Posted in family life, recipes

St. Nicholas Day (and a recipe for cookies!)

Due to St. Nicholas Day creeping up on me unawares in the middle of the week, I did not remind my boys to set out their shoes; due to the boys being only 3 and 4, they fortunately did not remember that small mysterious gifts should have appeared overnight. I had aspirations of making small St. Nicholas dolls (inspired by Waldorf pocket dolls) and placing candy canes in their hands like staffs… maybe they could tow along some chocolate coins as well…

However, I did introduce them to the story of St. Nicholas (no books, just me – again, I was woefully unprepared), and we baked speculaas cookies to celebrate!

I found a recipe on the King Arthur Flour website that didn’t call for too many obscure ingredients, stopped to buy sugar on my way home from work, and began mixing up the dough with the kids. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my almonds anywhere to make almond meal… so we improvised by cracking 1/2 cup worth of fresh hazelnuts we had lingering around aimlessly, and grinding them up in the food processor with a couple tablespoons of flour to absorb any oils. We also doubled all the spices because more is better, for spices at any rate, in my opinion.

Apparently it is also true in the boys’ opinion, as I couldn’t get them to stop eating the cookie dough, and I can’t get them to stop eating the cookies now!

But really, they had so much fun mixing, tasting, rolling, tasting, cutting, tasting, and so on 🙂 And the cookies turned out quite well! Crunchy, spicy, sweet, and addictive, with nubbly texture from the larger hazelnut crumbs – I’ll be adding this tradition to our annual list, and hopefully adding to it in years to come (in addition to books and gifts, I’d love to celebrate the day by being like St. Nicholas and anonymously blessing a family in need – I’m sure there is a good way to coordinate the timing of that with the holiday, and I know there are many opportunities to do so).

And now for the recipe itself!


St. Nicholas Day Speculaas Cookies

Slightly altered from King Arthur Flour’s Spiced Star Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts (more traditionally, ground almonds or almond flour)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I use unbleached)
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk

Directions

  1. If using whole nuts, grind them in a food processor with 2-4 tablespoons of the all-purpose flour
  2. Cream together the sugar, butter, vanilla, and spices
  3. Mix in the ground nuts, the remaining flour, and the baking powder; the dough will be very crumbly at this point
  4. Stir in enough milk for the dough to hold together
  5. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill (in the fridge for 2 hours or in the freezer for 30 minutes)
  6. Preheat oven to 325° F
  7. Roll to 1/8 inch thickness, cut into desired shapes, and bake on parchment paper for 15 minutes (King Arthur suggests 15-20, but my cookies were ready between 12-15 minutes)
  8. Enjoy!
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…the same thing that distinguishes addiction from passionate interest also divides unhealthy love from that which is the highest experience of humanity. That is, love is real when it expands and enhances your life – and troubling and problematic when it contracts or impairs it. Whether you love a person, a drug, or an intellectual interest, if it is spurring creativity, connection, and kindness, it’s not an addiction – but if it’s making you isolated, dull, and mean, it is.

– Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction

 

healthy vs. unhealthy love

Posted in musings

the virtue of hope

One of things I have learned from my depression is that hope, while certainly made easier by pleasant circumstances and positive emotions, is most emphatically a virtue. It is possible to cling to hope with raw and reddened hands, eyes blinded by night and storm, refusing to release that slender line though every fiber of one’s body and every echo in the tempestuous wind is shouting out the futility of holding on.

Hope is not a wish list for Santa Claus, or a fantasy of a perfect airbrushed future. Hope is a conscious choice to endure, a moment-by-moment fight to persevere, a decision to stay the course despite all odds and appearances.

Hope does not aim for a peaceful and indulgent future, where every want is satiated and every inconvenience eradicated: it could not derive its lasting power from such a weak and flimsy foundation. Hope is anchored in the everlasting love of God, looking towards a future in which every pain and sorrow will be redeemed, made beautiful, and given purpose.

Hope impels one’s feet forward through the valley of the shadow of death, to which no end can be seen.

