Jun 192015
Our multitasking swim bag. Ready to homeschool while we are waiting for each child's lessons to finish.

Our multitasking swim bag. Ready to homeschool while we are waiting for each child’s lessons to finish.

Most of us find that summer goes by far too quickly. We get to the end of summer and wonder where our “break” went. We slide into fall grumbling about how we don’t get enough time off or we didn’t do what we wanted to.

This summer I wanted to try being a bit more deliberate with my summer planning. I wanted to keep the children motivated and learning and work on some of the skills that we don’t always have time to work on during the school year. Summer gets quite busy, however, so I began writing out a formal list of routine tasks I wanted to try to get done each day. This actually took quite a bit of time.

Recently, my children also started asking for an allowance. While there are a million allowance strategies, my husband and I felt most comfortable setting the expectation that allowance is earned. Our children earn the paltry wage of $1 a week (50 cents for the youngest) but that small amount is motivating to them and the Dollar Store offers many goodies of interest.

So, we married the two ideas: To Do lists and allowance. Each child has a list of tasks to do each day including simple things like “get dressed” and “brush teeth” as well as homeschool and chores.

We began this experiment June 1 with our three eldest children as the participants.

One child thought this was a dreadful idea and wanted to make sure there would be plenty of downtime to pursue individual projects. She wants to get through the checklist of tasks each day as quickly as possible.

Another child has eyes full of dollar signs and eagerly looks at the checklist trying to figure out how to earn the most money.

The youngest child does not understand the concept of the checklist nor of money and therefore does not worry about it.

How are things going so far?

We have a few successes. We are managing to get some school in every weekday, which is great because standardized testing is coming soon for us. We are also coping well with the change to our routine for weekday swimming lessons.

But there is still a lot of room for improvement.

We have yet to have a single day where any of us have checked off all of the To Do list items.

We are behind on paying allowance.

We are still struggling with the To Do list recordkeeping.

The first lesson the children seem to have learned about To Do lists is that it is OK to let tasks drop off the list each day. While this is true for the real world, and a good lesson, it is a problem for us because many of our tasks are “every single day” activities like brushing teeth that shouldn’t be postponed.

So far, my biggest problem is getting the children to use their time effectively. When they dawdle on their tasks (most of which I have to supervise or assist with), it means I am losing time that I could use on my tasks. However, we don’t want to be too strict about the To Do lists either and make this a miserable experience for all involved. It has become a To Do list bootcamp of sorts for all of us.

If this sounds like a whole lot of stress during a time that should be stress-free, it kind of is, but it is also giving a framework for our summer. If we can set ourselves up with a productive routine, we are going to have a head start taking on fall homeschooling and other activities.

So, our children’s organization experiments continue. For the moment, we are mostly focused on trying anew each day to see what we can get accomplished. This restart mentality is one of the most helpful in any organizing situation.

Do you hold your children to a daily list of chores or other “To Do” tasks? Do you have any lessons to share? Please comment below.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jun 162015


Summer is one of those natural “restart” points of the year. The weather is warmer and particularly for those of us with children, the change from school schedule to summer schedule is a chance to rethink our life goals and priorities.

As I sat down thinking about my goals for the summer, I felt overwhelmed. I began creating calendars and checklists but realized that with a major life change (the addition of another child), I needed to upgrade my time management system. In my current system, I put things in my calendar, write project-based tasks down in multiple places and keep a lot of stuff in my head.

So, I am turning to the experts for help.

Recently, I attended Stever Robbins’ excellent webinar

Stever has a great approach to time management, realizing that it is not just about logistics and planning but also your goals, personality and general approach to life. You can listen to the webinar yourself for free at the above link.

In the webinar, Stever emphasizes 3 necessary behavior changes to be an effective user of To Do lists.

1. Create a capture system and carry it with you. You have to have one and only one spot where you “capture” your to do items as they arise. For Stever, this is a hard copy moleskine notebook. It could be an Evernote tab, an Excel spreadsheet a phone app of various kinds or a sheet of paper. Whatever you use, you should have it with you at nearly all times. So, when you think “Oh yeah, I really should get around to doing X,” you write down X in your capture system.

2. Create and maintain a Master To Do List. You should have one and only one master to do list where you organize and prioritize the projects you have captured. Again, this can be paper or electronic but probably electronic is going to work best for most people since this document will be updated continuously.

3. Use your Master List. When you want to know what to do next, you need to get in the habit of referring to your list rather than checking email or addressing whatever “emergency” has just arisen.

I am just in the baby steps of this system. I am still “capturing” tasks in my head and in random places. I am trying to put them all in Evernote. Evernote is currently also serving as my “Master” list but also my Google calendar where I schedule in specific tasks. Over time, I will experiment with different To Do list formats to see what works best.

My broad goals for the summer include:

  • weight loss – losing most or all of my pregnancy weight
  • managing the renovation of the exterior of our home
  • homeschool – finishing testing and this year’s curriculum as well as planning for next year

Any one of these could be a “To Do” for an entire summer. Naturally, I am trying to do all three!

