeks, which probably means they've flown south and we won't see them again until spring.

Hiking . . . with cousins. We went on several hikes this summer. The longest and hottest was to Cecret Lake, but luckily we had cousins with us, and that made it all worth it.

Holding . . . a family book club. At the beginning of the summer, I decided it would be fun to have a family book club. My kids have seen me go to book clubs for years, and I wanted them to get to experience what one is like. We all read Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, and then we met on a Saturday afternoon to discuss it. I hosted it just like I would have if it had been my regular book club: there were treats, we spent some time eating and talking, and then we dived into some discussion questions. My kids were surprisingly talkative and brought up some good points. I'm sure we'll do it again next summer.

Watching . . . Newsies at Hale Center Theater. We introduced the boys to the classic Disney movie, Newsies, early in the summer. They loved it so much and then all chipped in to purchase the soundtrack, which they listened to over and over again. Our favorite local theater was putting it on in August, so we decided to take the three oldest boys as one of their summer goals prizes. It was fantastic.

Going . . . camping. Not just Mike and the boys, but the whole family. Yes, even me. I haven't been camping since before Aaron was born, but Mike convinced me we could do it, even with Ian. And we actually had a great time (and Ian slept like the dream baby he is and always has been). I still can't really figure out why people choose to sleep in a tent and use a pit toilet and cook all of their food over a campfire for fun, but my kids seem to get it.

Treating . . . Ian for low iron. When I took Ian to the doctor for his one-year check-up, we discovered that his iron level was low. So we began giving him an iron supplement every day. He hated it (the taste was pretty strong, even when hidden in other foods), and it was a struggle. When I took him in for his 15-month check-up, his iron was still low (even slightly lower than it had been before), so our pediatrician decided to just give him a shot of iron instead. It was kind of an ordeal (I didn't know it was going to be until I noticed how much prep work they were doing to get ready for it and saw that the doctor was actually going to do it himself instead of the nurse), but after we were a few hours past it, I decided it was well worth it. And it seems to have done the trick. 

Starting . . . school. I wasn't tired of summer yet, but the first day of school came anyway. My one consolation is that we have the dream team of teachers this year, and my kids are really happy and thriving. Aaron is in fifth grade (last year of elementary school!), Maxwell is in third, and Bradley is in first.

Sleeping . . . on the trampoline. One night, just a few days before school started, I said something about how some kids like to sleep outside on the trampoline. Of course, my kids immediately latched onto it and wanted to do it right then, that very night. And we didn't have any reason to say no, so we said yes. I didn't think they would make it the entire night, but they did, and I think we may have started a new tradition. Somehow, it felt like just the right thing to do before summer ended.

Socializing . . . with all the neighbors. Clark is by far the most social of any of my kids. He lives for time with friends. I don't see much of him between the hours of 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm, and I usually have to go looking at several homes before I finally track him down. His friendship knows no age boundaries. Sometimes he's running around in full superhero regalia with the 4-5-year-old crowd, and other times he's helping our fifty-year-old neighbor weed her flowerbed. He is interested in everyone. We've had to have many conversations about how to be polite because he knows exactly which neighbors are likely to offer him an otter pop or a Sunny D or a mint, and it takes all of his self control to wait to be offered one instead of asking for it himself. Parenting an extrovert is a whole new world, I tell you what.

Having . . . the TALK (yes, that talk) with Aaron. This was a big step for Mike and me as parents. First, the two of us read Growing Up by Brad Wilcox so we would have some sort of outline to guide us (and I highly recommend it, especially if you're approaching this subject from a religious background; I far preferred it to How to Talk to Your Child About Sex by Richard and Linda Eyre, which we also read portions of). Mike holds monthly interviews with the boys, so he just slowly started to incorporate some of this information in his chats with Aaron. He laid a strong foundation before getting to what most people would consider the actual "talk." But we are both adamant that these chats continue for clarification and questions and more information as he continues to grow and mature.

