Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Of Mice and Women

There comes a point in a mouse's life when he must choose.  Life?  Or my good chocolate?
Apparently, for more than a few, this is a conundrum.
I understand the difficulty in this decision.  The dark call of chocolate is often stronger than reason.  But as I am bigger, and as I pay for this house - albeit old and full of cracks - and as it is, after all, MY good chocolate, I'm trying to be helpful with their decision making.
The traps are clearly marked.  There are trails of droppings leading right to them - and then stopping.  The smell of death (by chocolate) hangs in the air around the petite contraptions.  They've been used and reused.  They are the old fashioned, classic, cheap and obvious little mechanisms of a quick ending that have been used for generations of mice.  So either they just don't learn, or they just consider a demise with their faces smushed into their favorite delicacies worth it.  I'd believe it, either way.

It's not that I have anything in particular against mice.  They're rather cute, really.  And yes, we've seen Ratatoulle, and I commiserated right along with the rest of the couch audience for the Parisian sewer rat with the refined restaurant taste.  Thanks for personifying rodents, Disney.  A year ago, there must have been a local litter that was braver than most, for several of the little tykes ventured out into the kitchen in broad daylight.  My kids' pounding feet didn't deter them from peering out from under the stove.  They had big eyes and ears and clearly guilty looks, like any pet that's been caught with their paws in the cookie jar.  But it was untimely for the little fellas.  I had just discovered something had indeed gotten its little mitts in my little bag of chocolate Easter eggs.
I connected the dots.  Lots of little brown ones, in fact.
It added up to little sympathy.  
Within a week, my brave husband had surpassed his previous hunting records.  He even caught two in one trap!  I cleaned out the cupboard, and for a while felt a modicum of control over my little kitchen kingdom.

Caught red-handed.

But that was last year.
Recently, I got cranky when I had to throw out a cereal box.
I sighed when I had to dispose of the cocoa powder.
But then my husband had to chuck several coffee k-cups for the Keurig machine.
That was the last straw.

The mice in my house are going down.  Again.
Why can't our unwelcome dinner guests have cheaper taste?  Keurig coffee?  Really?  Can't they just stick with the old Folger's can in the back of the cupboard?  And why not the Hershey's cocoa powder; must they really choose the new can of Ghiardelli that makes brownies to satisfy a pregnant sweet tooth?  How do they even know?  Are they doing it just to spite me?  They seem to know.  We usually keep natural types of peanut butter in stock.  Peanut butter is generally a wonderful, sticky, aromatic bait to use.  But they don't like it.  Not in this house.  We had to go out and buy them their own jar of classic Skippy.  The rodents now have their own special food sitting in my cupboard!
I hope they feel special.
And I wish they didn't have such refined tastes.
They eat more of my chocolate than my kids do!
That's all going to change.  And no, it's not happening by me sharing more of my private Lindt stash with my children.  Conversely, I plan to share less.  With everyone.  Four footed beasts in particular.  My brave husband will defend me.  (It works great, by the way.  I discover traces of the little thieves and he does the dirty work.  I love marriage.  It keeps my chocolate and coffee sacred.)

So live long and prosper, mice.  Somewhere else.  And learn to eat Hershey's, while you're there.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Because we homeschool, we decided to go to a homeschool convention this year.  But because we homeschool, "conventional" types of behavior and activities are foreign to us.
We aren't used to going on long car trips.
We aren't used to hotels.
We aren't used to planning meals around restaurants and non-perishable snack foods.
We aren't used to coexisting for several days with lots of other people.
We aren't used to walking rather than running everywhere (around pools, down long quiet hallways, through congested corridors, etc).
We aren't used to mom going off to classes while dad handles the bulk of daily child-raising (I'm not saying he's incapable, don't get me in that kind of marital trouble!  I'm just saying it's a reversal of normalcy around here.)
We aren't used to drinking bottled water all day.
We aren't used to trying to appear "conventional" and normal for extreme periods of time (in this case, a whole weekend.  Bah!)

