Musings

Halloween thoughts.

Julie / October 24, 2010

I have been thinking about why I like Halloween so much, especially since so many other Christians think it’s Satanic.  But it’s probably my second-favorite holiday, after Christmas.

It’s the most neighborly holiday we have.  If Christmas is when we’re nice to strangers, Easter is when we go to church, and Thanksgiving is when we’re nice to family, then Halloween is surely when we’re nice to neighbors.  We feed them candy!  We go to their houses and talk to them!  We talk to tens or even hundreds of people in our neighborhoods, exchange names, make new friends, and have an opportunity to spend the entire evening with some neighbors by teaming up for the trick-or-treat rounds.  It’s a holiday chock-full of opportunities for witnessing, even without handing out tracts.

It’s not particularly Satanic.  I’ve read a lot of articles in the past month about why Halloween is “wrong” because of the importance it holds on the Wiccan calendar.  But the reality is that Wiccans stole it just as much as the church did.  It’s a Celtic end-of-harvest festival.  There’s no historical connection back to some human-sacrificing-Wiccans, and in fact the church has been celebrating it (as All Hallows Eve) much longer than Wiccans have.

It’s the one day of the year when the world looks its fallenness full in the face.  Decorating our yards with skeletons, ghosts, and tombstones?  Pretending to be dead people?  Thinking about dead people?  Telling scary stories and creeping through graveyards?  The whole event is a festival of death, in more ways than one.  It’s a definite fall festival, taking place as the last leaves are falling off the trees and the summer warmth is fading for the last time until spring.  And it is definitely based on human death as well, as both the decorations and the costumes (which traditionally over the centuries were people dressing up as the dead) attest.  In a certain way–Halloween is the holiday when the world is honest with itself and acknowledges the reality of death and even of the afterlife, all very openly, bluntly, and gruesomely.  It’s not the Gospel, but it’s one of the first steps.  I hadn’t appreciated this fully until this year with a highly inquisitive two-year-old along for the ride: just try explaining Halloween decorations, even just the ones you run into in store aisles, without talking about death and dying and even Hell.  Not possible.

It’s an honest holiday.  This is one of the things that bugs me tremendously about Easter and Christmas: they’re so taken over by the church that people actually complain that the world is taking them over.  It just isn’t so.  They’re all pagan holidays.  Halloween’s just the only one that we actually admit is a pagan holiday.

Musings

Bloggy thoughts & technicalities

Julie / September 28, 2010

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The problem with being a certifiable nerd writing on what is mostly a “Mommy blog” is that sometimes it’s really hard for me not to break out into talking about blog plugins and hacks and other nerdy things that nobody wants to read about. 🙂  But I’ve just switched back to WordPress–which was a thoroughly frustrating experience since I was using WordPress to begin with–and so it’s a good opportunity to get a little bit geeky, right?

Blogger

I think Blogger does two things really, really well: it’s simple (to set up, to use, to maintain, and even to design) and it’s reliable (since you don’t host it yourself, you don’t even have to think about hackers, site load, bandwidth, downed servers, etc.).  It has a lot of good widgets, built-in statistics, and is fairly forward-facing in that if you use your own domain (which is free to set up on Blogger’s end) you can switch to a different platform (WordPress) and maintain all your links.  In short, I like Blogger.  I was astounded by how simple it is to develop custom themes for Blogger–from a programming perspective there’s no comparison at all in difficulty level to WordPress or any other CMS I’ve ever coded.  I went from layout mockup to completely finished, coded theme in a couple hours, despite having never touched Blogger code before.  It’s brilliant.