Walking . . . on his own two feet. Ian finally started taking a few tentative steps in mid-August and then mastered it quite rapidly from there. He was nearly sixteen months old. He was so proud of himself, but his older brothers were even more proud. I'd take a late walker any day.

Trying . . . out for swim team. Over the summer, Aaron swam with Sea Monkeys (a non-competitive swim team). He really liked it, so he decided to try out for the regular swim team this fall. It was a tough, week-long process of going to the practices and being evaluated every day, but he made it! And now he's swimming a LOT, and I'm kind of wondering what we got ourselves into...

Spending . . . a morning at the zoo with my family. We went after school had started, which meant we had the place almost to ourselves. Just the way I like it.

Becoming . . . a crossing guard. Now that he's in fifth grade, Aaron had the opportunity to become a crossing guard. He helps man the school entrances and holds traffic so students can cross safely. He has been taking this responsibility very seriously, and I think it's pretty cute to see him in his safety vest and holding his flag (don't tell him I said that!).

And that's a wrap for the summer. Tell me about your favorite summer memories in the comments!

What I Read in August

Sep 7, 2018

Well, hey there. My posts seem to be getting fewer and farther between. That's what happens when you start adding in other activities and hobbies and responsibilities. Something has to give. But I still love keeping a record of the books I'm reading, and so I'll continue to hold my place here on my corner of the internet by popping in a few times each month.

In August, I only managed to read three books, which surprised me. But I think that's because I had several others that I thought I was going to finish before the end of the month but didn't (although one of them I literally finished on September 1st). Here's a little recap:

1. A Rambler Steals Home by Carter Higgins
This felt like just the right book for the last days of summer.

Derby Clark and her family are drifters. They travel around in their camper, stopping for short stretches of time and working odd jobs. But they always come back to Ridge Creek, Virginia every summer for the baseball season. They open up shop right outside the stadium and serve up hamburgers and fries all season long. They have friends there (June and Marcus and even Betsy) and warm familiarity. But this summer, something just doesn't feel right, and Derby has to dig deep to find out what it is and then figure out how to fix it.

I thought this was a sweet book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it except for one thing: for the life of me, I couldn't keep track of information--who the various characters were, why they were doing such and such, or what had happened in the past. I felt like I was constantly flipping back through the book to recall bits of details, only to find myself questioning what was going on yet again. I don't think this had anything to do with the writing. I'm taking full responsibility for my confusion. For whatever reason, I just must not have been completely engaged when I was reading, and it showed.

I loved this thought from Derby's dad, Garland, towards the end of the book. Derby had just confessed to a bit of dishonesty, and Garland said, "Well, Derby, sometimes big hearts make bad decisions." What a great dad, right? He highlighted the good ("you did this because you have a big heart that loves other people) while still admitting the mistake ("it wasn't a great decision"). And I think that's kind of the theme of the book: how to strike a balance between helping someone without hurting someone else. And Derby gets there in the end.

2. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and One Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
After having several failed attempts at introducing some of my favorite books too early to my boys (most notably, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane), I've been holding off on The Penderwicks. But finally, this summer, I decided to give it a try.

Not only did my kids love it more than I thought possible, but I was reminded why the Penderwicks and summer are a match made in heaven. This story takes all of the joy and magic and feeling of summer and compresses it all into one perfect book.

Now, to be completely honest, this actually is not my favorite Penderwick story. That award goes to the third one (although number four is a worthy contender, and I haven't read the last one yet). My love for the Penderwicks definitely deepens with the series (they really are a little bit bratty in this one, and, much as I hate to say it, I think I might have reacted similarly to Mrs. Tifton if I had four girls and a dog constantly trouncing through my gardens after I'd asked them not to). However, it was delightful to go back to the beginning of the series and see things from a new angle.

But back to why it's a perfect book even if it's not my favorite: because you can't completely nail summer and not have it be perfect. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is.

And my kids adored it. It was funny and adventurous and a little suspenseful, and it had a truly despicable villain.