But because my family is so young, and this is our first time attending a convention, they offered free registration.  The grandparents very graciously offered to pay for the hotel part, so we decided it was a blessing worthy of attempting.

Almost packed.

We packed up until there wasn’t an inch of space left in the van.  Daddy had to drive because there wasn’t any foot room left in the passenger seat.  My legs are much smaller, and fit between laptops and bags of cereal, so I got to ride shotgun.  Off we drove.  It started well.  No one began to ask “Are we there yet?” for a good hour.  Some even napped.  Then one in the backseat began to complain of motion sickness.  They were just starting to get truly antsy as the hotel came into view. 
Daddy took over kid duties and went to check into the hotel as the four boys tumbled out of their car seats and looked for a wall to bounce off.  I checked into the conference registration and hurried off to the first session.   It was called “Time Management for Busy Moms.”  I was late.

It felt truly odd to sit quietly while my own little universe continued to exist somewhere without mom at the center of its orbit.  For a whole hour.  Of course they managed.  Even I survived.

They were busily tearing through bags in search of swim gear when I found the hotel room.  The pool and cable t.v. were the anticipated highlights of this "vacation" for my young brood.  We put the remotes out of reach and proceeded to dress everyone.  It's almost as challenging as bundling everyone up in winter gear.  At least as time consuming.  

We tromped back down the halls that held the conference rooms, mingling in our spandex swim clothes with the most conservatively attired families.  I tried to smile demurely, conscious of our white skin lighting the hallway, aware that Ben's wheelchair would draw even more second glances.  But homeschoolers are nothing if not long-suffering to the "outside" world, and we passed scrutiny without comment.        

The initial pool visit accounted for, we dried off and went out searching for a restaurant.  I was rather looking forward to not doing dishes that night, but we found a frustrating lack of options other than pizza, chinese noodles, and fast food.  It started to snow on our still-damp hair as we piled out into a parking lot.  The boys ate french fries, chicken fingers, and macaroni, and I wished briefly that we were home where vegetables are at least on the menu.  Tomorrow's diapers would be an adventure.  

The hotel accommodations were palatial - for the children.  The four of them shared two queen beds.  After they were all tucked into their luxurious fluffy covers and nestled between voluptuous pillows (to be fair, the two year old ended up in the portable crib), my husband pulled out the sofa bed.  I slept fitfully, waking once to re-tuck a discombobulated preschooler, and again to adjust the covers so both myself and my husband's feet (which stuck out over the bottom edge of the bed) were covered.  

Hotel bedtime story.

The boys found cartoons on early the next morning.  They waved cheerfully from the sofa as I hurried off to another conference session.  Daddy handled the first diapers.  

By afternoon, the introvert in me was exhausted from so much time around people.  When the little ones laid down for nap, I sneaked in to lay on one of their plush beds myself.  I missed a session I'd hoped to attend, but the rare chance to nap was almost worth the hotel time.

In some ways, it was reassuring to hear the local homeschool scoop and realize I wasn't completely inept.  We have a basic schedule, we cover the three R's most days, we take advantage of plenty of "teachable" moments in real life, and they all love books.  A lot of challenges are ahead that I haven't even considered at this early stage, nor do I really want to.  A lot of the ideas I came away with were practical more than "educational".

Make spending time with God alone and as a family a priority.

Never do alone what one of your kids can do himself.  
Schedule, menu plan, list list list - and then be ok with it being broken.  Often.
Spend a few minutes with the toddler/preschooler before starting lessons with the older kids.
These really are the best days of your life.  (So they say; jury's still out on my end...)  
Make time alone together.  Even if you have to get creative.  Sofa dates are still dates.    
Use less detergent.  Use cloth napkins.  Cook up lots of meat at a time and freeze till needed.  
Your home should be clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy - and accept that some days will just look really happy.