As with all organizing tasks, this one is likely to take a while to adjust to my lifestyle but I am committed to improving my time management skills.

Do you have a capture system and master to do list? What challenges do you face with to do lists? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jun 062015
It's watermelon season!

It’s watermelon season!

On a hot, humid summer day, there is nothing more refreshing than a slice of ice cold watermelon!

The organizational problem with watermelon, however, is that it is so large and takes up a lot of space in the fridge. If you are a watermelon fan, it’s time to make some space. Clear out a spot in your fridge and designate it your “watermelon spot.” Ideally, place it at about eye level so that every time you open the fridge for a snack, it is the first thing you see.


In addition to being delicious, watermelon is a great source of the antioxidant lycopene that can serve as an internal sunscreen in addition to its other health-giving properties!

Another way to solve your watermelon space problems--mini watermelons!

Another way to solve your watermelon space problems–mini watermelons!

My children loved these "cute" sized watermelons.

My children loved these “cute” sized watermelons.

We are aiming to eat watermelon every day during the summer as part of our healthy eating goals.

Have a watermelon tip or favorite watermelon recipe? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jun 042015
With spring came the arrival of my son!

With spring came the arrival of my son!

“When are we ever going to see that baby?” a friend recently inquired. Yes, my new baby is here! We added a wonderful, healthy son to our family.

Even with three other children, it is hard to remember how tiny newborn babies are. Our whole lives were reevaluated in “proportion” to our new little one.

Smiling in his sleep.

Smiling in his sleep.



Fitting in to our new routine.  Here, at soccer practice.

Fitting in to our new routine. Here, at soccer practice.

All went well with the delivery and our recovery has been an enjoyable time with family and friends. Easter, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day passed in a blink. It has been a challenge to settle into a new rhythm as a family of 6. When you add a new baby to the family, everyone has to grow up a bit. The big sisters become ever more responsible and the “itty bitty” who was skiing with me just months ago is now the “big brother.”

The little brother becomes the big brother.

The little brother becomes the big brother.

It has truly been an enjoyable spring. Virginia is at its best in spring. While home recovering with my baby, my garden put on the most magnificent show of blooms. Even the iris which have never bloomed, bloomed this year. During this pregnancy, I developed a severe case of “rose colored glasses syndrome” where I found myself even appreciating how wonderful DC traffic was over the Christmas season. My affliction continues–although in milder form.




Fern tendrils ready to open.

Fern tendrils ready to open.

Cherry blossoms in DC.

Cherry blossoms in DC.


The leaves return.

The leaves return.

A new entry in my blooms from a plant I put in last year.

A new entry in my blooms from a plant I put in last year.



The "miracle" irises.

The “miracle” irises.

Lanterns on the battlefield for Memorial Day.

Lanterns on the battlefield for Memorial Day.

Yet life with an infant is never all roses. Despite my bliss, it is a struggle to get going in the mornings. Usually, as soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I am already behind. There is mess to clean up from the night before, sheets to wash (again!) and outfits to change. Getting dressed is more challenging as I am currently at that in-between size where maternity clothes are too big but my regular clothes are too small. My laundry and dirty dishes seem to have quadrupled. My eldest son spontaneously decided to potty train just weeks after the baby came, which is wonderful, but added to my duties came sprinting to the potty at a moment’s notice and daily carpet cleaning.

On top of everything else, the Tooth Fairy has been to visit 3 times!

On top of everything else, the Tooth Fairy has been to visit 3 times!

We are also winding up our homeschooling efforts and preparing for standardized tests. For the past 8 weeks, we have essentially been conducting a math camp, completing 291 pages of second grade math and 307 pages of fourth grade math to finish up our Singapore Math curriculum.

During a math intensive day, I got the email from goop about “Postnatal Depletion

“On average, a mom’s brain shrinks 5% in the prenatal period . . . Part of the brain shrinkage mentioned above, Dr. Serrallach explains, is reprogramming: “It supports the creation of ‘baby radar,’ where mothers become intuitively aware of their child’s needs, if they are cold or hungry, or if they cry at night.” This hyper-vigilance becomes dangerous for the mother when she, in turn, is not supported.”

–“Postnatal Depletion,” goop

The very next thing I read was:


I laughed at the irony.

I laughed again at my obstetrical follow-up appointment when I read the depression screening questionnaire. When it asked questions about whether I have difficulty sleeping, I knew that if I answered “Yes,” it would look like depression but if I answered “No” I would be certifiable (as who does sleep well with a newborn baby?).

I took solace in quotes like this one from blogger Eileen Ogintz in The New York Times:

“You have to be prepared that it’s not one Instagram moment after another. We have incredibly high expectations and . . . it’s not perfect. It’s a messy experience and aggravating.”

