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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Matthew the Balloon Man

balloon man, party balloons

 I've always wanted to try my hand at cotton candy spinning, haven't you?

Nathan and I volunteered to man the cotton candy machine at a party we attended this week.

Unfortunately, the wind was quite happy to join the fun at the party. 

Have you ever spun cotton candy on a windy day?

Strands of sugar coated my hair, adding fine blue highlights. Bits of pink fluff stuck to my arms, my sweater, my face. I looked like a pink and blue hairy monster who crawled out from under a child's bed. 

Do you know what happens when you try to wash off cotton candy? It melts into sugary goo that readily smears with each swipe of a washcloth.

It was SO sticky!

On the plus side, I was able to indulge my weakness for cotton candy. After the kids had eaten their fill, I made a large batch just for me. 

Oh heavens- I love that stuff!

Later, Matthew eagerly volunteered to be the Balloon Man.

pretty balloons, texas balloons

He really enjoyed passing out helium balloons to all the party guests. 

Little girls would squeal in delight and run up to him, jumping up and down in eagerness
 while begging for a balloon in their favorite color.

Pick balloons, helium balloons, outdoor balloons

We enjoyed hours of bounce house fun, hot and buttery popcorn, cotton candy (aka- ambrosia), a giant pinata, helium balloons, and delicious food.

Through it all, Matthew's favorite part was being the balloon man. 

He said, "I love this job! I'm the Balloon Man from Curious George! This is awesome!"

party balloons, birthday balloon

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Going the extra mile

This is what I saw when I looked out the window this afternoon:

After stepping off the school bus today, Matthew immediately brought in the outdoor garbage cans on his way up the long gravel driveway to our home.

Without being asked.

And he brought in Daniel's share of the work as well.

I love moments like this.

He's been amazingly responsible lately.

And then I ask myself- whose child is this?

Surely I don't deserve a kid like this.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Baking Day with Magic Muffins

Today was cold.

 (Okay, you Northerners will disagree with me on this point- but in Texas, 40 degree weather is COLD!)

I bundled up in thermal underwear, two sweaters, AND my coat.

Here is where I sheepishly whisper: I didn't even go outside! That's what I wore INSIDE my house!

Pathetic, I know. 

My Idahoan and Alaskan relatives mock me. That's fine. They can mock all they want as long as I get to stay  away from icy roads, deep drifts of snow, and frozen fingers.

When I lived in Idaho one year we had a colossal snowstorm that dropped a few feet of snow. The wind whipped those snowflakes into drifts so high fences were all completely covered. Property boundaries were effectively erased. With no visual boundary to obey, a lot of dogs because confused and wandered away. It's pretty funny.....but I don't miss it. 

In an attempt to stay warm without turning on the furnace, I opted for a baking day.

I love hanging out near the hot stove on cold days!

When my children came home today, they were welcomed to the warm smell of muffins and fresh bread. 

I baked seven loaves of yummy wheat bread, and sixty Magic Muffins.

What's so magical about these muffins?

I'll tell you the secret-

They are really healthy. Seriously healthy.

I use 50% white whole-wheat flour and 50% unbleached white flour. (That adds heaps of fiber and protein on our 'Healthy Scale'. Don't use %100 whole wheat flour unless it's white wheat- red wheat is too bitter and heavy. You'll have bricks instead of muffins. Not magical.)

I also substitute most of the oil with mashed white beans (the protein scale just tipped over I think). You can't taste the beans at all and they add so many healthy benefits. If you really don't like beans or want a slightly moister muffin, substitute mashed bananas or applesauce instead of beans. 

These muffins are perfect for snacks or quick breakfasts or even school lunches. I give the children a muffin and a banana when there's no time for breakfast on a busy morning. 

When I told them they were allowed to eat more than one muffin (since they are more healthy than junk), Matthew threw his arms around me and said, "Oh thank you, THANK YOU for making such a fun snack! I love this type of healthy food!"

Do you want the recipe? 


Here you go:

Renae's Magic Muffins 

1 1/4 cups quick-cooking oats

1 1/4 cups milk

1 egg

1/4 cup mashed white beans, bananas OR applesauce

1/4 cup oil

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 cups chopped nuts (we like almonds or pecans)

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

3/4 cup unbleached white flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1. Combine the oats and milk in a bowl and allow to stand for 15 minutes. While the oats hydrate, line a 12-cup muffin tin. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C). Assemble the other ingredients.

2. Stir egg, mashed beans/banana/applesauce, oil, 1/2 cup of the brown sugar, chocolate chips, and 1/2 cup of the nuts into the oat and milk mixture.

3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the oat mixture, stirring until just combined. Fill each cup of the muffin tin 2/3 full. Sprinkle tops with the remaining brown sugar and nuts. 

