Drafting an advent calendar

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Alongside the tiny-door cardboard calendars for the girls, this year I’d like to do a book calendar to mark the passing days of December. Unwrapping and reading a favorite book every morning sounds lovely. I first encountered this idea on Andrea’s bookscout blog two years ago. I’d love to wrap them up this way created by Oh Happy Day, pictured above. Brown paper book packages tied up with string.

Last year out of the twenty or so holiday books we checked out of the library, I found twelve favorites that the then-four-and-two year old loved (that means I need to come up with thirteen more!). I look for books that have detailed illustrations and writing that hints at even more of a story than it tells. All of these have that!

Here are last year’s favorites:

Christmas in Noisy Village, Astrid Lindgren // by the author of Pippi Longstocking, enchanting stories that portray life in a tiny Swedish village. Three small neighboring houses celebrate together, bake gingerbread once a year, and expect bright new rag rugs on Christmas Eve. It’s a peak into some amazing traditions that you’ll want to copy. amazon

The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren // This is a book that should be creepy but instead it’s calming. Last year it really spoke to two-year-old Joan. It’s quiet story about a tiny elf that wanders around a farm and checks on everyone who is sleeping. It’s not particularly about Christmas, more about quiet winter nights. Joan spotted these sweet Tomten ornaments in a catalog and I couldn’t resist getting them for her to accompany the storyamazon 

The Christmas Party, Adrienne Adams // I feel that Wes Anderson must have used Adams’ illustrations as inspiration for some of his own characters and dialogue. These trim and buttoned-up bunnies are so charming. The rich pastel colors are a break from the REDGREEN illustrations of many Christmas stories. amazon used

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, Gloria Houston // It really doesn’t get better than Barbara Cooney illustrating a snowy mother & daughter tale set in Appalachia. If your town has a Christmas tree, time the reading of this book with a visit to see it. amazon

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Robert Barry // a rhyming romp, fun to read, plenty of critters scattered across the pages, and the moral of sharing the season. “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree came by special delivery…” amazon

The Night Before Christmas makes for fantastic reading aloud no matter, dare I say it, how many times you’re asked to read it. The poem is packed with vocabulary words and simply by reading it I feel like I’m introducing the girls to our rudimentary American approach to Santa. Two favorite illustrated editions of mine: by Roger Duvoisin or by Holly Hobbie.

Joy to the World, Tomie dePaola //  gives children a peek into some of the Hispanic Catholic background of our traditions, like Poinsettias flowers. DePaolo’s illustrations so soothing and cozy, yet artfully Romanesque.  amazon

The Jolly Christmas Postman, Allen & Janet Ahlberg // I submit to you that you’d better buy this one, and you may have to re-buy it after a time, because those letters are just too fun for children to keep them in one place! amazon

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien // Though Joe read this one as I kid, I don’t know how I managed to miss it! A collection of illustrated letters that Tolkien wrote to his children for over twenty years. swoon. Please note: buy the 1999 version that I’ve linked to, or a much older one. There is an edition from 2004 that omits many letters and abruptly cuts off others–outrageous! amazon

The Littlest Evergreen, Henry Cole // A story told from the tree’s perspective: too little to be cut, he is instead dug up and brought inside, only to be planted after Christmas. He has a long life alongside the family. We loved the forest illustrations. amazon

Two wordless tales: I find that children love wordless books because it makes the reader-adult talk so much more!

Don’t Forget Me Santa Clause, Virginia Mayo // a little boy who notices his crib was skipped by Santa, so he tags along to the North Pole to get his due. Warm cozy illustrations and good for houses with sibling babies. amazon used

Peter Spier’s Christmas // Peter Spier’s spirally sketchy warm fuzzy spilling-over-everything illustrations are so amazing. The holidays in this book are not tidy, but rumpled and doing the best they can. amazon

Please share your favorites, I would love to check them out!

 

Grinching triumph

Joan_fields“I know why the Grinch doesn’t like Christmas. Because his Sister Grinch died. And SHE was the one who wrapped all the presents and bought the pumpkins. She was the one who put up the lights. He can’t do it because he’s at work all day and he’s TIRED. That’s why he doesn’t like Christmas.”