–Eileen Ogintz, “’Taking the Kids,’ for Nearly 20 Years,” The New York Times, April 28, 2015

Mother's Day 2015

Mother’s Day 2015

During my break from blogging, I have been enduring many life lessons on organizational challenges. I have been reading wise words from other organizational gurus and thinking about ideas for future blog posts.

I hope that spring has treated you well and am glad to be back with you on this organizational journey!

P.S. For anyone bothered by the math question, here are the solutions we came up with.

The tessellation that took us forever to solve.

The tessellation that took us forever to solve.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Mar 082015
Ready to ski!

Ready to ski!

For the past two years, we have enrolled the children in ski lessons during the winter months. We learned that they LOVE skiing. This year, as we were deciding when to start lessons, it was a particularly cold week due to a “polar vortex” and temperatures were in the low digits.

Temperature doesn't mean much in Virginia.  When you add in humidity and wind chill, you have to subtract between 5 and 10 degrees from the temperature.  15 is frigid!

Temperature doesn’t mean much in Virginia. When you add in humidity and wind chill, you have to subtract between 5 and 10 degrees from the temperature. 15 is frigid!

“It’s going to be really cold this week. Do you still want to ski?”
“But, we’ll have to get up really early in the morning.”
“That’s OK.”
“And it will be really, really cold.”
“Our ski coats and gloves will keep us warm!”

There was no excuse in the book that would keep them from skiing. They overrode my reluctance. So, once a week, we altered our homeschooling schedule to allow for “ski day.” We got up super early to make it to the resort for the 9 a.m. lesson time.

We had to be on the road by sunrise and sometimes a little before.

We had to be on the road by sunrise and sometimes a little before.

Just in time for class to start!

Just in time for class to start!

My pregnant body would no longer fit in my winter coat so I told my husband I needed to use his ski coat and pants. He handed them over without complaint. He was surprised the pants weren’t dragging on the ground on me….until I pointed out how high I was pulling them up around my belly.

My husband had no idea that his ski clothes double as maternity ski wear.

My husband had no idea that his ski clothes double as maternity ski wear.

The ski class is grouped by age and ability. It ran from 9:30 – 2:00 p.m. and included lunch. The kids in the class come from all over the world, especially during peak winter holidays. It is a great chance for my kids to interact with all sorts of children.

“Mom, there were some girls speaking Spanish and taking selfies at lunch.”

“Mom, I met a friend today!”

One time, Fairfax County schools were out for teacher work day and it seemed like every kid in the county headed to the ski resort. When I went to pick up my children at the end of the day, my 6-year old was engaged in a cute staring contest with another child.

The ski instructors are also some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Being around their positive and encouraging personalities has a wonderful impact on my children as well.

The girls spent the entire ski season in the “green” class. The green class is one below the highest level “purple” class. To graduate from the green class, you need to be doing mostly parallel skiing all of the time with very little snowplow/wedge. It is a hard level to get out of. Even my own skiing skills took a long time to get past this level!

Progress on a parallel stance!

Progress on a parallel stance!

Wide parallel turns are the transition from wedging.

Wide parallel turns are the transition from wedging.

Waiting for the ski lift.

Waiting for the ski lift.

This one sometimes skis with a snowball so she can hit you on the run.

This one sometimes skis with a snowball so she can hit you on the run.

Starting to put a little edging into her turns.

Starting to put a little edging into her turns.

Leaning back is still a problem we are working to correct.

Leaning back is still a problem we are working to correct.

Favorite trail this year: Geronimo!

Favorite trail this year: Geronimo!

Favorite trail: Lower Mak Attack!

Favorite trail: Lower Mak Attack!

While the girls skied, my son and I generally headed back to the car to take a nap and sip on hot chocolate until it was time to pick them up.

Relaxing in the car with some hot chocolate.

Relaxing in the car with some hot chocolate.

Last year, he and I had done some simple skiing together but that was impossible this year as pregnant ladies don’t ski. However, one day while registering the girls for class, the ski instructors asked how old my son was. They then informed me that next year he too would be eligible to enroll in the ski class! With that in mind, we wanted to make sure he had at least some exposure to skiing this year so next year wouldn’t be a rude surprise.

Suited up and ready to ski!

Suited up and ready to ski!

I signed him up for a private lesson. He seemed kind of excited at first but as soon as we had to put on all the ski gear, including boots and helmet, the tears and tantrums came out. All of that gear was just sensory overload. When he finally settled down from the gear, more tears and tantrums came when I left him with the instructor.

Not going so well at first.

Not going so well at first.

“Do you want to build a snowman? How about we play in the snow?”

My son just wailed.

I suggested they try to put his skis on and get him moving as he likes skiing once he gets moving. They tried but my son would not cooperate. A more senior instructor came out to help and after about 5-10 minutes, they came over to me,

“You know, not all 3 year olds are ready for ski lessons. We can’t work with him like this.”