We finished it on the first day of school, and I don't think I could have planned a better ending to our summer.

3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Every year, I make one or two reading goals that are specifically designed to push me outside my comfort zone, become acquainted with famous authors, or help me become more well-read.

This year, one of those goals was to read a book by Virginia Woolf, an author who has long been on my to-read list. My reason for choosing To the Lighthouse was perhaps a silly one. I think Mrs. Dalloway or A Room of One's Own are probably Virginia Woolf's most well known novels, but I was listening to a podcast one day that mentioned that knitting played a part in To the Lighthouse, and it immediately piqued my interest because of my current knitting obsession.

But other than that little knitting reference, I had no idea what I was getting into, and, oh wow, it was hard. For those of you who love Ms. Woolf, I applaud you. But honestly, I struggled with this one. In fact, after listening to the first few chapters twice, I gave in and pulled up a chapter-by-chapter summary just so that I could make sure I wasn't missing subtle nuances which might prove to be crucial to the storyline later on. It was extremely helpful, especially at one juncture where a rather life-altering occurrence is mentioned in one nonchalant sentence, and I had to confirm that what I thought happened actually had happened (it had).

I don't even really know how to sum up the story. There really isn't much of one. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay have eight children; every summer they stay in their home on the coast where they are bombarded with visitors. Mr. Ramsay needs constant sympathy and praise, which Mrs. Ramsay is sometimes inclined to give him and sometimes not. His children hate him. The lighthouse becomes a metaphor of sorts when their youngest son, James, wants to visit it, and Mrs. Ramsay offers hope that maybe they can go tomorrow, and Mr. Ramsay dashes it, saying that the weather will be bad. (And, if you're wondering, Mrs. Ramsay does indeed knit on a pair of socks, which she intends to gift to the little boy who lives at the lighthouse.)

There was just a lot of this character thinking about that character, first in a positive way and then in a negative way and switching without warning to the past or the imagined past or the future or the imagined future and then introducing a completely different character but maybe just for a sentence or two (but maybe several pages) before rushing back to where it was before and where it was before that. Is it any wonder I was so confused?

The only thing I really knew about Virginia Woolf's writing before reading this book was that she was unabashedly feminist, and that came through quite strongly, both in things that Mrs. Ramsay thought about others and that others thought about her. I'll just give you one little taste because it amused me:

[Mr. Ramsay sees his wife reading a book]: "He wondered what she was reading and exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not clever, not book learned at all. He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful."

In spite of not enjoying this book, I can totally see why Virginia Woolf is the focus of many college classes. There was a lot to unpack with this novel, and I could have easily found a dozen themes to write about in an assigned paper. And I think if I really had the opportunity to study and cross-analyze, I would like it a lot more. But am I going to create that opportunity for myself? No, I think I'll just bid this one a happy farewell.

What have you been reading lately? Do you assign yourself books or do you let your whims guide you?

A Summer Vacation to Mount Rushmore

Aug 24, 2018

Having fond memories of our road trip last summer, we decided to do another one this year. This time our destination was Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, although, as you'll see below, it actually turned into a mini-Midwest tour, which was so fun.

My parents took my siblings and me to Mount Rushmore when I was six years old, but sadly, the only thing I remember is that I accidentally mistook someone else for my mom (they were wearing similar jackets), and I had my arms wrapped around her waist when she said, "I'm not your mommy, sweetie." It must have been somewhat traumatic for me because I can still remember it vividly.

Mike also visited it as a kid, but we figured it was time for our kids to make their own memories (and, in keeping with traumatic experiences, probably the only thing Ian will remember is that he was was bit by a dog at the Crazy Horse monument). 

As we planned out our itinerary, however, I realized that it had been over three years since I had seen my grandma (who lives in Nebraska), and I asked Mike if maybe we should go there instead. But "instead" turned into "in addition," and then we decided as long as we were going to Nebraska, we might as well go a few hours farther east and visit my aunt and uncle on the family farm in Iowa.