But. There were some things about Blogger that really drove me batty just in the short time I used it.  First, it didn’t play nicely with Live Writer, which is such an essential to me that it’s pretty much the reason I’m using Windows instead of Ubuntu.  Every time I opened an entry in Blogger to do some little edits, it would totally screw up my formatting and I’d have to go through the whole article and fix it.  Very time-consuming.  Secondly, the very simplicity of the system really begins to limit you when you want to use widgets that move beyond snippets of code on the sidebar.  You can’t really do different layouts on different pages, and there are some things that you just can’t change–at all.  There were a few things I wanted the blog to be able to accomplish, and it just wasn’t possible with the limited access Blogger gives you to the code.  One particularly troublesome area is in comments: Blogger’s comment system is very Blogger-y, and kicks your readers back onto Blogger’s site with Blogger’s rules.  I had problems with disappearing comments and actual feedback about how confusing it was.

All that said, however, I was incredibly impressed at how much customization and control Blogger does allow, considering that it’s a hosted solution.  It’s a very finely-tuned machine, and they’ve done an amazing job of keeping it simple yet considerably powerful.

One tip: if you use Blogger, and you have remote space for images (I think Dropbox would work for this even if you don’t have your own server), store them there instead of via Blogger’s default API.  Then if you ever decided to change blogging systems, your images are still all nice and ready to go wherever you are.

WordPress

But in the end, I was sorry that I’d moved and I went right back to WordPress.  (And just to clarify, I’m talking about self-hosted WordPress, not WordPress.com, which is a totally different beast that fails to impress me as much as Blogger.)  The great thing about using any self-hosted/open-source solution is that you’re really only limited in what you can do by your own resources.  The WordPress folks themselves grabbed an old program called B2, hacked it to death and re-wrote it until WordPress became what it is today.  And you or I could do the same.  If you want to hack your WordPress install so that it spews spyware onto everyone’s computer, you can do that.  Or, more practically, if there’s not a plugin that does what you need done, you can write one.  The only real limits are your skills and your time.

That very openness and flexibility is, to me, WordPress’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  I think it’s really significant that I was so much more comfortable with Blogger after literally a couple of hours of poring over the code than I am with WordPress after literally years and years of using it–I started using WordPress even before version 1 was released in 2004.  The sheer bulk and complexity of the system is no small mountain to climb.  And so, generally, it easiest just to take WordPress for what it is, use a theme someone else created or build on a theme someone else created, and search high and low for plugins to do what you want instead of even considering making your own.

I like Blogger’s themes better.  They clearly have a lot of corporate money fueling them, which is a good thing for the end-user.  But WordPress’s plugins just blow Blogger’s out of the water.  I don’t think there’s really anything at all that you can do in Blogger that you can’t do, quite easily, with WordPress, and there are certainly many, many things in WordPress that you can’t do in Blogger.  WordPress also doesn’t have “rules,” in the sense that you’re not limited to X number of pages, you can do whatever you want with monetizing your blog, you don’t have to abide by any terms of use, and so on.  There are also practical things that you can do, like nesting categories and subcategories (and pages and subpages), creating drop-down menus and contact forms, polls, RSS feeds, and so on.  You’re not limited to the realms of HTML, XML, and Javascript–you can use PHP to import that Twitter feed, for instance, which works a whole lot better than the Twitter widget on Blogger.  Where Blogger pairs simplicity with limited power, WordPress represents ultimate power with limited simplicity.  Not that you have to be able to code to use WordPress–not at all–but if you’re into hacking things, you can do a lot more with WordPress.  It’s just harder to do.

So. Little Sinners

So we’re back to WordPress, which was a fairly smooth transition because WordPress can match Blogger’s permalink structure and my images were all hosted here, anyway.  If I’d made the theme the same, I probably could have never mentioned the switch and no one would have noticed.  But that would have been a lot more trouble than I wanted to go through, particularly since one of the major things I want to do is to revamp the theme, and it would have been foolish of me to spend a lot of time porting the old one to WordPress when I’m only planning on replacing it in the near future.  So right now, it just doesn’t look very much like a Mommy blog!  Two major improvements already, however–the (blue) drop-down menus at the top are an easy way to get at all the content on the site organized by subject, and if you leave a link with your comment, the software will look to see what is the latest entry on your blog and append a link to your comment (assuming all this works correctly, that is) free linkiness.  And that’s always a good thing.  🙂  The new design, whenever I manage to spit it out, should feature those things as well as dynamic layouts to match your resolutions (more tablet/phone friendly, and also more giant-screen friendly) and hopefully some more Ajaxy goodness to make everything smoother and quicker.  And hopefully it’ll look a little more like a SAHM blog and a little less like a corporate blog, too.  🙂

Linked to Words for Me Wednesday.