Since I had already paid for my non-refundable hour of lesson, I asked if I could work with him a little and see if we could at least get his skis on and then the instructor could finish up with whatever time was left in the lesson.

“Go ahead and try,” they said dubiously.

I went over and gave my crying son a big hug. We walked around the ski learning area for a bit. He stopped crying and looked up at me and said:

“Mom, do you want to build a snowman?”

Even through his crying, he had heard and understood every word they said to him.

“Sure!” I said and we proceeded to build a small snowman.

“Do you want to put your skis on?” I asked him.

“I can’t balance on my skis,” he said

“Well, let me help you!” I said. We got the skis on and I started pulling him around the ski area. The ski instructor saw him and came over.

“Do you want me to put my skis on too?” she asked him.

She put her skis on and within less than a minute, my son went from holding my hands to holding hers and they went off to ride up the gentle hill on the ski escalators.

Finally!  A smooth transition with no tears.

Finally! A smooth transition with no tears.

“What did you do to make him cooperate?” the senior ski instructor asked me after they skied off.

I told her that he just needed a little reassurance. While common practice for preschoolers is to have mom drop off the kid and then disappear while the kid “cries it out” for a bit and then calms down, my son doesn’t like this pattern. He likes to have me there to help him gradually transition to new situations.

Next thing I know, he is high-fiving the lift operator!

Next thing I know, he is high-fiving the lift operator!

And smiling!

And smiling!

After the lesson ended, he still wanted to ski! He was “shuffling” off on his own power.

Unfortunately, we had to stop. He looked forward to getting out of his ski boots and back into his “car shoes.”

And the next week, he transitioned much easier and had his full one hour lesson!

Smiles from the start this time!

Smiles from the start this time!

Having a great time!

Having a great time!

As I was filming my son from afar, some mothers nearby commented, "Look at that itty bitty on the lift!"

As I was filming my son from afar, some mothers nearby commented, “Look at that itty bitty on the lift!”

He looked forward to his “skedding” lessons.

The other big change in our ski lessons this year was that the girls had the chance to ski in Utah at one of the major resorts. I always wondered how our Virginia ski lessons (which I find to be excellent) would compare to those of the major ski resorts.

To our delight, the girls did very well in their Utah skiing. The slopes were steeper and the altitude thinner but they didn’t think it was any harder than their Virginia skiing. They received excellent reports from their Utah ski instructors too.

The gorgeous Utah mountains.

The gorgeous Utah mountains.


My daughter got her first lesson in using ski poles from her Utah instructors.

My daughter got her first lesson in using ski poles from her Utah instructors.

Utah skiers!

Utah skiers!

After ski class was over, the kids always loved to have a little time to play in the snow. They were plenty tired but loved to slide down the small ski slopes, especially my son!

Some apres-ski sledding!

Some apres-ski sledding!

My daughter collapsing after lessons.  While this looks painful, she is just naturally this flexible.

My daughter collapsing after lessons. While this looks painful, she is just naturally this flexible.


Organizational Tips for Skiing

  1. There is a LOT of gear involved in skiing. After 3 years of practice, we finally have this down to a system. Each child needs: ski coat, ski pants, helmet, balaclava (full face hat), goggles, ski gloves and ski socks.
  2. We store the goggles, balaclava and ski gloves in each child’s helmet and make each child carry his/her helmet to and from class.
  3. The night before we lay out all the gear and pack a lunch.
  4. The morning of our expedition, we boil water and put it in a big thermos, usually mixed with hot chocolate.
  5. Each child wears rubber rain boots to and from class, changing into ski boots at the lesson site. This makes walking through the parking lot much safer and faster and minimizes the weight of the boots that mom has to carry.
  6. After lessons are done, we make sure we have goggles, balaclava, 2 ski gloves and the helmet packed back up.

Next year, we might add to our gear challenges by purchasing skis and boots for each child. We have done well with renting so far but it would make the check-in process for lessons much smoother to avoid the equipment rental process, particularly if we will be adding a third skier. We bought the used skis and boots my son was using for $50. They paid for themselves in saved rental fees.

Our 2015 ski team photo.

Our 2015 ski team photo.

Anyone else skiing this year? Any tips to share on managing gear for gear-intensive sports? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: ,
Mar 062015
Is this spring?

Is this spring?

It has been a while since my last post and yes, I’m still here! There has been an overwhelming amount of activity to take care of lately: skiing lessons, more doctor appointments for the baby, keeping up with the homeschooling, preparing my children to participate in a cross-country wedding and getting the house ready for our new arrival. Sadly, my blog has seen the brunt of my neglect.

Yesterday, the Fredericksburg area was treated to a surprise 6 inch snowstorm! While we have spring in mind, the weather has other ideas. This is the first winter I can remember in Virginia where we have had snow on the ground for more than two weeks at a time.


Of course, some are thrilled by the snow, especially my son who loves to go out and play in it.

Measuring the snow.

Measuring the snow.