-Joan, zeroing in on the near-Grinch lurking in all of us.

Things have felt mystifyingly terrible since that foolish and violent man was elected. It even feels hard to pray for, or hard to know where to begin with my prayers. The young soldiers who will soon be sent to more wars? The terminally sick who so-briefly had insurance that will be shoved off again? The companies that will move to other countries where skilled workers are accepted, regardless of their nationality? The police brutality that will unfold? Funny how things that feel very close and fragile can feel the hardest to pray for. Like it’s too risky for me to acknowledge how worried I am.

My friend suggested we start reading up on the resistance movement in world war II. (Here I always think of a favorite story of Norwegian citizens hopping on skiis and cleverly skiing in to disable a hydroelectric plant.) Joe’s family is Mennonite, a religious group that’s been quietly disagreeing with the government for years–deeply pacifist; attempting to redirect their taxes away from the military defense, devoted to issues of social justice and the marginalized. The idea of actively and consistently fighting with your government is not a new one. But it sounds mighty tiring. Though, I sort of fell in love with the idea of political PARTIES mentioned here.

Still, the hearth keepers must carry on, kneading the bread and chopping the kale, even as their ear tips towards the Diane Rehm Show playing in the background. Ruminate over ice skating lesson fees. Request a list of favorite Christmas books from the library. Remark upon the desperate need for plain candles in the house. Pull out coats and boots for the coat drives at church.

We didn’t guide the girls into beliefs of Santa as a gift-giver, but Joan is a big fan of his nonetheless, in the general good-citizen category. So I’ll map out a few places to take her to see him. (What if you could visit a favorite dignitary, and talk with them on a nice armchair for awhile?)

joan_steady

Cold Weather Reads

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It’s dark in the morning and dark over dinner, there are cranberries at the farmer’s market and foggy blue squashes on my neighbor’s steps–it must be autumn on the east coast! It feels like everyone in this little family is reaching for a book these days. Between my own book, and the pile of books Joan carts over to me every morning, I seem to spend most of my day reading–which is ideal!

Here’s what everyone is enjoying right now…

Joan, 3yrs old, friendly Halloween books and cozy stories, best read by the stack: The Soup Bone, Halloween Pie, Treasure Hunt, Each Peach Pear Plum.

Lux, 5yrs old: Lux is going to be Medusa for Halloween, a character she fell for after we read Athena. She is so intrigued by all the Greek Gods right now so I was happy to order other books from this illustrated and historically-accurate Olympians series for her. Please note: these are violent and selfish characters, and though I feel comfortable introducing these themes (I vastly prefer them to the same themes introduced in Marvel comic-types), you may not!

Rachael: I just finished Barbarian Days, a surfing memoir by a New Yorker staff writer. The first part and the last part of the book are the best. In the first part, he is a middle school outcast in Hawaii, who grabs his surfboard first thing in the morning. In the last part, he’s in his forties, fifties, and sixties–a successful writer settled in New York, still chasing waves. I had to skim a lot of the wave-description parts throughout, but I loved his humble storytelling style, his affection for the characters in his life, his wry theories about the surf obsessed. You will never look at a surfer the same way again.

Next: I think I’ll try The Everlasting Meal again. I couldn’t get into last time I tried, but a friend argued that it was best read in cold weather as it’s all about roasting, grocery shopping with economy, and planning ahead. Yes please.

Joe: Joe is finishing Substitute, Nicholson Baker’s somewhat dreary nonfiction chronicle of substitute teaching in a Maine public school.

If you’ve never read Nicholson Baker, his fiction title A Box of Matches is absolutely the best cold-weather read! It’s a love letter to fireplaces and thoughtful dark mornings.

What are you reading?

playground for the one and under set

toys

Two new moms friends have asked me about the delightful topic of toys. Sadly, no matter the toy, it’s only going to occupy them for a few minutes everyday, and only when they are feeling fresh after a rest, or after having been outside. With gusto: if you don’t want toys that make noise or take up space, absolutely don’t keep them in the house (but do eagerly place them within reach when at the library drop-in). 