We were so glad to be home after all the excitement.  My five year old begged me for broccoli at suppertime.  My three year old dumped out the contents of the toy car box and sighed happily as if he was seeing long lost friends.  They snuggled happily into their humble beds at a decent bedtime.  I did the dishes and didn't grumble about them (much.)  I thought about blogging, but instead, my husband ordered room service.  So I dished up a nice bowl of ice cream for each of us, and snuggled next to him against the sagging sofa cushions.  We talked politics and what kind of meat I should buy for the week ahead.  Then we climbed into a bed we both fit on (basically) and slept like babies (the odd ones who actually sleep through the night.)

We're so unconventional.  I love it.        


Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Lonesome Ranger

"Can you help me?"  She asked.
I turned from the gas pump at the question.  It had been directed at my back.  An older lady stood there, a couple plastic shopping bags in hand.  I raised my eyebrows.
"I need a ride up the road."  She answered my unspoken words, nodding behind her vaguely.
It wasn't the way I had planned to go.  My oldest son was in the back seat of the van, the other three were home where grandpa was holding down the fort.  We were headed home from wrestling practice; my head was full of supper preparation and remembering to stop by the post office before it closed.
I may have sighed inwardly, wishing at the moment I'd picked a different gas station, or hadn't lingered an extra five minutes chatting with the other boys' moms.  But I know how God engineers these things; you don't say "no."  Not to Him.
And not to her.
"Ok," I smiled wanly.  "Hop in."

Have you ever prayed that prayer - the one asking God to use you?  That one when you realize that you are happiest and most blessed when you do what He wants?  I am dimly aware of the cost of that prayer.  But I pray it anyway, purposefully, when that deep soul hunger stirs up the need for refreshment.  My usefulness feels dulled, like an old knife.  I need sharpening.  And I am aware that the dull blade must feel the friction of the sharpening stone if I am ever going to be trusted to cut a tomato again.
I like tomatoes.  So I had prayed.

My happy place...
(photo: Christmas Beeler)

She pulled herself heavily, awkwardly, into the passenger seat as I closed up the gas tank.  She did look tired.
We started off.
"Where do you need to go?"  I asked, eyes on the road.  She was hard of hearing; I repeated myself.  She said she lived about 20 miles away.  If I took her home, it would be an extra hour before I got back to my own.  On we drove.
I heard her story.  On her way home from a round of doctor appointments in the big city several hours south, her car had broken down.  It was now at a garage here in town; should be fixed by morning.  But it would be getting dark soon.  She was by herself.  We kept driving.

I asked about her life; it sounded very lonely.  She had a cat.  She had worked difficult physical jobs until caring for her aging parents had become her primary labor.  They were gone now.  Siblings were far away.
She asked about mine; I had to yell the basics several times.  Four boys.  A husband.  Homeschool.  All of those were foreign to her; but she sounded envious.
I tried to imagine her quiet world.  I talked about God being with me all the time; taking care of me.  I talked about having a church community.  She said she used to go to church, but the people weren't very good.
"No," I agreed, "People aren't good.  But God is.  And He loves to change people.  We are works in progress."
I don't know how much she heard.  She was quiet.
As I dropped her off at her door, I took a deep breath.  Didn't Jesus say walk the extra mile?  I breathed again.
"Do you have a way to get your car tomorrow?"  I asked, half-knowing the answer.
"Well, I"ll figure something out."  She responded.
"You need a ride?"  I pressed.
She looked at me; was I volunteering?  "I do."
We exchanged phone numbers.  I drove home.

The next morning, I dragged all four boys to the toddler's physical therapy appointment.  We did some grocery shopping.  I finally mailed that letter.  We ran home to have lunch.  The lady called to see if I could still come.  I said yes.  The meal dishes piled on top of the breakfast ones in the sink.  Wet laundry sat in the washing machine.  I forgot to switch it to the dryer.  School would have to wait till later that afternoon.  We all piled into the van and headed off to the lady's house again.  The two younger ones fell asleep before we got there.  She pulled herself into the seat.  I headed back the way we'd just come.
"Which garage was it again?" I asked as we approached the big city.
"Oh," she said, "They called after I talked to you...  It won't be done till Friday...  But I still have some errands to run so I thought we'd get those out of the way."

