Wednesday, September 30, 2015

2015 Northwest Charlotte Mason Educators Conference

I had the enormous privilege to attend the Northwest Charlotte Mason Educators Conference in Seattle this last weekend.  I believe it was the first one west of the Rockies, but definitely not the last!  The retreat center was amazing - the location was gorgeous, the staff was friendly and helpful, the rooms were comfortable, the food was tasty, the chapel was lovely...  it was everything you could possibly want for an event like this.  I am so grateful to the organizers of the event that they did this.  Is was such a wonderful gift to the Charlotte Mason Community.

I didn't take many pictures of the conference as it was happening, because I feel uncomfortable about taking and posting pictures of people without their direct consent.  But I would like to share some of my nature pictures as well as comment a little (ok, more than a little!) on the talks and events.

Many bedrooms (including mine!), the dining area and one of the conference rooms looked out over Puget Sound
After a delicious dinner and some wonderful conversation, we kicked off the formal part of the conference with Brandy's talk, "What's Love Got to Do With It?  Cultivating Your Child's Affinities", which you can get from her web store if you're interested.  I highly recommend it - it was a fantastic talk, full of both wisdom and practicality.   I thought her discussion about how we cultivate affinities was excellent and extremely helpful.

A nearby nature sanctuary on Saturday morning.  The sun did come out on Saturday, but not until the afternoon.
We also had the option to listen to Catherine Levison discuss contemplative prayer after Brandy's talk.  I ended up staying after the talk and listening and discussing the subject further - as well as hearing many wonderful and fascinating stories.  This late evening really helped solidify some things I've been trying to work through for some time, and I felt so much peace coming out of it.  I hesitate a bit to say this so close to that night, but I think it was a life-changing experience.

The same location, but Sunday afternoon.  We had a blue sky all day on Sunday and it was gorgeous!
I started Saturday morning early, as I'm used to getting up at about 5:45.  It was so lovely to have time to pray, read the Bible, shower, take a walk, pray the rosary...  and then go into the dining room and have a wonderful breakfast all ready for me.  And there was no whining or crying or complaining or anything! (Mornings can be a little tough around here, as you might guess)

Catherine Levison gave the first talk of the morning, discussing "How Do You Want to Be Remembered?" It was a talk full of wisdom and encouragement.  Her list of key things to remember are things I think I need to post prominently, because even though I know them, I have to keep reminding myself how very important they are. 

I have no idea what kind of fungus this is, but it was sizable, and I was fascinated by how it had swallowed up this leaf you can see in the middle of the picture.  I tried tugging on it, but the fungus was holding it so firmly that the leaf didn't budge at all.
Brandy's next talk was about how "The Principles are Practical" which I think she plans to make available on her site as well.  It has a slide deck, so I imagine that's what makes it a little more complicated to put online.  Again, a fabulous talk (and her handout with her organization of the principles is priceless) and it is really making me want to go through Start Here, Brandy's Principles Study.     

The Retreat Center's nature trail
After lunch we had the opportunity to go on a nature walk with Naomi Goegan, then spent some time doing handicrafts.  Again, both were great opportunities.  And I haven't even mentioned all the great conversations I had with the lovely and interesting women who attended this conference with me!  I met so many wonderful people with great stories to share.  And there were so much wisdom to be had from everyone.

Then there was tea, which I actually bailed on because I was feeling a little overstimulated at that point.  I had finished up my nature notebook entry a little late in the handicrafts time period (I was knitting and then crocheting, then decided to draw), and by the time I went into the dining room for tea everyone was in full conversation and it just felt like a bit too much.  My introvertedness kicked in and I felt that dull roaring in my ears which is my clue that I need to spend a little time outside and away from the hubbub of everything.  I added more to my nature notebook, stared at the water for a bit, then was ready for the scheduling discussion at 4.

This discussion was very helpful and encouraging, and showed just how important it is to have some connections with people who are trying to do what you are doing around to bounce ideas off of and to help troubleshoot.  I wish the discussion could have been twice as long!  (And I wish all these incredible women lived, oh, within an hour's drive of me so we could do this every month - or more!!)