Yesterday's snowfall?  6 inches.

Yesterday’s snowfall? 6 inches.




Exhaustion at the end of his snow play.  He barely made it in the door.

Exhaustion at the end of his snow play. He barely made it in the door.

In the next few posts, I hope to catch you up on some of our recent activities and the organizational lessons that came along with them.

Behind the scenes in March, I will be:

  • preparing our tax returns
  • doing some early spring cleaning
  • working on some home maintenance projects
  • cooking some healthy meals to freeze in advance
  • packing a bag for the hospital

What are your goals for March? Please share in the comments.

P.S. Reminder that this Sunday is Daylight Savings Time! Time to “spring forward” one hour at 2:00 a.m. Sunday and readjust all of our schedules.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Feb 042015
My theme word for 2015.  Font: Le Architect by Manfred Klein.

My theme word for 2015. Font: Le Architect by Manfred Klein.

My focus word for 2015 is something that I have been thinking about over the past year as I have conducted various diet and exercise experiments on myself and seen my body change in various ways. During all of these experiments and particularly recently when I was looking in the mirror at my ever-expanding pregnant body, I came to realize that there is no “ideal” body weight or size but rather an ideal set of proportions.

Proportion is about finding the right balance of factors to achieve an ideal result. Proportion is important in so many areas, including appearance, health, time management, social activities, spiritual and psychological growth, financial goals, parenting and yes, even organization!

What I especially appreciate about the word proportion is that it is very different from the word “perfection.” Perfection implies that there are a limited number of ways to do something and often only one “right” way. Perfection also seeks to make every single part perfect. Proportion acknowledges that there is beauty even in imperfection and that perfection isn’t necessary. It is the overall balance and end result that is the most important.

So, as I venture into 2015, I am hoping to learn the following about proportion:

  • Learn to identify the ideal proportions in many areas of my life
  • Correct areas that are out of proportion
  • Appreciate how individual preferences on proportion vary and learn to identify the proportions used by others and their results

I hope you will also take a moment to write down a focus word or goals for 2015. I don’t view the focus word as a sort of report card by which I judge myself but rather a request to the world to teach me something that I need to know. The simple act of putting a request on paper seems to give the request priority. It helps keep me alert to life in general and by the end of the year I am always surprised at how much I have learned, often with very little effort on my part.

For examples of other approaches to focus words see:

  • Marcia Francois’ Word of the Year – who also gives us the great quote, “Aren’t you glad there’s no rule that says we have to have our goals done and dusted on 1 Jan?”
  • Kacy Paide’s 3 words for 2015
  • And as one final example, over the weekend, I had the privilege to attend the funeral for a 95-year old neighbor. During a very touching eulogy, the niece of this amazing woman told us about her aunt’s unique goal-setting method. The devoutly religious woman used paper checkbook registers to track her prayer requests. In the “Payee” line, she would write down the name of the person she was praying for and what she hoped God would achieve for that person. Sometimes it was people she knew and sometimes it was complete strangers from the street. She used the registers to remind herself of how she wanted to spend her time in prayer. She could also look over the registers from time to time to see how many of her prayers were answered.

You can see that there are many ways to go about your goal-setting for 2015. Even if you don’t take any concrete action right now, mull it over in your mind and you might be surprised at what comes to you a week or a month from now.

May 2015 bring good proportions to us all!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 262015
My theme word last year.

My theme word last year.

Inspired by Marcia Francois, the Organising Queen, I have been selecting a theme word each year for the past several years. I find the theme word concept is a great way to stay focused. If you just list all the goals you have for the year, you end up with an overwhelming list of different ideas. If you take another look at that list and try to focus in on just one word or theme that runs through all of those goals, it really does help to clarify what you are trying to accomplish.

Last year, I chose the theme word “traction” for my personal goals. To me, this word meant:

  • getting unstuck from unhealthy or unproductive behaviors
  • continuing to try new ideas until you find an effective solution for your problem
  • eliminating complacency and remaining aware of opportunities for improvement even in areas where you are performing well
  • forging into unknown, messy and complex situations
  • moving noticeably forward, whether by an inch or a mile

So, how did I do on my “traction” goals? I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, particularly when it came to my physical environment organization goals and my blogging goals, but in many areas, I can celebrate success!

  • I completed 44 days of clean eating last spring, dropping 14 pounds. I learned to cook in an entirely new way, began to change my taste buds and have managed to continue my diet throughout the year in a modified way (more on this to come).
  • We completed another cross-country trip to visit family spending 18 days on the road with 3 children! We all had a ball and it is still on my to do list to give you a trip log of our adventures.
  • We achieved one of our milestone personal financial goals this year and have made significant progress in working toward our next goals (which will take decades to achieve).
  • Our homeschool curriculum this year is the most challenging we have attempted with more subjects and another child to preschool. So far, it is going very well.
  • We celebrated the holidays from October through December in grand style, from homemade Halloween costumes to a homecooked Thanksgiving and many activities for Christmas.
  • I did most of the above while pregnant and had to fit in numerous doctor appointments into an already crowded schedule!