4. Bake at 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) for 20-25 minutes.

We make a triple-batch and freeze some for a handy breakfast or after-school snack. 

If you're in a hurry, they reheat really well in the microwave when zapped for 10-15 seconds. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas tree magic

Diego is irrepressibly drawn to our Christmas tree the way moths are attracted to lights.

It's where he hangs out every day for hours. I don't blame him. 

Who can resist the magic of  bright ornaments and twinkling lights?

He'll very carefully cup his beensy hands around a glowing light bulb, exclaiming in high-pitched tones how excited he is.  He squeals repeatedly, "Look! Look! LOOK!", with each flash of color emitted by the teeny bulb in his chubby fingers. 

I love it!

Christmas is so magical indeed! I'm so thankful I get to observe the wonder of a child experiencing their first Christmas. (No, last year doesn't count. He was too little to be aware of the celebration.)

Here's our Christmas tree this year. doesn't quite fit. 

See how smashed it is against the ceiling? 

If it was a real tree, I'd trim the top.'s fake, and there's no cutting through this metal tree trunk.

Ah well. 

It works for us.

I hope your Christmas season is delightful!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Snowflakes and Facial Hair

Today our family sat around the kitchen table armed with scissors and stacks of paper. Nathan's favorite winter tradition is cutting out paper snowflakes. I'm sure if there was a snowflake-making competition, he'd jump right in. This man doesn't make your average snowflake. Equipped with protractors and top-o-the-line scissors, he creates stunning works of art. 

The children eagerly join in the fun and we all chat together while bits of paper fall to the floor beneath us. There is a magical moment when the final snip has been finished, and the snowflake is slowly unfolded. With breaths held in anticipation, we watch the beauty of the snowflake emerge. 

The bits of discarded paper accumulate as the night wears on, soon resembling little drifts of snow on our tile floor. 

We keep each snowflake pressed under our plastic tabletop cover, where it is safely admired all month long.

Matthew created a new face for himself using discarded snowflake scraps:

He was extremely pleased with his cleverness and even glued it onto his face with a glue-stick  He wore this face all evening, giving elegant bows with an elaborate wave of his hand, saying dramatically, "Bonjour, monsieur!" 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Missionary service

Next week my little brother returns from serving two years in the New York City mission! We're all super excited to welcome him back! He has been serving the people of NYC every day for two years without monetary compensation- and he even paid his own way to do this. Isn't the gospel wonderful? He has spent the past month volunteering each day helping homeowners clean up from the aftermath of Storm Sandy. His letters are full of wonderful stories- some are funny, some are spiritual. All of them are delightful to read.

We can't make the drive to St. Louis to welcome him off the plane, so we took these pictures. Our sister Betsy is printing it off and holding it up for us at the terminal so we can be there in spirit at least. 

(Only after publishing this picture did I notice our photographic stowaway  Yes, Lexie snuck into the family picture. Naughty elf.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Traditions

This year we started a new fun tradition- the Elf on the Shelf. Our children named her Lexie, and she's a girl with a sweet tooth.

It's been really fun to hide her in strange places all over the house. Our kids are so excited to seek her out each morning!

Other traditions we practice include making gingerbread houses, baking and sharing holiday treats, filling a manger with straw to represent secret acts of service (although we haven't done that this year- the miniature manger broke when we moved!), cutting out dozens of snowflakes (yes, the mess is horrendous- a blizzard of paper scraps visits my table each time we do this!), reading dozens of Christmas storybooks together, celebrating Hanukkah by making latkes and playing dreidel (our kids LOVE this tradition), and enjoying a candlelit dinner of biblical foods while we tell the story of Christ's birth.

This year we're starting an extra-special tradition for Christmas Eve. I am so excited about it! I'll hopefully type up an entry describing what I have in mind, then post it on here in time for you to use the idea in your own family.

What fun traditions do you celebrate for the Christmas season?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesdays and Tomato Soup

How was your day yesterday? 

Tuesday is my day in town to run errands and attend meetings for my church calling.

I try to finish as many errands as I can squeeze into one weekly trip. The grocery store, mechanic, hardware store, doctor's office, and farm supply store all call my name.It all must happen before Diego's morning nap time. That beensy window of time doesn't give me much to work with, but I do what I can with it.

Tuesday is also the weeknight that I coach a team for Destination Imagination, a creative academic competition. (Look it up sometime, especially if you have kids. It's really really neat.) The coaching is somewhat like herding cats on the rough days, and more like watching Da Vinci create a new machine on the good days. Totally worth it.