Incidentally, if dear Matilda drops something from her chair or stroller, and you don’t give it back to her, you’ve introduced an intuitive sign-language for both of you to use from now on: Matilda doesn’t want it anymore, and dropping means it goes away. Easy.

Alma has a little tin of toys that we carry about and offer to her once or twice a day, alongside a few board books for chewing on. The tin is itself a nice toy because it rolls easily and makes a metallic thump if you hit it, or kick it against the wall, which she does. I put the tin out when she was six months and it will stay out until her first birthday and then I’ll hide it again, up with the sweaters and aging humidifier in my closet.

The tin contains a fondly amnesic graveyard of my toy hopes from when I first offered them to Lux: this will be the toy that she loves! A banana chew, a soft mouse, a wooden ring, a leather key chain, a wooden fish rattle. How the drily squeaky Sofia giraffe has made the cut these five years, I have no idea {leaves laptop to pick up Sofia and put it in a giveaway bag}.

In reality, movement is the only engaging challenge that they will throw themselves into, objects just can’t compete.

Here is the playground of the one and under set: reaching for things under the couch, tugging on a rope (that perhaps you’ve tied to the arm of a chair), steadily unpacking a paper shopping bag of objects like a spoon, a tupperware container, a plastic water bottle sealed with a little bit of water in it or maybe something that rattles, like dried chickpeas.

It does build an argument for living room playdates though, particularly in the winter! Build a rotation of friends to trade-off hosting each week, lay a couple blankets on the floor, prop a mirror in the corner, and all three or four babies will tackle your small assortment of toys with delight, then boredom, then the playdate will be over. Next week: new territory.

When Alma turns one I will ask for a wooden pull toy for her to pull around as she walks, it will be adorable and she will love it. As with everything BABY, if you are delighted by something, by all means, own it. Waldorf wooden toys, engaging stuffed animals, rainbow ring stacks, handmade wooden rings…there’s so much to love!

The Ocean House, Rhode Island

We were so fortunate to be hosted by my mom and my aunt Anne in Rhode Island a few weekends ago. My sister Joanie and two of my brothers were also able to come. My mom had reserved rooms at the Ocean House and we managed to squeeze everyone in together.

On the way down we stopped at Monahan’s for a classic clam shack experience, tables outside near the water, fried oysters or clams (you don’t always see both, actually) and lobster rolls. We should have stopped off at Matunuck’s Oyster Bar on the drive as well, but we regrettably decided to wait until later that weekend (and never made it). My mom from Michigan, and my aunt from Denver, kept exclaiming over the smell of the ocean.

In the fall, the Ocean House puts boxes of apple varieties on the front steps for guests to sample on their way in or out. It was this small perk, and the adorable downstairs candy and doughnut shop, that topped the girls’ memories of the place.

The hotel is absolutely stunning. Its restoration was a labor of love by a local man who wanted to save the land from turning into condos. I could not stop taking pictures of it, and I often found myself hiking around the long way just to see it from another perspective.

Not surprisingly the beauty of the property, the time with my family, all their help with the girls, the extra undisturbed time to put Alma down for a nap, and the long dinners together, were totally restorative!

We were all able to sit on one of the giant teak porches for dinner both nights, watching the slow sunset, eating local oysters, and catching up on all we’d missed in the past few months.

The town of Watch Hill is a five minute walk from the front steps of Ocean House. The tiny carousel was closed for the season, but cozy wood-raftered St. Claire’s Annex was serving breakfast with fresh squeeze mimosas, Huxter was stocked like a slim closet for an elegant east coast surfer with a taste for nice dinners, Ten Sandwiches had espresso and sandwiches, and the iconic pink walls of the Olympia Tea Room were visible through the spotless glass windows.