My heart sank.  I pursed my lips and started to pray.  "I figured You wanted me to help her out, God.  I'm going out of my way to help.  But she's just going to use me.  I get that she's lonely, but can't You find someone else to spend time with her?  This isn't fair!"
Clouds rolled across the sky, slate gray and heavy.  The van was quiet.  "So you're going to need a ride back after you've done your shopping?" I said a bit icily.
"Well, eventually," she responded, shifting her weight on the seat.  "You could certainly do something else with your children while I'm in Wal-mart...  I was thinking of stopping by the grocery store too; there's a storm coming, you know..."
Oh, there sure is, I thought.  I could feel it pushing my eyebrows down.  But I'd committed to this, even though I had assumed it would be a one-way trip.  I still couldn't just leave the woman stuck in a parking lot.  "I'll drop you at Wal-mart, but then I'm taking my kids to their grandparents' house." I hollered so she'd hear me.  "They don't need to drive for hours for a shopping trip.  I'll be back to take you home in an hour."
She seemed pretty happy as she hauled herself out of the car.  I glowered at her back.  The little ones stirred awake.
Thankfully, both grandparents had the day off and were more than willing to keep all four kids for an impromptu visit.  The boys dashed off to their various stashes of toys; I hopped back into the moist-smelling van.

The quiet would have been nice.  But the weather in the car was still lowery; thunderclouds collected over my head.  I wanted to be home, reading on the couch with my children while bread baked in the kitchen.  I did not want to be driving needlessly around for hours.
"She's right," I complained to God. "People aren't nice.  They aren't good."
There was silence above the hum of the old van.  Then a line from a scratchy old recorded Paris Reidhead sermon popped into my head.  He had been complaining about being a missionary in Africa. He'd found the people to be cruel, pitiful, and unreceptive to his message of love and hope.  In his frustration he'd wondered why he should even bother with them.  And God had answered him.
"You're right, people aren't good."  God had responded to him.
"But I love them.  And I endured the agonies of hell to save them."

"And, Stephanie," I felt Him add gently, " I love you, too."

A tear sprang in my eye.  Perhaps another hour out of my life wasn't so much to ask.

You sure you want a ride?

She was waiting at the door when I got back.  She hadn't bought much.  She was anxious to get home to see if she'd left her phone there.  It was missing.  "Maybe after we find it, then we can finish getting my groceries."  She said.
"No, I need to get home to feed my kids." I responded, wondering at her audacity.  But my anger had dissipated.  All I saw now was a desperately lonely woman.  "Let's get you home."
We chatted more on the ride back to her house.  She talked about diets and pills and how hard it is to even want to cook just for one person.  I thought about the lentils and rice I had wanted to make that evening and how hard it is to cook if you're not home to do it.  But I smiled sympathetically.  I'd probably live on white bread and chocolate if I was alone.  No, I couldn't even fathom it.  We talked more about God and how life-changing it can be simply to read the Bible.  I mentioned some local churches I knew, and gave her a phone number to an organization that I knew for resources and making local connections.  She put it in her pocket.  
Her phone was at her house.  The relief spread over her face as she popped back out the door to show me.  "So maybe I can call you on Thursday night about getting my car on Friday?"  She asked.
"I can't keep doing this."  I responded apologetically.  "I helped you shop all afternoon, when I thought you needed an emergency ride to get your car.  but Friday I have to do school with the kids and some other things we've planned.  I don't just drive all the time."
"Well, I'll call you Thursday and see if you can."  She replied, not put off.
"Good bye."  I said, and shut the door.  

I hugged my kids close when I got back to them.  Life alone would be so quiet - too quiet.  My naturally introverted self would drive me literally to distraction.  I would grow so selfish, so stuck in my ways, so terribly unforgiving.  I am not good; all by myself would not be better.  
Worse still would be life without God.
That would be truly alone.
What a horrible emptiness, not knowing Someone is always looking out for me, always available to talk, always desiring my company.
He actually wants to be with me.
I'm so glad someone explained that to me once, so I never have to be alone.