Sarah and Matthew are on the team with 4 other friends. Right now they are designing costumes, learning sewing skills, and building prototypes for a wind-powered kinetic work of art. It's neat to see what they can create.

A cold front hit Texas this week, dropping temps to the frigid 30's. Sarah is in heaven. She adores cold weather. 

She's our Texan Penguin- always wishing for snow and giggling in exhilaration anytime she can dance in freezing rains. I, on the other hand, am wearing three sweaters each day and still shivering. Pathetic, I know.

This is the only time of year we eat soups, since it's too hot in the summer for soup of any kind. Diego has a cast of adoring fans who hover near him at every meal, waiting for a tasty morsel. He loves having a captive audience. He'll dramatically hold up a piece of food and watch the cats try to get it.

We found out this week that Saffron, our cat, loves a good tomato bisque. After finishing his own dinner, Diego wanted to share the last few bites with his fans. He laughed and laughed each time Saffron lapped up the spoonful of soup.

Isn't it cute?

I hope your Wednesday is wonderful!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saturday morning

How was your Saturday morning last weekend?

 This is what everyone at our home was caught doing at 7:00 this morning.

Sarah loves reading and was snatching a few more moments of book time before breakfast. We're reading "The Wonderful Invention of Hugo Cabret" out loud as a family, and she was reading a few chapters ahead to enjoy the delicious plot. It's such a fun book!

Daniel had taken a fan outside to experiment with bubbles. He contentedly dipped the bubble wand over and over, chuckling to himself as each wave of bubbles danced on the wind before disappearing into our trees. It was delightful to pause and enjoy the bubbles with him as they tumbled in the breeze.

Matthew was lovingly telling Bella what a good dog she is, stroking her soft fur in delight. Bella soaked up all the good vibes quite happily.

Diego was eating a snack while Severus the cat watched carefully for any stray morsels to hit the floor.

As for the adults, Nathan and I slept in luxuriously late. (Sleeping past 6:30 am is luxurious in my book.)

Friday night we had participated as voice actors in the first reading of a new screenplay. It was such an exciting new experience. Our friend, Sheryl Wardell, has spent fourteen years -FOURTEEN!- researching and creating a television series about the life of Christ. We were invited to an evening of delicious appetizers and a three-hour reading of the manuscript. The company was great, the food was delectable, and the script was beautifully written. It was a memorable date night! Nathan played the voices of Jesus and Simon (the father of Mary and Martha). I played the voices of Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Rachel (the mother of Mary and Martha, and wife of Simon).

Our weekend was nice and quiet. We cooked together, cleaned house together and read books together, cuddled under warm blankets.

Saturday afternoon we drove into town for a performance of The Bagdad Boys at a local retirement home. Nathan sings with this group every week. Today they performed an hour-long show to the assembled residents who gathered to enjoy a party, eat a collection of holiday sweets, and hear good music.

It was so nice to go along and watch the show. I really loved talking with the residents. They were smitten with Diego- babies don't visit here much. When they saw him come near, their faces would light up like a Christmas tree- completely transforming their appearance. Diego would toddle around waving at people and blowing kisses while all the elderly people laughed in delight and waved back at him. He was like a breathe of fresh air in that stale place. Several residents begged to hold Diego in their arms or kiss his chubby fingers. Diego laughed and played happily with many people. It was so neat to watch these interactions between aged seniors in the dusk of life and this young child.

Daniel and Matthew were delighted with the collection of party refreshments- there was an extensive spread of Christmas treats and endless bowls of eggnog. The children had such a hard time choosing between the many offerings- gingerbread, Danish wedding cookies, fruitcakes, lemon squares, chocolate brownies, cake balls, fudge, shortbread, cheesecake and more all enticed their appetites. I think we all had more sugar today than we have in the entire month of November. Groan.

Our children seized the excursion into town as an opportunity to play with favorite friends. We dropped off children one by one at friend's homes to spend a few precious hours of play while Nathan and I ran errands. We picked up colorful candy to decorate this year's gingerbread houses and selected the final gifts for Christmas. I love the festive air in stores at Christmas time! It was delightful to be alone with my Beloved as we shopped together.

There were two Christmas parties calling to us in the evening, but we opted for a quiet family night at home instead.

We drove rounds through town, picking up our children and a treat for dinner- pizza. At home the pizza baked while children showered and we arranged the couches into comfy cuddling space. We enjoyed dinner and a movie (we are big Phineus and Ferb fans over here!) and called it a good night.

I hope your weekend was delightful!

Friday, December 7, 2012

One of the Least of These

His shoulders slumped wearily under his long trench coat  Two bulging suitcases pulled his arms down heavily to the ground. A tattered and dirty red backpack rested on his shoulders. His head was bent, as if he was carefully counting each tedious step as he walked along the grassy shoulder of the highway. The cars breezed past him without a second glance.