Advent, in focusing our attention on hope, does not attempt to sugarcoat the suffering of the world with carols and cookies, but rather endeavors to give us the strength and the vision to press on through that suffering without giving in to despair or bitterness. With hope, we may be as small and weak as the one isolated candle flame that flickers in the darkness this first week of the season, but we are at the same time enervated by the raging and glorious power of unleashed fire. No icy cold can put out our light so long as our wick reaches deep into the wax that is Christ in us and for us.

In answer to the hope of the world, He came. To give us the hope to endure to the end, He came. In His coming, in the Christmas manger, in the weakness of a newborn baby, is all the strength we need.

Posted in musings

this day

some day, I won’t need to calm myself down with deep, measured breaths before making a routine phone call.

some day, I won’t feel insecure about my son’s differences and be afraid to take him places where he might stand out in a negative way

some day, I won’t build walls every time I get the chance to make a friend

some day, I will knock on a neighbor’s door even though it isn’t Halloween

I believe that I can change, and I believe that I will change, in the same way that a tree changes as it mature from a sapling to a giant – shaped by the primal clashing of the environmental forces around it with its own fierce urge to live and grow. I believe this because I have changed before…

this day, I no longer believe that a mistake makes me a failure as a person

this day, I no longer feel that I am personally to blame for every heartache or frustration in the people I love

this day, I advocate for my son the way he is and seek accommodations that will help him learn and grow

this day, I choose to swallow my fears and lean into community despite the challenges and inconveniences and anxieties that come with it

this day, I am stronger and braver and wiser than I was before, and some day I will be stronger and braver and wiser than I am now

what matters is not the speed at which I travel, but the direction of the path I take.

Posted in family life

dance to the music no one else can hear

So now, having just explained in great detail why I think special ed preschool could be a great help for Rondel despite my misgivings about the public school system in general, I am going to argue the other side against myself. Hopefully writing this out will help me make a decision! And if not, hopefully it is helpful or interesting to someone else in a similar spot.

First, you should know this about Rondel.

When my son is in a highly stimulating, fun, chaotic environment, his energy ratchets up so high that he can’t always control it. Simultaneously, especially if he is hungry or tired (or if another kid is pushing his buttons), his anxiety often escalates as well. Either of these things could be a struggle independently, but when combined they can make situations very difficult for him. His body feels out of control, his emotions feel out of control, and his external environment feels out his control. In response to that, he will often take actions that on the surface appear irrational or bizarre: he may get overly aggressive in his play, wrestling after his friends have asked him to stop; he may try to run away to escape the chaos; or he may break down into incoherent tears.

Birthday parties, amusement parks, playgrounds, noisy restaurants, music class, movie theaters, and other noisy places can all cause sensory overload and meltdowns. Vigorous physical play may be avoided because of concerns about falling, sensory overload, and the potential for explosive outbursts and aggressive behaviors due to fight-or-flight reactions. Perhaps most unfortunately, the kinds of things done by the teachers who work hardest to make their classrooms fun for most kids – busy, colorful places with lots of “activity stations,” fun music, dancing, games – may be precisely the things that aggravate kids with SPD. As a result, these teachers may find that the harder they work to make class enjoyable and to involve these kids, the more they shut down or overload. It’s hard to imagine a more potent recipe for frustration and misunderstanding on both sides.

Brock Eide, The Mislabeled Child


Second, you should know this about me.

One of the greatest struggles in my life – a struggle that I have heard countless times in the lives of my friends and family as well – is feeling that I don’t belong: that there is no group of people among whom I can be completely myself and at the same time completely loved. It is out of this struggle that my parenting philosophy was born. My goal as a mother is to give my children a relationship (and ideally a whole family community) in which they will be listened to, understood, and unconditionally loved. Whatever societal forces are pressuring them to fit into a certain mold or to act a certain way, I want our home to be the safe place in which those forces have no power.

Now, I also have hopes and expectations for my children. I want them to be thinkers and readers; I want them to be wise and compassionate; I want them to love deeply and speak kindly. But even the wisest person has moments of foolishness; even the kindest person has words they regret. In those moments, I want my children to know that my love will not cease or waver, that I will always love them for who they are even as I help them grow and mature. And I want them to know that the rate of their growth is never a cause for shame, regardless of how slowly they may be progressing. The direction and the effort are the things that matter.