Recommendations, Studying God, Toddlers

Bible books and music

Julie / September 22, 2010

It turns out that it’s really difficult to find good Bibles / Bible books / devotionals for toddlers, especially ones that are reformed!  I just wanted to run through some of the ones we have found and are extremely happy with.  Notably, most of these are by the same author/publisher, which I think is more a sad commentary on what other publishers are up to than anything else.

My 1st Book Of Questions and Answers

This is a catechism book for little ones, based on the Westminister Shorter Catechism but generalized enough on the baptism questions to work for Baptists too.  Endorsed by R.C. Sproul, John and Noel Piper, and some other major people.  It’s not a terribly pretty book, but it’s pocket-sized and in a kid-friendly type.  This is one of a series–the others are books of memory verses, church information, etc.  This one’s a real gem.

God Never Changes (Learn about God)God Is Faithful (Learn about God)God Is Everywhere (Learn about God)
This is a series of board books exploring God’s attributes.  I think these are my favorite little board books–they’re very simple and give concrete examples of how, for instance, God is everywhere.  These are the only books on this list that aren’t strictly Bible stories, but I actually like them better for younger children because they’re very basic and simple to follow.
Missing Sheep, The (Stories Jesus Told) Selfish Servant, The (Stories Jesus Told) Lost Coin, The (Stories Jesus Told)
These are also board books.  Each one very simply retells one of Jesus’s parables.  They do leave out things, obviously for the sake of space (they are board books), but stay accurately to the text otherwise.
These are part of a series called “Biblewise.”  The next three sections feature very similar books–they’re all the same size (which is kind of like a large, full-color booklet–they’re stapled instead of having a perfect-bound spine), all very inexpensive ($3 or less), all well-illustrated, all strictly Bible-based, and all avoid depicting Christ, which I find an interesting choice (and a fairly good one, considering that children tend to believe what they see exactly).  These ones seem to be geared, very slightly, to the oldest audience.  There is quite a bit of text on each page–although certainly not beyond the attention span of, say, a four-year-old.  I expect that with all of these books, we would read them aloud to our children and then when they are older, have them read them by themselves, or even incorporate them into schoolwork.
These are a series called “Bibletime.”  They are VERY similar to the “Biblewise” books, except perhaps geared to a slightly younger audience.  But the difference is minute.  They are very thorough–the “Ruth” book, for instance, pretty much goes through the entire book of Ruth.
Jesus The Teacher (Bible Alive) Jesus The Storyteller (Bible Alive)Jesus The Miracle Worker (Bible Alive)Moses the Leader: Used by God (Bible Alive)David the King: True Repentance (Bible Alive David) Moses the Child: Kept by God (Bible Alive) David the Shepherd: A Man of Courage (Bible Alive: David) David the Soldier: A Man OF Patience(Bible Alive David)
And the last series we have is called “Bible Alive.”  As far as I can tell, this series only covers Jesus, Moses, and David, with quite a few books devoted to each.  I really like this configuration, though, because it breaks each story down into manageable segments that you can actually read in one sitting, but with all the books together they provide a fairly thorough outline of each life.  All three of these Bible series seem to be geared to a similar-aged audience, but these ones seem to be slightly more appropriate for the little ones.  The pictures are still full-color, but don’t stretch to the very edges of the page (less distracting) the way they do in the other two sets, the illustrations are a little more simplified, and there are fewer words to a page.  I believe, though, that this is the only one of the sets that devotes more than one book to each person.
My Bible Story Book
And at last we come to the book that we’ve settled on so far for our family reading time.  This is a hardcover book with stories from all throughout the Bible–a very standard storybook in that respect.  It tells the stories fairly simply and accurately, with an extra kind of “food for thought” question on almost every page (out from the main text).  We’ve really been enjoying it.  The biggest downside, in my opinion, is that the illustrations aren’t terribly good compared to many other Bible storybooks (or, indeed, the books by the same author that I’ve mentioned above).  They’re very cartoony.  One positive, though, is that there’s been a noticeable decrease in “What is that?” questions about the illustrations, because there aren’t very many extraneous, irrelevant things in the pictures.  And that’s a very good thing if you have a two-year-old.
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name Jesus Storybook Bible Deluxe Edition
Finally, a different author!  😀  This book is also reformed, and its primary emphasis is to show how the entire Bible tells the story of Christ, so each story comes back to Christ whether in looking forward or in looking back.  The illustrations are gorgeous, and the theology is sound.  I think I first heard of this from Al Mohler, but it’s quite popular in general amongst the reformed crowd.  It’s a beautiful, sound book.  It just has way too much text per page to hold the attention of our toddler, and I actually appreciate the simplicity of Carine MacKenzie’s books a little bit more, although I know we’ll be reading this one too as our kids get older.  I will say that E loved it when she was a newborn–the artwork really is amazing.
Seeds of Courage 1Seeds Family Worship: Power of Encouragement, Vol. 5Seeds of Faith 2Seeds of Purpose 4Seeds of Praise 3
These CDs are fantastic. They’re just Bible verses.  Nothing else.  Just Scripture, and references, made into cheery kids music.  Musically, they’re more along the lines of Sovereign Grace kids or Absolute Worship kids than, say, Maranatha Kids–they’re not annoying or embarrassing to listen to.  They repeat a lot, obviously, because the whole point is to learn the verses and repetition goes along with that, but they’re really quite brilliantly done and fun to listen to.  More importantly, though, they WILL change your day if you have them going in the background!  It’s great to listen to worship music at all, but there’s really something significantly different about listening to straight Scripture and having the lyrics of the Word wind their way into your heart.  The only negative thing I can think to say about this wonderful series is that it isn’t free, because I wish everyone could own a copy!
So, as far as Bible learning goes, this is some of what works in our house!  Linked to Works for Me Wednesday.
Musings