I wondered who he was and where he was going. My heart felt a pang of sadness for his plight, but I was unsure what to do. I had no cash to share, no food or water within easy reach. I sat at the stoplight, watching him walk past me on the edge of the highway.

My conscience battled within me. It demanded, "How can you call yourself a follower of Christ if you don't help someone so plainly in need?"

I argued to myself, "What if he's dangerous? What if he's mentally unstable and tries to hurt my child in the backseat? Surely I can't be expected to help a homeless stranger when I'm a lone female and an easy target, right?"

I reminded myself of how horrid it was to have no transportation in college- when I had to walk 2 miles to work (yes, in snow 3 feet deep (sometimes deeper) and YES uphill (but thankfully not uphill both ways)) in Rexburg, Idaho. I would often pray and plead the Lord to have someone stop and give me a ride, even just so I could get out of the biting wind into the shelter of an enclosed car for a moment. My heart was always filled with such deep gratitude anytime I was blessed with a brief ride. Sometimes my prayers were answered the way I asked. Sometimes they weren't.

In my mind I heard the scripture Matthew 25:40, which states, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Those suitcases looked so heavy.

My heart won the argument with my mind, so I impulsively pulled over to park at a nearby gas station and prepared myself mentally to approach him. Before leaving my car, my mind once again spoke up, "How can you do this? You might be endangering your child! What kind of mother are you?!"

I hesitated in fear, then prayed to seek the Lords will. Did He want me to help this man? If so, I reasoned with myself that there was nothing to fear. Unfortunately, my heart was pounding so hard I couldn't feel the the quiet voice of the Spirit well enough to hear the Lord's answer. Drat.

I studied the man again. He was an older man, heavily whiskered with a white curly beard and slightly limping as he walked. He didn't LOOK dangerous....but you never can tell.

With a sigh of resolution, I prayed again, telling the Lord I was choosing to help this man and asking fervently for the blessing of safety. More than anything, I just wanted this person to know that someone loved him and cared about his burden of troubles. My fear again raised its head, telling me to go safely home and leave the scene. I gritted my teeth and stubbornly told myself, "At least if he's a maniac and kills me, I will have died trying to do a good deed. THAT must surely count for something on Judgement Day!"

I quickly jogged over to him, asking if I could give him a ride somewhere. He spoke under his breath in a thick Southern accent.  In our conversation his body language was unusual- he wouldn't make eye contact with me and he spoke in broken sentences. His voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear him. (By the way, his name was Quenneth.)

He asked if I could wait while he went into the store to buy some food with money he had collected while panhandling. I offered to watch over his luggage so he could shop unhindered. We loaded each large bag into my trunk, then he removed his coat and carefully folded it before placing it on the suitcases.

While I waited for him to return, I asked a stranger if they knew where the local homeless shelter was. Eyeing my wool coat and new van, he laughingly asked why I cared. I smiled and explained I was helping a homeless man today and was hoping to give him a ride there. The stranger (who was named John) stopped laughing and offered to lead me there since it was too difficult to give directions verbally.

After several minutes, Quenneth emerged from the store with a bag of food and laboriously climbed into my van. After arriving at the shelter, he asked if he could sit under a tree to eat his meal before we went inside. While Quenneth ate, John approached me in private and gave me $20 for my good deed. I protested in embarrassment  but he insisted and said, "Nice things should happen to nice people." I uncomfortably accepted the money and said I'd give it to Quenneth, since I had wished I might have cash to give him for his next meal. I was grateful to be given the resources so I could bless someone.

After John left, I sat with Quenneth in the shade and chatted. As I continued to observe him during our conversation, I realized he was mentally affected somehow. I was not sure if he had autism or schizophrenia, but he displayed symptoms of both disorders. His comments were so sad- in his mental state he couldn't imagine his life being any other way. He had been homeless as long as he could remember and did odd jobs to get by, sleeping outdoors every night.

My heart ached for him. It was obvious he had no prospects. Everything he owned was contained in his cumbersome suitcases that he diligently kept in sight at all times.

I know so many autistic children in our area, and today I felt pained as I contemplated their futures. What happens when their parents or caretakers die?  Would they become a homeless beggar, like this man? It all seemed so unfair.

Leaving Quenneth to eat, I ventured inside the shelter and spoke with the case workers to help him access local resources for work and lodging. Diego was very tired (it was over an hour past his naptime) and eager to get out of my arms and play. After making several phone calls seeking more information, I went to report my findings to Quenneth.

I wished I could fix all his problems. I wanted to just take away his troubles and bring a smile to his aged and weather-worn face. I wondered what the Savior would do. More than anything, I wanted him to feel loved. 