Someone on the nature walk identified these as Chanterelle mushrooms.  Aren't they gorgeous?
The next talk was Kathy Wickward's talk about Charlotte Mason's methods and special needs children.  I wish everyone could have heard this talk, because as Kathy pointed out, "special needs are regular issues on steroids".  Also, I think it was so helpful to hear a bit about what it is like to educate a child with special needs and so encouraging to hear how CM's methods and ideas are appropriate for all children.  I wonder if they are perhaps even more important for children with special needs because they are so much more likely to be given limited exposure to truth, beauty and goodness.  Her discussion about accommodating and how to build skills while also continuing that exposure to great ideas was particularly helpful.

And then it was time for dinner, with another talk and a book discussion after that in the evening.  (Yes, Saturday was a long and full day, but an excellent one!)  Naomi Goegan's Nature Study Through the Ages talk was very helpful and encouraging, and I especially like how she emphasized that we have to be willing to open our own eyes for nature study to work.  We also have to be patient - nature study is not a short term endeavor.  

I had hoped to go the The Nature Study Idea book discussion, but since I only managed to finish about a third of the book, I decided to attend the Living Page discussion instead.  I think most of the attendees attended this discussion, as it was a very full room!  But we had a good discussion, and I was encouraged especially to consider creating a child's personal history chart after hearing one woman describe how she did it with her children.  Attending this talk really made me realize how much more I could appreciate a book if I had the opportunity to discuss it with other people.

And now we're (finally!) at Sunday.  I didn't realize this write-up would get quite so long, but I think it is good for me to get a chance to record some of my impressions.  I hope perhaps it will be encouraging for some of you out there who didn't get to go, but have considered attending a conference like this.  If you have the opportunity, or even sort of have the opportunity - do it!

On Sunday morning I again took a walk, then went to Mass at the chapel at the retreat center.  The Mass was lovely, and I had the opportunity to serve as an Eucharistic Minister for the first time.  It was incredibly moving, and I felt so privileged to do so.  It is something I've been scared to do in the past, but now I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.

And after breakfast, we had a west coast organizational meeting.  After talking briefly with the one other woman from Northern California (hi, Helen!) we decided to join the Southern California table.  We had some ideas about how to build the CM community in California, which is exciting, and I enjoyed hearing what other women have done to build community in their areas.  And then we discussed the next West Coast Charlotte Mason Conference - and guess what, it will be in Northern California next year, and I'm going to be taking a substantial role in making this happen!  I'm very excited, and I feel complete peace about it.  (now at least!)  There are several other wonderful women who are also going to be working on the next conference, and I'm very glad to have to opportunity to work with them and get to know them better.   

And then it was time for our last talk of the conference, Brandy's talk on the famous (well, in CM circles at least) fresco with St. Thomas Aquinas in the center and all the virtues and areas of study.  Her talk was very informative, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to get to stare at the painting more closely and understand who all the figures in it are.  I'm looking forward to Brandy putting this one online, because I quickly realized that I could either stare and consider or I could take notes...  and I decided to stare and consider.  But I'd like to have the notes too, because there is a lot of information embedded in that fresco!

And then after lunch it was time for the conference to end and for everyone to head out.  I did have a chance to chat a bit more with some of the women I met, and then I met up with my husband's Aunt and Uncle to visit and take a walk.  We walked back to the nature sanctuary and had a great visit in the lovely September sunshine.  Then it was to the rental car return, to the airport, to the plane, to the Sacramento airport, to the economy parking (where I thought I had lost my parking ticket and ended up finding it on the ground outside my car!), then to my mom's house to return her car and pick up my mother-in-law's car, then to my in-law's to return her car, then I walked home (owning one car can sometimes be challenging, logistically speaking!).  My daughter had waited up for me, and we eagerly swapped stories while I ate a late dinner and wound down a bit from the drive and walk.  