Was it a risk to pick up a stranger?  Was I wrong to do it?  Twice?
She wasn't dangerous.  She had legitimate need.  And she asked.  I'm pretty dense, but how could I turn down such a need presented to my face?  I've felt it, once when the car wouldn't start in the grocery store parking lot, my kids all with me, and the driver sitting in the vehicle opposite mine refused to pop his hood to help when asked. I even had the jumper cables.  Did I look menacing - a five foot tall pregnant woman with a minivan?  It is humbling to ask; it is worse to be rejected.  Perhaps I was put in that time and place for just such a purpose as this.

I wish I could say this story tied up nicely.  I wish I could say that the end result justified my being taken for a ride.  A happily ever after would be great.  I don't have one for you this time.

She did call again.  I had a doctor appointment for my youngest and we were behind in schoolwork for the week.  And I was out of gas.  I told her I'd pray for her and hoped she could find a ride, but it simply couldn't be me.
I don't know the end of the story.  Probably I never will.  But I'm glad I didn't say "no".
I'll leave just have to leave the final chapter to the great Author.
He's a better Writer than me, anyway.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Spring fever

If you've wondered, yes, we are still alive and I haven't completely abandoned blogging.
I just turn into a vague, discombobulated, sleepy hermit during early pregnancy.
But this too shall pass.

It's finally March, the snow outside is mixing with mud. I'm finally in the second trimester of pregnancy, and the fog of exhaustion and nausea are lifting a bit.  (Sorry I haven't blogged regularly; every time I sit down, I tend to fall asleep...)  January and February were mostly about hunkering down and surviving school, the cold, and early pregnancy.  The days are finally feeling a bit longer; there are garden plans in my head.  We can see the end of some schoolbooks coming in just a few months.
Hope.  Freshness.  Newness.  We can feel it.

Cold.  But fresh.

Saturday started early.  The boys were playing with battery powered bugs.  The three year old watched nonchalantly as his wiggled itself under the fridge.  He was calm until he realized this was a one way trip.  All four boys and I crouched around, trying to free it with the yard stick.  Fail.  The bug vibrated mindlessly in the dark recesses of the dust bunny/lost magnet realm for an hour.  Thank God its battery wasn't bigger.  We'll rescue him.  When daddy is home to move the fridge.  Someday.

The boys went out to stomp in slushy puddles for a bit; but it was cold and drizzly; they didn't stay long.  The puddles came inside with them and Ben dragged his pant legs unconsciously through them. The idea of Ben's wheelchair out in that muck isn't pleasant, but I'm sure he'll crave the mud experience like any other warm-blooded male two year old.  I'm avoiding it as long as possible.  I don't relish the thought of mopping tire tracks in my dining room.
We just got handicap parking plates for the van.  With the new baby coming, Ben's going to have to become more independent by necessity.  That boy's gonna have some great arm muscles by the time he's in preschool.  And probably beat everyone at arm wrestling by the time he's in kindergarten.  I think he's so cute.

I vacuumed.  The boys spent time drawing up blueprints (in Crayola orange) for their dream houses.  Gavin thoughtfully included a clean-up robot in his.  I said I'd definitely come visit.  Henry discovered, to his delight, that if you rub a marker repeatedly in the same spot, it will soon break through the paper.  He made lots of holes through to the table before I made him move on to a new project.  Ben skipped the paper entirely and just decorated his ear.  So glad they invented washable color.  There is brilliance in the world.

The two oldest did the dishes after lunch.  They aren't ecstatic about this new development.  It took a while for me to work up the gumption to make them do it too.  Their laundry-folding, dishwashing, general cleaning skills are not up to the par yet that allow me to do less.  I still pre-scrub the tougher pots and have to clean up soapy puddles after.  But perched on stools, shirts off, the two of them make my heart swell proudly.  The sponge fights are worth it.  How cute is a man who does dishes and vacuums, after all?  I hope these efforts result in happy daughters-in-law and grandchildren for me in about 20 years.  

The three year old turns four in April.  That means he's getting close to a sad milestone: giving up naps.  It won't be an overnight transition (or over-afternoon), but they all seem to need it less at this age, and have trouble getting to sleep at night if they nap too much after lunch.  It is sad; I need it more!  Am I always pregnant and exhausted when another one gives up naptime?!?  (Yes.)