Ocean House has a free borrow-a-car ahem, borrow-a-Mercedes-Benz, program. You show up at the front desk and ask if any cars are available at that moment. If there is one, they pull one around for you right away. Thanks to all the devoted volunteers, Joe and I were able to go for a short (FAST) drive together. I wanted to show him the rolling green farmland-n-pond drive to the Weekapaug Inn. Then we drove on for a bookstore date to The Savoy. I found the hardcover of a book I’d read on the kindle, Fates and Furies. I loved that book and it was fun to see its beckoning presence in a real live bookstore. (We bought Commonwealth, Substitute, and for the whole family: Thing Explainer.)

After we got back, we handed the car on to my brother and his girlfriend for their own tour.

Oh, let us remain fearless in the face of school calendars. Let September and October always be dotted with crossed off long weekends of refreshment! Let late beach visits and still-long sunny days and hotels that feel peacefully abandoned flourish alongside neatly packed lunchboxes and clean uniforms.

 

secretly lunchable

I delayed in ordering a lunchbox so long—paralyzed, review-reading indecision—that Lux spent the first four days of kindergarten reusing a takeout container from whole foods. It accumulated food stains and the corners gradually grew crushed and stubby from the rubber bands pinging it together. She never complained about it though, though she did note to me that the loose carrots sticks were dyeing everything a faint orange color.

As I banded it shut one morning, I mentioned to her that I had ordered a new lunchbox. She looked so relieved: “I was hoping you’d say that, mom!”

On Friday her new lunchbox had arrived (I got one of those that weelicious makes look so amazing, the rover planetbox). She was so excited to bring it with her to school. At pickup, she unpacked it in the schoolyard to show me that she’d eaten every last thing out of it. When we got home that night, she insisted on washing it out and drying it herself, and putting it away in its box once again. 

And that is the story of accidentally inspired pride of ownership.

one day in August

Ashleigh Coleman, a Mississippi-based photographer, lover of old cameras and even older buildings, and mother of two visited Boston in August. We met up with our kids and sweated through a day of greenway fountain play and cold noodle salads from Bon Me. My girls and Ashleigh’s daughter Merrimac were having so much fun together, so after that we came back to our place for a bit. All three girls sprinted around on their strong legs, bug bites scabbed over from too many scratches, suntanned skin mixing with the dirt on their heels.

Ashleigh is Gwyneth-tall with long blond hair, tall enough to very nearly hide her six-month baby belly. She has many cameras but one of her favorites is one she inherited–a hasselblad 500c/m, an elegant black Swedish brick of a camera that she cradles naturally. (I love this photo of  it.) She frames the photo by looking down into the lens, almost as one might page through a magazine they aren’t planning on buying, arms extended, lightly flipping the dials and lens.

As we talked she took a few photos that I mentally tagged as doomed because the light seemed so dim in my room at the time. That was my iphone-training, obviously, because the hasselblad managed it perfectly.

And Ashleigh captured and preserved just a few things that already feel distant this September–a humid afternoon with the girls sharing art supplies and reading a book, Alma just a bit more baby than she is today.

preserved: Alma’s way of grabbing a hand. Not just mine, she’ll do it with almost anyone when she’s sleepy. I spend a lot of time in the evening sitting on the couch next to her bed, my arms through the bars, holding her hand as she settles into sleep.

preserved: Alma in her crib, with the mattress raised. There is something magnificent about a baby in a crib before they’re strong enough to pull themselves up. Like a cheery red cookbook on a shelf over the stove, ready to be plucked up and read on the couch.

Once they pull themselves up, you are obliged to rush in and drop the mattress down and mutter to yourself now she’ll be getting into everything I suppose. And then to get them out after a nap, you must lean down and pulley them up into your arms, a crane dutifully unloading a freight of shipping containers.

preserved: Joan’s barely-there curls. This weekend Joe gave her a courageous bang trim in the front and absent-mindedly trimmed just enough in the back for the curls to disappear. They’ll be back in a few weeks, but here they are too look at now too.

I love looking at these and I love that I get to share them with you here. Thank you Ashleigh! Ashleigh’s beauuutiful instagram account.