While he carefully ate crackers and sausage, I spoke about the love our Savior has for us and the joy his teachings bring me. I told Quenneth that no matter where he travels, he can always get help from the local Mormon church. I told him we help serve all of God's children, no matter what religion they personally follow. I also shared my belief that God knows our struggles and wants to help us feel peace.

 I asked if he had enough blankets for these cold nights. He did. Would he like a water bottle? No, thank you, he already purchased one. Did he have enough food to last a few days? He did. I pulled out the folded-up twenty dollar bill and pressed it into his calloused hands, wishing him a Merry Christmas. Confused, he asked "What is this? What did you give me?" Shock was evident in his voice as he unfolded the bill and whispered roughly, "A twenty?! For me?"

For the first time, he looked me in the eyes and said fervently, "God bless you!"

I want so much for the world to be a better place. My heart aches for a kinder world. I try to help it become that way.

I try to do one act of service each day for someone outside of my immediate family. I still often feel like my efforts are so small and almost worthless compared to the larger problems in our world. I dearly wish I could "make a difference", but my sphere of influence is so laughably small.

But I have an idea.

If everyone who reads this post would do one thing - just one!- to be kind to a stranger this week or give loving service, couldn't we make a big difference together

Think about it.

I see the stats for this blog- last month I had 1,500 visitors. If you all did one act of kindness each week for one month, that would be 6,000 good deeds! If you each did it for an entire year, that's a whopping 33,000 acts of service!

Wouldn't that be just lovely? Yes. Yes it would. Just imagine the possibilities:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Day at Hogwarts

Magic wands, wizard cloaks, and spell books- oh my! 

We had a lot of fun preparing for everything for Sarah's Harry Potter themed birthday party!

Earlier we had made magic wands for all the children. The wands were really easy to made and they looked pretty convincing. 

Invitations were printed on card stock in an old-fashioned calligraphy style. They read:

Dear Student,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been invited to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to participate in special mid-term classes in Potions, Charms, Transfiguration, and Care of Magical Creatures.

This special celebration is in honor of Gryfindor's newest head girl, Sarah Kingsley, International Confederation of Prefects. Classes will begin at the stroke of 2:00 on November-----.

Please come to our secret location, currently disguised as a Muggle (non-wizard) residence at -----. There you will find the magical door visible only to Hogwarts students and friends. The secret password is "Flibbertigibbet". The surrounding area is well-protected with Memory charms, so it will be safe to practice magic indoors and outdoors.

Feel free to dress in either wizard robes or Muggle clothing.

If you are unable to respond by Owl Post, please use the Muggle telephony system and dial ----.

We look forward to your arrival at Hogwarts!


Mrs. Renae Kingsley, Headmistress of Frolic and Feasts, Hogwarts Academy

The invitations were folded and sealed with red sealing wax. The name of each guest was written in calligraphy on the envelope. I also put a couple small feathers sticking out to make it look like an owl delivered it.

hogwarts party, secret door to hoqwarts, train platform wall,
Our Secret Door to Hogwarts
I created a magic brick wall for the guests to run through as they entered the magical setting of Hogwarts.

Luckily I found a perfect brown canvas curtain at the thrift store, so I used that as my backdrop. 

I purchased a fat sponge from the hardware store and used 4 different colors of brown craft acrylic paint to create the bricks. I added shading and highlights in an attempt to create an old 'industrial' look so common in British railways. 

We simply suspended a curtain rod across our doorway and hung the curtain. 

The guests all giggled when they said "Flibbertigibbet!" and ran through the wall. 

They even remembered to say the magic password each time we went outside to play outdoor games.

The inside of the house felt magical as soon as they entered and saw the decorations and heard the magical soundtrack from the Harry Potter movies. It felt so delightfully festive!

As guests arrived, we provided their school supplies in the entryway. 

A table draped in black served as our 'store'. It held our black wizard cloaks (which I snagged for $2 each at the thrift store during Halloween) and spell books on one end. The children tried on the cloaks until they found one they liked. The spell books were simply made by cutting printer paper into halves, then folding those in half again. The cover is a half-sheet of black construction paper. We stapled the binding and wrote 'Spell Book' on the cover with a white crayon in scrolling letters.

Earlier that week I had made feather quill pens for the guests to use during 'classes'.

My children collected pretty feathers on our property (with 35 chickens, there's a lot of pretty feathers laying around!) and I trimmed them to accommodate a pen. We stripped ball point pens of their cases and taped the pen securely to a feather with silver duct tape. 