We got to see the baby via ultrasound a few weeks ago.  They'd already checked out his DNA and ruled out a few possible disabilities, but Spina Bifida, the one to which we are apparently more prone, isn't a chromosomal abnormality they could check.  So it was nice to see his spine in grainy black and white video.  It looked fine (though we could easily miss something in the early days, so it ain't over till the fat lady, uh, goes through labor.)  He's due in August.
I think I can feel him moving this week.

The minions were hungry by mid-afternoon.  A nameless five year old poked through the pantry on a cracker search.  When I walked into the kitchen, every single drawer and cupboard below four feet was wide open.  He did find crackers though.  He generously shared the nearly-empty box with the two year old, who dumped it to see just how full it was.  I wondered what had possessed me to vacuum before bedtime.  Absolutely illogical.

What started out as an innocent sword fight quickly escalated.  The pirate got clobbered by Luke Skywalker, so he took his light saber and wouldn't give it back.  The six year old, who'd been minding his own business, pulled out a semi-automatic nerf gun and decided he would settle the dispute.  Boys literally started climbing the walls as all out war broke out.  A nerf bullet stuck to the ceiling fan.  I tripped over a pirate hook on my way to kiss a battle wound.  I wondered what it was like to have girls.

It seemed like a good night to grill something for supper.  There were only a few problems.  It was half snowing, half raining on the grill.  My husband wasn't home to man it, which is of course half the beauty of grilling, in my opinion.  And the back-up plan was chicken soup, which is challenge to barbeque.  Leftover chicken and some stock went in a pot with a bunch of vegetables, then a bunch of volunteers came to help make some muffins.  They always appear out of nowhere when it's time to mix up muffins.  On the floor, Ben sat on the muffin tin proudly and waited for me to try to fill it.  Henry snuck frozen blueberries out of the batter.  Shiloh stole the ladle for a drumstick before I could use it.
Supper was a little late.

 I cleared the table, with moderate help, but decided to ignore the 2.4 smashed muffins underneath it until later.  Blueberry smeared cheeks indicated the need for baths that night.  Most pajamas were stuck in the laundry mountain downstairs, I realized as the first two wet boys filed into their room clad in towels.  I raced down and dug out mostly matching sets for each kid as the two youngest hollered that the bath was getting cold.  Minor scuffles over who was wearing whose underwear finally subsided.  We went back downstairs for story time just as Daddy came through the door.

I've been reading Deuteronomy recently and my husband has just started reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud to the boys in the evenings.  (He's been waiting years for them to be old enough to appreciate The Chronicles of Narnia.  I'm dubious we're quite there yet...)  As these stories swirl through my head daily, they resonate with me.  Moses led a young nation though desert wilderness for forty years.  And I think our winters are long...?!  That is a long wait for the hope of spring.  In the Narnia books, the land is currently under a cold cruel curse.  It's always winter there; always winter, but never Christmas.  I can sort of commiserate.  The last couple months have seemed endless.

Peek a boo

Books, brushing teeth, prayer and bedtime.  I bid them good night and took a deep breath as the door glided closed.  Quiet ensued.  Well, sort of quiet.  Ben continued to chatter, hoping someone from the bunkbeds would engage with him.  Henry, who'd had a bit of a nap, obliged for a while.  I heard them playing peek-a-boo through the crib slats for the next twenty minutes.  But I was busy chasing down vagrant markers under the desk, sweeping muffin crumbs, and resisting the urge to just sit down near my husband while he ate his late dinner.  
The hushed babble over the monitor calmed as I finished the dishes.  I scooped a bowl of ice cream and settled next to my husband.  He was looking at weather reports.  Snow, rain, snow and rain.  Mud.  I swirled chocolate and vanilla on my spoon as I thought about it.  But mud means that Spring is coming.
Something tickled in my tummy as the sugar hit my bloodstream.  I smiled.
Newness is coming.