Acadia National Park in the morning

When we go up to Southwest Harbor in June, it’s a tradition to wake up around 4AM and drive over to Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise. We wake the girls up in the dark, bundle them into socks, sweaters, long pants, and jackets, and then we throw blankets in the car as well. Occasionally we manage to make some coffee in the dark and we bring that too.

It’s the furthest point east in the US that you can watch the sunrise (or so I whisper to myself, when we’re up there, very nearly so, though an island of Maine is out further).

Watching it climb up so slow, shivering just a tiny bit no matter how many layers you have on, you remember the sun doesn’t come up in one instant dark-light switch, but slowly, with lots of color streaking through the sky before the lip of red appears.

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But this year we came one month later, in July, and the parking lot at the top of the mountain was full! It was amazing. So, so many people up in the misty cold hours of the morning, to watch this special event that happens every single morning. 

This year was also the first year Lux caught on to how awesome and exciting it was. From the moment we woke her up, she was thrilled to be a part of it. Her excitement spread to all three of them.

Grouchy, chilly, two-year-old Lux was a distant memory, albeit an equally sweet one.

Because of the National Park anniversary this year, Downeast Magazine put together an issue solely about Acadia National Park. One of the issue’s tips suggested visiting the Park Loop road at sunrise, an easy sidekick drive after watching the sunrise, but one that had never occurred to us.

So we tried it. There were one or two other cars on the road, the entry kiosks are closed–Drive Forward, they read–and the light was like a film set. Thunder Hole, a spot that is usually mobbed, felt as if it was open only for us in our pjs.

Highly recommend.

 

by the twentieth of August

note: I’ve simplified the comment form. it should be much easier to comment now–no need to log in. so sorry to you kind ones who’ve had troubles in the past.

In the morning one tiny ant bravely tugs a speck of bread off the table, in the afternoon there’s a carnival of them celebrating under the lavender planter, a feast of popcorn kernels and graham cracker sludge arranged around the edge like banners.

With three children about me now, the fun has accelerated. But so has everything else. Time is passing in a terrifying, groundless way. I have been given nothing but an accumulation of wonderful experiences and yet, I long for more. I long to exist inside of each day of the last five years at the same time.

Feeling cheated by the passing of time, I begin to feel cheated by everything. An experience not had. An afternoon that was not perfect. A recipe I haven’t made. A lake I’ve never swam in.

I am greedy for all of life’s pleasures; and it feels like I deserve them. I’m like a drunk bidding on eBay for the goods of carpe diem and all the auctions are ending tonight.

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It’s the baby Alma that’s rubbed off on me. “Babies are born hedonists” says the Happiness Scientist. The day was meant for pleasure. Skin is meant to be grazed. If we sit next to each other, she worms her way closer to me until our arms are brushing. There can never be too much stretching and grabbing. Nor too much napping. Nor staring into stranger’s faces, but only if they are pleasant or, we might say—handsome. Nor too much chewing on golden ripe slices of mango, with the peel attached. She is so certain that everything placed within in her field of vision is for her that she grabs at each new thing with authority. 

At night I try to organize files— I know I’m only going to stay awake for twenty minutes, why not do something purposeful and minute—and I click into a grainy near-dark video of my oldest playing peek-a-boo in Rome in front of the Pantheon. If the water was rippling in the right way, her face, at that age, would be a be a reflection of Alma’s. I feel that no time has past from then, and yet I finally got Lux to a dentist this week and she found cavities and examined me with a shocked expression that this was Lux’s first visit. From a certain tiny tooth’s perspective: five long years of decay!

Every year that has ever passed suddenly seems like too much. No more years, no more months, please. This must be women why become witches. Ever notice it’s always a woman who offers the chance to control time in those old fables? There was one I used to love—she gives out a glossy ball of string, it’s your lifetime wound up like a yo-yo. Tug it slightly and the moment will fly past, tug it more, and the year with a bad bully at school is over. No rewinding though, as our heroine soon learns.

I can’t seem to teach them enough, but then they mimic me and cry “look!” at every dropped leaf and I also wish they would be quiet. I want to read them books all day but I also wish they would stop banging the wall with their knees rhythmically while we do. They try. They forget. I wonder if I am as moody as they are; I think I might be.