One thousand pictures of your sister.

Julie / September 20, 2010

Dear R, and I’m sure L, and any other little siblings you might have one day:

I hope that you don’t see the massive photography collection we have of your older sister and feel left out.  We have pictures of her from practically every hour of those first days, practically every day of those first weeks, and practically every week of that first year.  We have pictures of her sleeping.  Hundreds of them.  The lighting is different in some of them, although she mostly looks the same.  We have pictures of her smiling.  Some of them are blurry, but you never know when we might have needed that perfect little shot so much that we wouldn’t have minded the blurriness.
And then there’s the baby box.  The baby footprints.  The gimmicky birth certificate, the first meconium-stained hat, the basket, the insane assortment of items with her name emblazoned on them, the silver spoon, the albums that actually have photos in them am I forgetting anything?

There are whole weeks of your life, even your earliest little life, that are completely unrecorded by any camera.  You don’t have a birth box, and I’m pretty sure I threw away the record of labor from your birth.  You don’t even have a box of those “special outfits” that I set aside because they were so clearly yours and not to be handed down.  You don’t even have one outfit that is “yours.”  You don’t have a doll that we bought to match your eyes.  We’re really struggling to think of birthday or Christmas presents for you, because your sister already has everything.  You should probably have the experience of opening presents, though–maybe we could wrap up some of her old toys?