It is a healthy and positive habit to take a moment to celebrate your successes. Even if you didn’t achieve exactly what you set out to do last year, did you make progress in other ways? Did you gain a key insight? Did you make key preliminary steps toward achieving your goals? Did life take an unexpected turn for you and you ended up having to completely revise your goals and go in a different direction?

Take time to congratulate yourself. Life is hard and we all deserve to feel that we are making “traction” in our own unique ways.

In my next post, my theme word for 2015.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 252015
It's been a month since Christmas.  Reflecting on our holiday memories.

It’s been a month since Christmas. Reflecting on our holiday memories.

Long time no post! Lots has been going on this month and we are nearly at the end of January! On this one month past Christmas, I wanted to take a moment to wrap up the holiday season.

Our holiday season was enormously busy as well. We had a wonderful time celebrating throughout the month but it was nice to be done with all of it. When I look at the big picture of holiday chores, it came down to eight major categories of tasks.

1. Putting Up Decorations

We put up more decorations this year than probably ever in years past. I shared with you my new front door decorations which I love. The other treat I did not share was the adorable mantel design my daughters created all on their own. I awoke from a pregnancy-induced nap to find my daughters had hung up all the stockings and created a fun toyscape. They even put up a tiny stocking for their sibling to be, which was incredibly sweet.

My daughters' impressive mantel design.

My daughters’ impressive mantel design.

We had a lot of fun with lights this year. During the dark days of December, having a variety of lights on throughout the house really cheered things up. Next to the mantel, we tried a DIY idea I had seen last year to wrap lights on upturned tomato cages to make modern “trees.” It took a little bit of work to wrap all the lights but they added a bright, modern touch to our mantel. My children came up with the idea to color some foam blocks we had with permanent markers to make “presents” for the trees.

Our tomato cage "trees" with foam block "presents."

Our tomato cage “trees” with foam block “presents.”

We added a few new handmade decorations to our tree as well.

The knitted "elf clothesline garland" by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my "to knit" list forever.

The knitted “elf clothesline garland” by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my “to knit” list forever.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

2. Shopping/Making Gifts

This year, in addition to purchasing gifts for our children, we exchanged homemade gifts with family members. I was excited to try this for the first time but didn’t quite appreciate how much work it would end up being! My gifts included some homemade treats, knitted sheep and some portrait ornaments from my children.

A baking extravaganza!  Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A baking extravaganza! Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

Portraits of family members done by my children.  They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames.  I loved these!

Portraits of family members done by my children. They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames. I loved these!

I had a lot to learn about sending baked goods through the mail. The first lesson was that you need to mail quickly after baking to prevent your hard work from becoming stale. We rushed to mail them one day after finishing the baking. We were in a huge rush to pack and label everything and it came out a bit rough. We tossed goodies quickly into sandwich bags and packed with shredded newspaper. If we ever did this again, I would have on hand one of each size of the U.S. postal service standard mailing boxes to estimate postage and packing requirements. (These can be picked up free at the post office.) Also, picking up a supply of colored tissue paper for nicer packing material and/or tins that exactly fit in the boxes would have been a nicer touch.

My daughter was so inspired by my knitting that she asked me to get her started on her own project. She picked it up immediately and began taking her knitting with her in the car when we had errands to run.

A new knitter!

A new knitter!

In other handmade activities, we signed my daughter up for sewing lessons at the incomparable G Street Fabrics during December. She ended up being the only child in the class and received private lessons, making an adorable drawstring bag and an assortment of pillows.

Sewing class

Sewing class

3. Family Photo Session

Since we have very young children who seem to grow by the day, we always end up delaying taking our holiday card photo until right near the holidays. It is always a full day, exhausting production getting everyone’s hair and clothes ready and taking enough pictures to capture one worthy of using for the card and individual portraits of the children. This year, I had an extra challenge trying to look attractive in my advancing pregnant state. Fortunately, I found some great YouTube videos about using contour makeup that seemed to help. I also learned the hard way that our waving iron was malfunctioning as it got too hot and burned off a lock of my hair right near the front! I tossed it out and added “new waving iron” to my Christmas list.

My pregnant holiday card look.

My pregnant holiday card look.

We learned a few years ago that you can make your family portraits look 1000 times better just by taking them outside when the light is optimal. For us, this is always just after the sun sets but it is still light out. I learned this year that this is called the “golden hour” of photography and that professionals use this trick as well. There is even a calculator that will tell you approximately when the golden hour starts based on your geographic location.

4. Organizing Used Toy Giveaway

I posted about this in detail before so I won’t repeat it here. We learned that we can lessen the stress of this activity by working on it a little throughout the year. When purging toys, we can clean them up, wrap them up and group by age and gender.