Here is a quick rundown of our itinerary before I launch into some highlights:

Day 1: Drive to North Platte, Nebraska
Day 2: Drive to Lincoln, Nebraska
Day 3: Lincoln
Day 4: Drive to Iowa
Day 5: Iowa
Day 6: Drive to Wall, South Dakota
Day 7: Badlands
Day 8: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 9: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 10: Drive home

All told, it felt a little long, but I don't know what I would have cut out because it was all so much fun, as you'll soon see:

As we looked at our summer calendar and planned when to go on our trip, my only requirement was that it had to be at a time when the fireflies would be out. I grew up in Colorado where we didn't have fireflies, but every summer, we would visit my grandma, and in the high humidity of eastern Nebraska, the fireflies would come out every night in droves. I just knew my bug-loving kids, especially Maxwell, would be completely spell-bound by these magical (could there be any other word for them?) bugs. And they were. Sadly, I missed their first encounter with them, which was on our first night in North Platte, which happened to be the night before the 4th of July. Someone had told us there were going to be fireworks "down by the hospital," but Ian and Clark were too tired to go. So Mike took the older boys, and before the show started, nature's own fireworks came out. Luckily, Mike caught it on video for me because it was a moment I'd long been waiting for. (And the next evening, when I caught a few fireflies myself, I felt like a child all over again and realized that this was one thing that had not become exaggerated in my memory through the years. Fireflies were, and still are, spectacular.)

Sharing traditions
This trip was a little walk down memory lane for me. Most of the traveling my family did when I was little was to visit my relatives in Nebraska and Iowa. All of our trips followed a similar pattern of the same routes, the same food, and the same activities. So of course, I had to share some of those old traditions with my kids, which included the twisty slide in Hastings, lunch at Valentino's, ice cream at the UNL Dairy, and a visit to the Henry Doorly zoo (which I'll talk more about later).

Exploring the beauty of Lincoln
But we also did things in Lincoln that I'd never done before. We went to the sunken gardens on our first evening (when it was in the upper 90's with 70% humidity, and we all thought we were going to die or melt, whichever came first). The next morning (after a storm blew through during the night and cooled things off), we went to the Pioneers Park Nature Preserve. I loved seeing a part of Lincoln I'd never seen before, and I had to smile a little when we were at the nature preserve because it looked like we were somewhere much more exotic than Nebraska. Speaking of which, I've noticed that people often give the midwest a bad rap and claim that, as far as landscapes go, it's pretty boring. But personally, I just can't see where they're coming from. I love the undulating fields, the big skies, and the lush greenery that make up both Nebraska and Iowa.

Visiting family
A big reason for our trip was to visit my sweet grandma (my mom's mom) in Nebraska, and my Uncle Bill (my dad's brother) and Aunt Sheri in Iowa. As an added bonus, we also got to see my Uncle Steve (my mom's brother), my cousin Michael (Uncle Bill and Aunt Sheri's son), and my cousin Karen and her family. We chatted, played games, ate good food, and just generally enjoyed one another's company. I also gave my grandma a pair of mittens and my aunt a shawl that I had knitted for them. Spending time with these dear people made me wish we lived closer so we could do it more often.

Henry Doorly Zoo
Even though the zoo in Omaha was one of my favorite destinations when I was a kid, it wasn't really at the top of our travel plans this time. However, on the day we were headed to Iowa, we realized there wasn't much of a rush to get there since we weren't planning on seeing my aunt and uncle until the next morning anyway, so we decided a trip to the zoo was in order. I had forgotten how truly amazing this zoo is, and when our whole vacation was said and done, this remained one of my kids' favorite things. (And I had to laugh because, without fail, my kids always love the snake and spider and lizard exhibits the most. If there's a tiny little window, they will look into it.)