The children LOVED their quill pens and thought they were such a cool party favor. They really enjoyed taking notes during potions class with these pens.The nice part is I only spent around $3 to make 15 pens! 

harry potter quills, feather pens, quill pen, wizard party favor, harry potter party favor
Quills for class

The next station was the wand shop. I told a story that Ollivander (the wand craftsman in the books) couldn't make it to the party, so he left me a box of wands to use.

I had the children come up one at a time to find the right wand. (In the book the wands pick their owners rather than the other way around).

 I'd let them pick a wand to try out and I'd describe what magical item was in the core of each wand. (For example: Oh you picked a wand with a Pegasus feather core! Good pick! Now give it a swish in the air and see if it likes you! No? Let's try the pixie dust wand over here....)

The kids were SO excited to see which wand they had. I told them that the magical essence in the wand core was one of the following: a dragon heart-string, a Griffin feather, a strand of unicorn hair, a Pegasus feather, pixie dust, or a Phoenix feather. 

They were so delighted with their wands!

We used them to play games in the party, as you'll see later on.

ollivanders wand shop, wand party favor, harry potter wand
Ollivanders Wand Shop
We also had a chest of 'wizard gold'. (It's actually Nathan's large coin collection. He collects coins from around the world. It was a perfect prop for the party!). After each game, I rewarded winning teams with coins to spend later at Honeydukes store. 

The kids marveled over the foreign coins and exclaimed how neat they looked. They were definitely better than using plastic pirate gold from the party store. 

In the kitchen I had set up the Potions Class with this decor:

potion jars, harry potter potions, potion labels, potion decor
Potions Class is ready to begin!
I collected apothecary jars from the thrift store and made potions labels to glue on them. The labels were printed on heavy card stock  I picked labels that looked a bit spooky so I use reuse these bottles as Halloween decor next year. (Won't that look so cool on the mantle?) 

Up-close view of an aged potion label: Dragon Scales
I painted the labels with thin washes of watercolor in an attempt to artificially age them so they wouldn't look unnaturally white and new. 

I applied labels with Mod Podge. Some bottles I wanted to reuse for other things, so I didn't glue labels on them. Instead I tied them to the bottle with string.

We also set up Honeydukes Candy Shop in our dining room hutch. 

We served pumpkin pasties, licorice wands, lemon drops, pixie dust (made with real Cornish pixies!), cockroach clusters, cauldron cakes, pretzel wands in two flavors, and Bernie Botts Beans. 

pumpkin pasties, honeydukes

Sarah peruses Honeydukes to pick a treat

I'll write the details of our class activities and games (and potion recipes) in my next post.

Until then, here are some glimpses of our guests after the party ended. They had a lovely time playing with kittens, riding tree swings, and pretending to shoot spells at each other with their wands.

The following week lots of parents came to me and told me their children had a most wonderful time at our party. Sounds like it was a success!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Random Happy Thoughts

Each time our sheriff's deputy passes our house, he beeps his sirens for a friendly 'hello!' that I can hear anywhere in the house. At first I didn't notice this, but he cheerfully pointed it out to me one week in church. It brightens my day to see him beep and wave as he passes by.

We shared some home made jam with a neighbor recently, so today she brought a bag of fresh pecans from her tree. I love simple tokens of love like this! Our family sat around the kitchen table cracking pecans and chatting for hours last weekend.

This year I am sewing fabric bags to use instead of gift-wrap paper. I wanted to go more 'green' with our annual celebrations. The biggest reason I'm doing this is that I have oodles of pretty fabric given to me and I couldn't think of what to do with it. Ta-Da! Gift wrap bags were a perfect solution! They are so easy to whip up so I get the satisfaction of instant gratification instead of laboring over a drawn-out tedious project (like the fort I'm sewing our kids for Christmas). It's also been a great opportunity for Sarah and Matthew to practice their sewing skills. It's almost impossible to mess these little bags up.

Diego does a quick little dance anytime he's excited about something. He'll bring me a water bottle  then dance in anticipation while I open it for him. I love it! He looks like a chubby puppy wagging his tail!

Today apple crisp is bubbling away in the oven for our after-school snack, potato soup is simmering on the stove for dinner, and yeasty rolls are rising on the counter. I've sewn gifts, written letters to family, played with our baby a LOT, and cleaned house. I've also stayed in bright blue polka-dot pajamas all day. I look like a poster child for 'white trash' but I've had SUCH a wonderful day!