Mount Rainier - I have never flown so close to it before!
And now I'm really looking forward to the West Coast Charlotte Mason Conference next Fall!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Alaska: 17 Days with 5 Children

Our trip to Alaska sprang upon us suddenly one October day in the form of question and a happy answer.

"Will you marry me?"


And all of a sudden our vague thoughts of, "oh, wouldn't it be neat to visit Chris (my husband's brother) in Alaska someday?" became, "We're going to Alaska next summer!"

A view from Skilak Lake Rd in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge
Since we were making the effort to get all seven of us up there, it seemed reasonable to figure out how we could extend the trip beyond what was needed for the wedding.  My husband is a self-employed website developer, which means no paid vacation but it also means he can do his work from any location with an internet connection.  Matt and I have talked occasionally about combining travel and work, and this was a good opportunity to try it out.

Fireweed, gorgeous and incredibly common
We set some priorities for the trip, namely we wanted to be able to be up there for at least two weeks,  to spend some time at Denali National Park and on the Kenai Peninsula, and I wanted to do at least one thing outside that wasn't at toddler pace.  We wanted to visit at least one glacier and see some Alaskan wildlife like moose and bears.  We wanted to camp, but we not willing to camp for the entire time.  We wanted Matt to be able to work for part of the trip, but not all of it so he could have a vacation too.  We also wanted to minimize costs as much as possible, since we didn't have a lot of time to save for the trip.  This meant that there wouldn't be any flight seeing trips, hotels, nannies or long boat excursions.  We planned to eat out only during our long layovers at the Seattle airport.

Portage Glacier
We did very well with the plane tickets because we each signed up for an Alaska Air credit card and used the bonus miles and companion tickets to pay for most of the flights.  I believe we only had to pay for three full price tickets instead of six, which was a great help.  Surprisingly, the single most expensive part of our trip was our rental minivan.  We were able to drop the price by a third by continuing to shop around as the trip got closer, but it ended up being more expensive than the airfare!

A big horn sheep at the Anchorage Zoo
We spent the first part of the trip in Anchorage, where Chris lives and where the wedding took place.  We were able to stay in a rental house with Matt's parents, his grandfather, his other brother and his fiancĂ©e, and an aunt and uncle.   Yes, it was a full house - fourteen people in all!  I took over the cooking and a majority of the grocery shopping for our extended family, which helped a great deal with costs and with providing opportunities for the family to visit together.  Matt was able to work everyday, and on one afternoon my mother-in-law watched over the napping 20 month old and three year old while Matt and I took the older three on a fabulous bike ride along the Anchorage coastline.  (Yay, I got to do my one thing that wasn't at a toddler pace!)  I also took the kids to the Anchorage Zoo and the start of the wonderful solar system walk in downtown Anchorage, and as a family we visited the Portage Glacier and Whittier Tunnel, the Anchorage Science Museum, and took some walks along a scenic local greenbelt.

This is an amazing scale model of the solar system, where the sun (pictured) is in downtown Anchorage and Pluto is about 8 miles away in Kincaid Park.  They scaled the walk so that at a leisurely walking pace, each step equals the distance light travels in one second.

The bike trail that runs along the sound in Anchorage

After the wedding, Matt unplugged and we headed off to the Kenai Peninsula.  We had brought a huge duffel packed with all our sleeping bags and pads, as well as our backpacking stove, tent and cooking gear.  Because we were outfitted already for backpacking, our gear was small enough and light enough to be able to bring without too much trouble.  We did have to borrow two more tents from Matt's brother as well as an ice chest, but he was more than happy to help.  We spent three days camping near Kenai Lake in the intermittent rain and drizzle, but had one gorgeous day where we got to float the Kenai River on Chris' drift boat.  The three older kids got to try their hand at fishing for the first time, and we got to see a grizzly and many bald eagles.