The farm
My dad grew up on a farm in central Iowa, and his brother (my Uncle Bill) still lives there and runs it. He grows soy beans and corn, and it is a quintessential American farm. My boys loved it. Uncle Bill gave each of them their own private ride in the tractor while he cultivated the soy beans. Then they all went for a cruise in the mule four-wheeler, laughing and singing and just having a raucous good time. They played in the yard and the little thicket and ran around to their heart's delight. It was a gorgeous day with clear, sunny skies, and we felt like we'd come home.

The landscapes
I love road trips so much because they give you an intimate view of the changing and vibrant landscapes. As we made our way through Nebraska and Iowa and up into South Dakota, we kept an eye on the colors and the horizons and the skylines. And this world just truly never ceases to amaze me. One of the surprises for me was how much I loved the Badlands. I kind of thought it was just going to feel like a harsh and desolate wasteland (and, to a certain extent, I guess it did), but it was also absolutely other-worldly. The sharp, jagged hills and the segmented strips of color and the seemingly endless views just about took my breath away. And then we got to the Black Hills with its dark green forests and wildflowers, and everywhere you looked, the ground and rocks sparkled with mica. And because we were driving, we had the luxury to stop wherever and whenever we wanted and do a little more exploring.

Time in the car
No, really, this was a highlight. All told, we probably spent over thirty hours in the car, and although we had moments of crazed torture (you know what I'm talking about, right?), the majority of the time was so much fun. We took in the aforementioned landscapes, but also read books, watched shows (Pollyanna was an all-around favorite), knitted (me), listened to books and podcasts and music and our summer playlist, and counted the (literally) hundreds of Wall Drug signs. I love road tripping with my family.

Whenever possible, we prefer to rent a home when we travel rather than cram ourselves into a hotel room. On this trip, we stayed in two fantastic VRBOs, one in Lincoln and the other in Custer State Park. The one in Lincoln was a modest home in a quiet neighborhood. If I was led into that neighborhood blindfolded and had to guess where I was, I think I would have been able to tell I was in Lincoln; the architecture, the trees, the way the air smelled and felt was everything I've come love about Lincoln, and I can't tell you how happy that little house made me. It had a big window that looked out onto a fenced backyard that was perfect for catching fireflies in. Seriously, I was so sad to the leave that house. Then in South Dakota, we stayed in a lovely cabin right on the edge of Custer State Park. There was a spacious deck where we could sit and read and watch the deer, and it felt like we had the world to ourselves.

Sylvan Lake
This was my favorite spot on the entire trip, even though Ian had the biggest meltdown while we were here (think: writhing, inconsolable, overtired screaming where even random strangers were offering to help). It was just so gorgeous. I couldn't get enough of it. We went on a hike, and then Mike took the boys out on the lake in a canoe (while I sat on a bench and held a now-sleeping Ian). Seriously, when I pictured South Dakota, I never pictured this.

Once we got to South Dakota, there was no shortage of wildlife. We saw mountain sheep in the Badlands, bison and burro and prairie dogs on the wildlife loop, deer at our cabin, and bears and reindeer and wolves in Bear Country (which was maybe a little contrived, but still . . . ).

Mount Rushmore
And finally, the reason for our vacation in the first place. On the way there, during those many hours in the car, we all read Where is Mount Rushmore (part of the Who was . . . series). It gave a lot of great background information so that by the time we saw those majestic faces of our forebears carved in granite, we were ready and we could appreciate it. Someone had given us a tip of which road to take into Mount Rushmore so that you catch your first glimpse of it through a tunnel and then watch it get gradually closer and closer as you twist and turn in the Black Hills. It is a beautiful and impressive monument, and there's a reason why it is such an iconic destination. We ended up going twice--once in the late afternoon and again late at night for the lighting ceremony, which was emotionally patriotic, just as it should be.

At this stage of our family's life, I've learned that we need wide open spaces where noise and chaos won't matter, plenty of things to explore (that won't break), and a relaxed and flexible timetable. This trip ticked all of those boxes, and we came back home happy and filled up with good memories.

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