Daniel builds snakes and snake houses with play dough
I hope your day is beautiful!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving and Lessons in Gratitude

Our Thanksgiving Pie Spread
Thanksgiving is officially Nathan's holiday.  He looks forward to it all year because he can cook without restraint. Here is his Thanksgiving by the numbers:

One HUGE pot of garlic/cream cheese/butter mashed potatoes- enough to serve 30 people
Two perfectly brined and roasted turkeys
Two large pans of sweet potatoes
Two large jars of homemade cranberry sauce with fresh cranberries, oranges, and ginger root
Ten perfect pies: Strawberry Rhubarb (Matthew's favorite! He licked the spoon when the filling was made and sighed contentedly, "Oh man! That's GOOD!"), Peanut Butter Cream, Paradise Isle, Coconut Cream (with fresh coconut grated and fried in its own oil- heavenly!), Cherry (with fresh cherries), Pumpkin Chiffon (what fluffy goodness ), Butterscotch Cream, French Silk (this was gone first- the dark chocolate was so delicious!), Banana Cream, and Lemon Meringue.

Our friends brought the rest of the dishes for the feast.

We were surrounded with 25 friends to share the feast and laugh and play. After feasting on delicious food, we played games for a few hours while our bodies made room for pie. (One of our friends is a professional actress and screenwriter- she was so fun to play games with because she played her game character well and wowed us all with her great ability to speak in any accent.)

We gave each guest several paper leaves to add to our Gratitude Tree. They wrote what they were thankful for before taping in on our wall. 

The Gratitude Tree is watched over by Lexie, our Elf on the Shelf.
I felt such a deep sense of gratitude this year for all the 'little blessings' we often take for granted. 

Earlier this month I felt such sadness as I listened to my children's prayers. The prayers were rushed and mostly thoughtless, filled with requests for blessings but often devoid of gratitude. Sometimes they even forgot to thank the Lord for the food we were about to eat! I was so disappointed. 

My remedy was a Family Home Evening lesson on gratitude. I asked the question: What if you woke up today and had ONLY the things you thanked the Lord for yesterday in your prayers?

The children sat in shocked silence and thought. I whipped out a whiteboard and asked the children to please share a list of what they would truly miss if it was gone. 

This is what they were thankful for:

Bed, pillow and blankets so we can be warm and comfortable at night
Food so we won't be pained with hunger
A house to shelter us from the rain or cold and keep us safe
Animals that bring joy to our lives
The gospel of Jesus Christ so we know where we are from, why we are here, and where we are going
Extended family who love and encourage us
Dad's job so we can provide for our needs
Healthy bodies so we can enjoy being alive
Beautiful trees to climb on our property
Books to read and learn from
The alphabet so we can communicate and read
Running water in our home so we don't have to haul it from a river
CLEAN water so we don't get sick
Electricity so we have light at night
Medicine to help us heal
Musical instruments so we can feel joy as we create music together
Friends and neighbors who love us

Our fall decor
Our prayers have really changed since that night. The children are so much more thoughtful in expressing gratitude to the Lord. 

I feel so humbled when I contemplate the countless ways we are blessed and watched over. My heart pains at the injustice of the world when I see families in abject poverty scraping a living in third-world countries. My heart is full of desire to help them feel the beauty of being alive, but I'm not quite sure how to do it sometimes. 

I've been looking for ways to share our blessings with others and help make the world a joyful place for a suffering soul. I'd love to know your suggestions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slaughtering, Service, and S'mores

Unbeknownst to our dozen colorful roosters, the past few weeks have been vocal auditions to see which ones get to stay with our flock. The roos (short for ROOSter) with ugly voices were introduced to our Killing Cone this morning. (That sounds like the Cone of Shame from the movie 'Up'. Yikes.)

Perhaps surprisingly, our blond roo named David Bowie was decidedly a keeper.

Today was the first day we had the children actively assist us with chicken butchering. The boys did a great job catching each rooster for us to slaughter.

Picture them both in black galoshes, tramping through the chicken coop and emerging triumphant with a squawking rooster held aloft by his feet. Daniel was so proud of catching one all by himself. 

They also paired up to cleverly plead for the life of a particularly handsome rooster they caught. They won.

We set up a table on our back patio to serve as our workstation. We didn't bother with plucking feathers today. I hate plucking feathers. We skinned them quickly and cut off portions of meat to freeze: breasts in one bag, thighs in another bag, wings and drumsticks in the last bag. Carcasses were boiled all day in a stockpot to yield rich broth for winter soups. The only thing wasted was the feathers (although we DO always keep some for crafts- rooster feathers are so gorgeous!) and the entrails. 

This afternoon I had the privilege of serving a post-funeral meal to some friends in our ward. An elderly gentleman passed away this week and I was blessed with the opportunity of planning the funeral arrangements  (The Relief Society president was out of town, so I was assigned to take care of the details.) 

At first I felt inclined to panic (Where do I even begin? Caring for a mourning family is something I've never done before!) Thankfully, our wise (and experienced) secretary knew what to suggest and gave me directions on what needed to be done. 