Exit Glacier, from a viewpoint showing where the glacier was 200 years ago.  What I find even more amazing is that at the peak of the last ice age, this glacier filled that central bowl and only bit of the peaks on each side peeked through the ice.
The Kenai River - isn't that glacial blue amazing?
After the Kenai, we packed up and headed north.  When we first plannedour trip we had hoped to all camp in Denali, but after a difficult camping trip to Yosemite in May, we decided to split forces.  I stayed in Palmer at a rental suite with the younger three, and Matt drove north with the older two, planning to camp three nights in Denali National Park.  

Wasn't it considerate of this bear to pose so nicely along the river, just after the spot where we put in?
I had a great time with the younger three in the Palmer area.  The rental suite, being a little off the beaten path in Palmer, was reasonably priced (for an Alaskan summer rate, at least) and turned out to be a gem.  The weather was great (although it was funny to hear local kids complaining about it being "too hot" at a very pleasant 74 degrees!) and we visited the reindeer farm, a small local lake, a local park, went to Mass at the local Catholic Church and crashed their parish picnic and drove to the Matanuska Glacier.  On the way to the glacier I got to see a female moose and her calf, but unfortunately didn't have the presence of mind to take a picture.  I was too busy trying to make sure the kids were able to see it too!  This was, by far, the most restful part of the trip, and I relished the opportunity to focus on my younger ones and move at their pace without feeling torn between their pace and the pace of the older kids and my husband.  I taught our six year old to play chess, put littles to bed early and read Daisy Chain and enjoyed watching them interact with the beautiful surroundings.  

Trying to help two kids feed the reindeer and keep the food away from said reindeer and protect the shrieking 20 month old and take pictures at the same time was truly a comical experience.  I love this picture, although I didn't appreciate having to wipe reindeer slobber from my camera after the experience.
Temporarily dividing up the family ended up being a great choice, since Matt and the older kids had nothing but rain, drizzle and cold the whole time they were at Denali.  After getting back from a great but very damp tundra walk and finding a wet tent, they decided to throw in the towel and come back a night early.  Thankfully there was space (and a beautiful sunny day!) to dry all their things at the rental in Palmer, and we were able to spend some time together as a family at the rental and visiting the local musk ox farm.

Their undercoat is amazingly soft and warm, but it takes six hours to brush each musk ox in the spring!  And then the hair has to be cleaned and spun...  no wonder it costs $90 for a small skein!
And then it was time to head home.  We had fresh salmon for dinner on our last night in Alaska and I was able to take one last walk the morning before we left.  Our trip back was reasonably uneventful though long, and we were happy to get home again.  The younger kids missed their toys, and my daughter missed having a little more personal space and more crafting options.  I'm not sure I was all that glad to be back, but I think that's a good indicator of how much I enjoyed the trip.

The view from the parking lot at the Catholic Church in Palmer.
We're already talking about how we could go back to Alaska, and what we would do next time.  I'd still like to go to Denali, and I would love to take a boat excursion out into Prince William Sound.  There's also a longer hike up past Exit Glacier to the Harding Ice Field that caught our eye, as well as a number of other hikes on the Kenai Peninsula.  And with Chris and his new wife Shana intending to stay in Alaska, we have an even better reason to go back!  Maybe in another three or four years...

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

After a Long Break

Wildflowers in Palmer, Alaska
I always find it hard to start blogging again after taking a break.  There is so much I could say, but I never quite know where to start.

Should it be...

Our 17 day trip to Alaska in July?

School plans for our current year?

Our current schedule and average daily chart? (a la Brandy at Afterthoughts)

My new Shakespeare co-op with three other families?

How I'm trying work in in little enriching things for my younger two?

Summer fun, like our camping trip to the beach, lake time and pool visits?

Some amazing local nature observations and experiences, like watching a deer pull the velvet off his antlers?

Or perhaps the more profound, like my beloved grandmother's death?

Or my realization about how great it is to not be pregnant or laboring under the cloud of postpartum depression or anxiety, coupled with the discovery that I have been struggling with these issues for 11-12 of the 14 1/2 years I've been married?

And after an absence, I always find myself wondering, "why bother writing here at all?"  But yet I continue to think about it, and I eventually come back.