5. Sending out Holiday Cards

I learned a great tip this year about designing our holiday photo card. Every year, we have the same problem where my tall husband throws off the aspect ratio of our photos. He is always the tallest person in the photo whether he is standing or sitting down. For some reason, when I try to scale the photos down to fit on the photo card, I have to choose between cutting off his head or cropping all of us at the knees. This year, I tried numerous card formats from different stores and just kept running into the same problem. There was no way to fit in our full photo.

I was about to give up when I learned that Wal-Mart offers the option to print a completely blank photo card. I was able to design and crop my own photos using photo editing software and upload them to be printed on a blank photo card. I could also add in my own text boxes after the upload so the text was crisp and clear. Another bonus, I didn’t have to remember what holiday card formats we had used in years past and worry that we were repeating one.

6. Celebrating Christmas

On Christmas Eve, my children were very enthusiastic about making cookies for Santa. We made chocolate chip molasses cookies, which were awesome. They put out cookies and a large handful of carrots “for the reindeer.”

Treats for Santa.

Treats for Santa.

Santa was very tired and not feeling quite up to par due to a recent cold virus. Santa fell asleep and woke up just in the nick of time the next morning! Santa had just barely finished putting out the presents and filling the stockings when a small voice appeared over my shoulder.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Oh, just playing with these presents that Santa brought!”

We had been so tired from activities 1-5 that we hadn’t had time to clean up the family room, which was quite a disaster. Realizing the immense leverage I had in this situation with eager children ready to open the stockings and presents, I insisted that everyone help clean up the house before we could open the presents. It really was quite a mess and it took a couple of hours to finish.

"Mean Mommy" made everyone clean before we could open presents.

“Mean Mommy” made everyone clean before we could open presents.

I was the least popular person in the house having everyone clean on Christmas morning but I couldn’t bear the thought of adding a ton of new toys to the existing mess. When it was finally time to open presents, the children were thrilled and had plenty of clean space to play with and enjoy them.

7. Planning/Cleaning up for New Year’s Party

This year we hosted a small New Year’s party for family and a few friends. It was a great incentive to get the house cleaned up from Christmas. Yes, even though we had just done a big cleaning effort on Christmas Day our house gets trashed extremely easily with all the activity going on. So, we cleaned up again and had a wonderful evening, even making it all the way to a midnight celebration!

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight.  A little girls' delight!

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight. A little girls’ delight!

8. Taking Down Decorations

After all the celebrations of the past few months, it was bittersweet taking down all the decorations. On the one hand, it was sad to say goodbye to the holiday season, but on the other hand, it was nice to be able to focus again on everyday life.

I told my children I would need their help to take down the tree.

“That’s too much work!” my 6 year old informed me.

She was such a brilliant helper putting up the decorations but the thought of trying to figure out how to pack them all back into where they came from was completely overwhelming to her. Quite honestly, it seemed overwhelming to me too! I found that taking it one step at a time helped and using the basic organizing technique of trying to focus on picking out categories of things. I labeled zippered storage bags which I packed with ornaments of the same type. I also separated my ornaments into two main bins. One bin held kid-friendly ornaments that could not be easily broken and the other the fragile ornaments.

It took nearly a full two days to pack up all the mantel and Christmas tree decorations. When we were done, this is what we were left with.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

Then it was on to the front door. We purchased a new 3-foot storage box to hold everything. (Plastic boxes are a must for basement storage.)

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

It is a little strange to see all the amazement of Christmas packed up so small and compact. My children are already looking forward to the time 11 short months from now when we take it all out again. As for me, I hope to work up the energy by then.

Have any organizing lessons learned from this holiday season? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Dec 282014
Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa's workshop!

Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa’s workshop!

My husband has been bugging me to clean out our basement for some time now. There are a lot of things to go through but a large pile of toys was one of the problem areas. These were hard to get rid of for me for a couple of reasons. They were extremely sentimental to me and were given to us by sweet people we love. My children still liked a lot of them and they were all quite nice toys that seemed to me should be worth something to someone. I told my husband that I planned to give them away to needy families for Christmas.

A week before Christmas I had made exactly zero progress on this project (as there were a million other things to get done). I didn’t really have time to do this project but something inside me was bugging me to get on this.

My husband doubted that anyone would even want these old, used toys. If you donate to groups like Toys 4 Tots, you will note that they only want “new” items. Nobody wants used.

I told my husband that I would try a test. I would post a quick list of the toys to CraigsList in the “free” section. If there was no interest, I would round up a donation for Goodwill. So, I went down to the basement and began pulling out a small selection of our old toys. I took a photo, wrote a description and posted to CraigsList. I showed the list to my husband.

"We have new-in-box toys stored in the basement?"

Yes, we did! Mixed in with the old stuff were new, completely unwrapped toys. These were duplicates we had received for holiday or birthday gifts that I had never quite gotten around to returning or the kind of toys that my children just don’t appreciate and never play with.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

At first, there was no response. A few hours went by, however, and I had 5 or 6 responses. We didn’t ask anyone for details about why they needed the toys but some volunteered.