We need no agenda, it seems just a shady tree would satisfy us all day. Then the next day, an agenda and lots to do. I rush them from pleasant spot to pleasant spot, feeling validated by the quick pace of our shoes on the sidewalk.

she’s going

Days and days of jungle humidity ninety-degrees here. Summery groceries: 1/ lemonade 2/ melon, tomatoes 3/ cold chicken, roasted in batches in the morning 4/ good cheese.

Unfairly to you my friend reader, I have gone from talking about homeschooling here to talking about the fact that big fish (Should I start using pseudonyms for the girls? They’re getting old for this, aren’t they.) is going to school.

The first thing that happened: back in March, I called the appropriate public school number on the appropriate day and they muttered over the phone to me that we got into the school we hoped to, but had always assumed we wouldn’t. Several of our neighborhood friends did not get spots, so believe me when I say we really didn’t think it would happen.

Then we started engaging with the school: a five day, 8:15-3pm program (those hours! heart stop). The meet-the-parents events, the meet-the-principal, visit the playground, etc. Then Lux started counting the days until kindergarten, and began telling me, every morning, how many days remain.

It started to feel like a great experiment, if not a great idea.

Maybe because homeschooling has always been an assumption for me, it was an interesting twist to consider public kindergarten instead. Underneath my curiosity about the program there was the shift at home too. Lux has been home with me every day for the past five years; it feels like I’ve watched in near slow motion as she changed from a quiet being who wanted to be only with me and resented intrusions to a girl who loved activities and became drawn to big groups with leaders.

It’s exciting to think how much she might enjoy the structure of school.

I ordered $300 of crisp, warm, adorable navy and white uniform clothing for the year. With the discount that Land End’s seems to circulate every other week or so, it was actually $200, but I’m putting it in the books as $300. 

Like a farmer muttering “Lord willing” over his crops, I’m remain internally watchful of it not working. My friends have warned me that there will be at least four weeks of exhaustion and adjustment. I get that, and I’ve got plans for our post-school afternoon relax and destress sessions, namely: begin with cookies and end with yoga stretches.

But the changes I’m watching for, that I would view not just as difficulties but as deal-breakers are: 1/ whether she became a poor playmate/partner to her sisters at home. 2/ if she became less curious in engaging new ideas than she is now. 3/ whether she becomes a shell of herself for the time she is with us—tired out, cranky, a slumped pile of oreo crumbs and uncombed hair awaiting the next morning’s challenge to begin again.

And perhaps most inconceivable, to me—if it was November, and she was asking not to go to school the next day, every day that week, we would be done.

And yet, I remain expectant l for it to be totally delightful. I think she’s going to find a gang of friends immediately. I think she’s going to love seeing them every day. I think she will laugh a lot. I think she will run victory laps around the playground. I think she will fall in love with her teacher and come home quoting her. I will hear confusing retellings of once factual stories. She will eye me with a worried eyebrow when I mention morning errands that we did without her. She will discover interests that we’ve never even thought to suggest. She will smile benevolently at Joan and the pudgy chocolate chip cookies Joan will offer her from our morning. She will take on school spirit like a new cape to be buttoned around her neck. Alma will keel over with delight when Lux walks back in, as she does now, even though it’s only been five minutes.

When she goes in September, I imagine it feeling like turning off half the lights in the apartment, and then going on with our day.

I hate that when Lux asks about fall habits—will we go apple picking? Will we visit that farm again? I’m thinking mmm…probably not. Joan maybe, but you won’t. But: perhaps Joan’s current three-year-old moody emotional spiral might be buffered with more of my patience to go around? Perhaps Alma will have a real afternoon nap and Joan will enjoy a quiet time again?

And the school itself, Joe characterizes it like Sesame Street—solid and urban, but soft around the edges. Worn-in bricks, stately fence, 70s tile cafeteria, the tricycles lined up in the hallway ready to race out into the playground. Amazing teachers, devoted parents, incredible principal. Who wouldn’t want to help their daughter engage with their city on that level?