But here’s the important part, dear younger children: none of this has anything to do with how much we love you.  No, wait, maybe it does: maybe we’ve learned how to love better, in fact, and so we spend more time actually with you and less time accumulating proof for later.  Look at the bright side: there are fewer pictures of you crying than there are of her; more times that Mommy put the camera away and picked you up instead!  And those missing birth records?  They got lost in the struggle to juggle a one-year-old and a newborn.  And we learned, too, that it’s better to keep just the really important things, and let them be the important things, than to try to keep everything and have it end up on a shelf in the basement or hidden inside deeply nested folders on a remote hard drive.

So don’t mind that those early minutes of your sister’s life are so much more recorded than yours.  We held you sooner, and longer, and there were more arms here to welcome you when you arrived.

Musings, Toddlers

He who answers.

Julie / September 20, 2010

I stumbled onto a post on Reddit last week where a dad was really struggling with how to teach his four-year-old about death.  She had just really begun to understand the concept, and now was understandably worried that she was going to die, that her parents were going to die, and so on.  Lots of other Redditors chimed in sharing very similar experiences with their own children–and a similar lack of words to say to soothe their children’s fears–and one thoughtful commenter remarked that adults don’t really know how to deal with death, either, and thus we have religion.

And in that moment I felt a whole new level of appreciation for belief in God: we have answers.

Every question mentioned on the thread, every fear the children voiced–we have answers.  God is good: this is a truth that as an adult I have certainly known, but hadn’t appreciated in its fullness.  God is sovereign.  God is involved.  All these things, and so many more that trickle out of these basic premises, mean that as parents, there aren’t many questions that we don’t have the answers to.  If we don’t know, God does; and we surely know that all things are under His control and that all things He does are good.  Romans 8:28 is an awesome verse to take to your children!

I have recently begun doing a catechism with E (more on that in a later post), and it begins by going through the basics of creation: Who made you? (God.)  What else did He make?  (Everything.)  Why did He make you?  (For His glory.)  And, just like that, we teach a toddler why she exists–how many twenty-year-olds, thirty-year-olds, eighty-year-olds still struggle with that question?  Granted, she doesn’t know what “glory” means, but she knows and understands that she was made by God, and that there is a reason He made her, and once her vocabulary grows to encompass such terms, she’ll know what that reason is.  That doesn’t mean that she’ll continue to believe it–that comes only by God’s grace–but the answer will always be the same, whether she believes it or not.

It doesn’t occur to me to prevaricate in talking to our kids.  I have no fear of the death question–E will cheerfully tell you that lions eat zebras for lunch (although she still doesn’t like to actually watch it), and I somewhat purposefully use the word “died” in regular conversation with her, like toys that break have “died,” and we had at least one conversation about people dying (which ended up deviating into a discussion of whether or not people have batteries) and we talk a lot about heaven and Jesus, and she asks a million questions about heaven and Jesus.  She’s very concerned, for some reason, about what things are in heaven, and how to get there, and whether Jesus has a nose and arms and hands.  I’ve learned a new appreciation for the incarnation, to know that Jesus does have those things, because of her questions.  Jesus is so non-abstract and graspable to a two-year-old.

There are plenty of other things besides death, of course.  Fear of the dark.  Thunder.  Why the sun comes up every morning.  There are so many answers and reassurances that we have because of Christ, and it is such a blessing to pass those answers on to our children!

Musings

Seasons in life.

Julie / September 2, 2010

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I am learning–very slowly–that life comes in seasons.  My life of late revolves very clearly around pregnancy: first there is the sick time, in which housework is breezy but eating and cooking are real challenges; then there is the happy middle time that I never take advantage of as much as I should; then there’s the bone-deep tiredness and ambivalent happiness and vague excitement that makes up the last four months or so of pregnancy.  I never remember how tiring that stage is, either (she says from the depths of it).  Then there’s new baby time, with a sudden rush of energy amidst sleepless nights and wondering how it’s possible that I have more energy than in pregnancy even though I’m getting much more disturbed sleep.  And lastly, there’s the early-nursing stage, with all its physical challenges and recuperating from labor.