Thank you so much,
Living with family.
Husband working three jobs to make ends meet.
Thank you for blessing my daughter

I have a 2yr old little girl and would like to get whatever you are willing to give.

My grandson will be very happy. I’m taking my hubby to get surgery tomorrow. He has stage 4 throat cancer.

It seemed like most of our recipients were hardworking, resourceful people. They were the sort of people you are happy to help out!

The new toys were of course the most popular. I was gradually whittling my list down. I took items off the posting list as they were spoken for. There were a few used baby toys left and I went to bed with the listing up.

I awoke to 6 or 7 responses wanting the baby toys! I took the posting down and wrote everyone who had responded by then telling them I had more toys to go through and would probably be able to come up with something for everyone.

I spent the day washing and tidying up the used toys. I sprayed them down with my favorite orange-scented Lysol to remove any dirt or germs. I rounded up all the tiny pieces for each set that my children often strew throughout the house. I packed them up into boxes or bags, wrapped them and bagged them for delivery, writing each person’s name and address on the bag.

"You want me to drive where?"

I needed my husband’s assistance on the last leg of this project. Even though every person I interacted with seemed like a kind, decent person, I realized that I still needed to exercise caution when interacting with random strangers on the Internet. These nice people had all trusted me with their addresses and the fact that there could be children at each address.

The first group of deliveries.

The first group of deliveries.

Just to be extra safe, I sent my “muscle” (a.k.a. husband) to do the delivery work. I let everyone know that my husband would be dropping off on their porch and gave them a rough time window. My husband ended up in some interesting places, including unpaved county roads.

This experience made me wonder if Mrs. Claus isn’t getting short shrift to Santa. Would it surprise anyone to know that Mrs. Claus might be the driving force behind the legend? Sure, Santa gets all the photo ops driving around in the sleigh and filling the stockings but is it really Mrs. Claus’ kindness toward children and her goading of Santa that makes Christmas happen at all?

My husband was so thrilled to be finally getting rid of stuff out of the basement, that he gladly drove our used stuff all over town. When I had the first shipment ready, I told him we might want to wait until the next shipment was ready to do the delivery.

"No, let's do a first round and I'll go again if necessary."

Since this was our first “Santa” experience, this ended up being an excellent idea. For the first test run, we were delivering to 4 houses. That evening I heard from two of our recipients who indicated they did not get their shipments.

At first, we feared that someone might have taken the presents but some investigation showed that Santa had a few delivery errors—in one case delivering to the house across the street and in other to the house next door. My husband was disappointed and personally fixed one of the deliveries. The other, seemed to have been fixed by a neighbor who saw the address on my delivery bag and realized there had been a mistake.

It was interesting to learn interacting with some of these families that disappointment is an intense emotion for them. When the deliveries were temporarily missing, one family adopted a mindset of “I’m going to do whatever I can to find this package.” But it was more common to have families adopt a defeatist attitude of “Oh well, things like this always happen to me. I guess we tried.” I can’t imagine how much life must have to kick you in the teeth to want to give up so easily. Fortunately, we were able to find the shipments and not disappoint any of our families.

I went back into the basement the next day looking to find deliveries for the remaining 6 families. Somehow, yet again, we came up with something for everyone. We washed up toys, put in fresh batteries, tested everything to make sure it worked, wrapped and packaged. Out went Santa again—two days before Christmas — this time with a 100% success rate.

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

In the end, we gave away about 39 packages of toys, helped out 10 families and roughly 17 children. It cost us nothing other than our time.

Our recipients were so grateful:

We received your gift wrapped toys! Thank you so much! Happy holidays once again.

Thank you so much again for the gifts. My kids are gonna love them.

Just want to say thank you again. He really enjoyed everything.

But these families gave us a lot in return. They gave us a more peaceful and serene home with less clutter. They gave me the motivation to start cleaning out the basement! They also helped us to remember our blessings and to think more kindly of those in need. Many times in the news, the needy are portrayed as a kind of drain on society. This project helped us to remember their humanity and see how wonderful these people can be as well.

This project made a huge impact on my children. When we were deciding which toys to give away, our kids had a much easier time letting something go when they realized that it might be someone’s entire Christmas present. They also stopped whining about their own first world Christmas problems immediately when I reminded them of the children we were helping who would be glad to have as much as they did. I even think my husband had at least a little fun dropping off the deliveries.

"We should do this every year!"

I was surprised to hear my husband say. For him, it honestly has nothing to do with the charitable aspect of this project. He just likes to see the stuff go out of our house and me cleaning out the basement!

I now have a better appreciation of how wasteful it is for me to have extra, unneeded toys in my house when there are many people who would gladly give them a good home. As we go through the year, I will have a better eye for what might be better off blessing someone else. It will really help me in my decluttering efforts in 2015!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , , ,
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