It was a wonderful learning experience for sure! 

At the funeral dinner, I learned more about this man. I had never known his story! He was a true hero! He lived in Poland when it was occupied during World War 2 and he was part of the Resistance. He smuggled Jews safely out of the country for a long time. Finally he decided to make his own escape to freedom, but was caught along the way by the Germans. He was sent to the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz  He survived there for an extended period of time, suffering unimaginable things. Finally the Allies arrived to Poland, sending the Red Cross to rescue and rehabilitate the inmates of the concentration camps. He met a lovely Red Cross nurse and they were later married. 

Isn't that an amazing part of his life  story? I never knew this history behind the face of this quiet old man. It gave me a lot to think about this week. I never before pondered his life, and now a rich opportunity is gone forever. I feel remorse for never getting to know him deeper than a quick smile on Sundays while I rushed my children to class. 

I wonder what everyone else's story is. All around me are faces, so easy to ignore while I wander in my own thoughts. I feel a stronger desire to connect with people and dig deeper, past the superficial mask we each present to the world. 

After serving at the church for a few hours, I returned home to my little ones and sweetheart. Nathan and the boys built a campfire in our backyard fire pit after the sun set. They set up chairs around the fire and happily roasted hotdogs while we relished sharing scary ghost stories to make us shiver in the dark. Nathan played his harmonica while the smoke rose to the bright stars above us. I could hear wildlife and dogs singing along with Nathan's music. We laughed together and made extra-gooey s'mores for dessert.

I soaked up every moment with my little darlings. I feel a renewed gratitude for life today. Life really is a blessing!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Steampunk Style

steam punk dandy, steam punk facial hair style, steam punk skirt
This is us in our costumes in our front yard. Oh how I love our trees!
Nathan recently asked me on a date to a steam punk show. 

I had no idea what 'steam punk' meant, but loved the idea of going anywhere in costume, 
so I eagerly accepted the proposal.

After trying to figure out what I had agreed to, my enthusiasm grew.

For a few date nights before the event, we visited thrift stores together. Scouring racks of clothing in search of perfect costume pieces was a fun adventure I really relished. I love hunting for a bargain, and I love creating costumes. 

We found everything we needed except the extra accessories Nathan made himself. (I did alter my brown skirt by gathering the hemline to give it that lovely scalloped look so common in the Victorian era.)

My favorite purchase by far was Nathan's brown frock coat. Ten dollars, baby!

The best part of the costume was Nathan's crafted accessories.

Nathan cut sheet metal and riveted it together to create a solid metal top hat. He spray painted it with 'hammered copper' paint and covered the sharp edges with black screening tubing, so the brim had a nice finished edge. He riveted on a copper band for a hat band and added two large springs with gears in the place of hat feathers (I don't think you can see those in the picture. Maybe I'll post a better pic of the hat later. Tutorial, anyone?)

He also fashioned a monocle (instead of the overly common steam punk goggles) and attached it to the underside of his hat brim with a reclaimed hard drive magnet. He fitted it with green LEDS that lit up a dial that was etched into the glass. It gave him an intriguing, slightly robotic look.

His last accessory was a walking stick with dancing LEDs in the handle. He used PVC pipe and sprayed it with our copper spray paint (everyone was convinced it was a copper pipe. The paint is awesome!) and added some real copper accents, then attached a metal head with a little button he could push and made the lights begin glowing and blinking. 

Steam punk hat, steam punk monocle, metal top hat, riveted hat, unique hat, homemade hat

It was so fun, and throughout the event random people kept asking Nathan to pose in pictures with them. Other people didn't want to ask for a picture, so there were lots of quick shots taken on people's phones. We found some of those posted online the next day.

Our good friends the Kimballs joined us for the day. Check out their costumes:

They score way more 'awesome' points than me- Julie actually sewed their costumes!

Don't they look great?

We browsed lots of little shops filled with steam punk paraphernalia and accessories, then played a demo of a role-playing game with a steam punk theme. 

While we waited for the show to begin, we people-watched and admired the unique (and sometimes bizarre) costumes we saw. We played a game making up colorful histories for each person, trying to explain why they wore each item of their costume. It was actually really fun and we created some really funny stories. It was so tempting to write some of them down. 

After watching an interesting performance of a fictional face-off between Nikola Tessla and Thomas Edison, we headed out for dinner.

Have you ever eaten out dressed in costume? 

Oh it's so fun! We had lots of great stares as we entered. 

In closing, here is a Daguerreotype version of our steam punk portrait. 

elegant steam punk, steam punk dress, metal top hat, steam punk monocle, steam punk gentry

It was a memorable date night for sure! 
So much more fun than dinner and a movie.