Then, if you’re me the past two times, the cycle repeats itself instantly.

I’m finally beginning to understand that I need to plan for the changes and live each of these little “seasons” to the fullest.  Of course, there are bigger seasons, too; I’m beginning to be old enough to grasp the idea that there was a person I was ten years ago who is not at all the same person I am today, and that ten years from now, I will undoubtedly again be a very different person.  Or dead, let’s not forget that possibility.  I remember my fifth grade Sunday school teacher saying that none of us students could possibly understand the concept of a decade, and I’m beginning to see the truth in that–and I’m beginning to understand what a decade means, as I come ever nearer to my third.

I’ve also been noticing that suddenly there are stores at which I should not shop, because I’m too old, and that a freaky day of purple hair now would be just silliness.  I have a little family.  I’ve spent more time in the past ten years married than I have single.  I look at our wedding pictures and am struck by how very, very young I look.  I didn’t realize I’d acquired that many wrinkles in the years since, but I have.  I’m aging, and sometime close to this age is when things officially stop going uphill and start the long, long trek downwards until one day you’re so old and falling apart that you really can’t wait to go home.  I’m finally seeing myself on that journey and not just at the beginning of it.

All this to say, there are little seasons and there are big seasons.  There’s morning sickness and there’s mid-life crises.  I’m beginning to see that there is real value in seeing those seasons with accuracy and forethought (maybe especially the little seasons–planning for morning sickness is always a good thing) and drinking them all to the last drop.  These are the different places and different times in which I am, by the grace of God, and I should be honest with myself–and aware–and do the best with each season’s imperfections and beauties.  Every one of these moments is laced through with sin and fallenness and the longsuffering glory of my Savior: the fallenness and decay drive us towards home, and the glory provides the scenery along the way. 

I don’t want to miss any of it.

Homemaking, Musings, Time Management

Finding My Routine

I am one of those people who thrives with a little checklist.  It makes me focused, dedicated, determined, and I love that feeling every time I cross a task off the list.

But the problem with housework is that it’s kind of insurmountable to create a good list.  There are so many recurring tasks, so many tasks that depend on others, and so many things that crop up that I can’t possibly plan for in advance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to create such a list.  I’ve made spreadsheets, schedules, and checklists; I’ve tried Remember the Milk and Toodledo; I’ve even written my own little program to manage my tasks the way I prefer them managed.  I’ve read Flylady  and Shopping for Time and countless blogs on the subject.

And still, I can’t quite compile a list that actually works in our house.

Some lists don’t have enough, and I end up not getting enough done.  Some lists are so overwhelming with the detail and scheduling that the second I have a day that goes utterly unaccording to plan, I’m instantly so far behind on my to-do list that I pretty much have to scrap the entire thing.

This morning, I hit on a new idea: I’m not hopelessly inept at the actual doing of household things, it’s just the planning that trips me up.  (Although the planning certainly makes the doing more efficient.)  So–what if I made a list of the way my day would go, on a “good” day, with the tasks and chores that I get done?  And what if I left it sufficiently vague so that on a really good, energetic day, I can do all the tasks really well and thoroughly, and even work in a bit extra–but so that on a bad day, I can just do the bare minimum and not fall completely off the chart?  What if I don’t account for all the tasks that I do anyway (like brushing my teeth), and make sure I’m only spending time worrying about (and feeling good about completing) the tasks that I actually have to work to find the motivation to do?

And so I made a new list, and I called it a “routine” instead of a to-do list.  Because really, this isn’t a list of things I need to accomplish, this is just the way my day needs to be structured and the habits that I need to form.  I’ve failed too many times to be very optimistic about the success of said “routine” layout, but I’ve never quite felt so strongly that a list was in harmony with the way my days really happen, or that it had the right blend of flexibility and high expectations.

We’ll see how it goes… tomorrow!