With both of those things in mind, putting Rondel in a special preschool designed solely to help him acquire certain skills by a certain deadline seems antithetical to my whole concept of parenthood. He is not a flowering bush that I can freely manipulate by well-timed applications of different fertilizers or hormones; he is his own person, uniquely designed and gifted, with his own path and timeline to follow. It is helpful for me to know the ways in which he is different than “normal,” so that I can anticipate his struggles instead of setting him up for failure, learn how to help him through difficult situations instead of flailing about in the dark, and access the accommodations he needs to thrive – but it isn’t helpful to focus on those differences as things that are “wrong” with him and try to fix them or train them out of him.

And my fear is that he will think just that: that we believe his way of being is inadequate or wrong, that we don’t accept him as who he is, and that we are willing to put him in an environment that stresses his sensory and emotional systems to the point of overload in an attempt to change him into someone else. It’s hard to think of a better way to demolish a child’s confidence in himself or to damage his trust in his parents’s love and understanding. When the music plays that only Rondel can hear, I want him to dance to that beat with freedom and fullness, holding nothing back in his pursuit of the calling for which God has designed him, no matter how strange or awkward that dance may appear to those who are deaf to the song. Speech therapy we can get at a private clinic, without needing to compromise our ideals in the process; the other skills he needs for life will grow in time, as he learns their value, in the context of love and peace and belonging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in musings

when tools come with tainted memories

I grew up hearing horror stories about public schools.

Every time we drove past one, my dad would comment on the chainlink fences, the buzzing alarm bells, or the thick small-windowed walls. He would tell us about Mrs. Weinstein, his fourth-grade teacher, who was so nasty as to apparently have burnt a traumatic scar into his memory. He would regale us with the tale of how in elementary school he would ask for a bathroom pass and just scream in the bathroom at the top of his lungs because he was so bored/pent up/overwhelmed by the classroom environment. He would call them “jails for kids” (although my mom would always gently reply that it was hyperbolic to go that far).

My mom didn’t have nearly so many negative things to say, but I knew that she dropped out of high school and worked her way through community college and university to get a master’s in engineering, and considered self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning to be far more valuable and efficient than teacher-dictated, extrinsically-demanded education.

After I met my husband, I learned how he had been bullied through elementary school, to the point of being anxious, angry, depressed, and aggressive as even a young child – his innate friendliness met with rejection, and his self-confidence and self-esteem dealt crushing blows that he still sometimes struggles to overcome.

And so when the supportive, understanding, encouraging women in the special needs ministry at my church encouraged me to seek an evaluation through the public school district, to see if Rondel qualified for any free services, I was apprehensive, wary, and unsure. Now that his evaluation is past and I know that he does qualify – now that the registration and enrollment paperwork sits in front of me on the table – I am still all of those things.

The woman who would be his teacher is, from what I can tell, an energetic, passionate, and intelligent person, who deeply cares about her students and all their unique ways of being (of which there are certainly many in a special ed preschool!). Her classroom and schedule are well-designed, full of all the things young children enjoy and all the activities that strengthen and challenge their developing skills. She even told me that based on my description of Rondel she would ask the OT to do a sensory consult for him in class and potentially give him access to occupational therapy for his sensory difficulties and their emotional sequelae. My concerns do not rest with her, but with the whole philosophy of standardized, forced education in general.

During our IEP meeting, the evaluators kept mentioning that this or that skill would be “necessary for kindergarten next year.” To succeed in kindergarten, Rondel would have to learn to sit and pay attention, to be quiet and listen for the majority of the time, to participate in group activities instead of sitting on the edges doing his own thing, to hold a pencil or crayon with enough finesse to write letters and numbers, to respond to directions, and to speak intelligibly. And critically, he would need to learn all of those things by August. To succeed in life, it will be useful and courteous to know how to sit quietly and pay attention to other people; it will be beneficial for forming friendships to be able to engage in group activities and respond appropriately to social cues; it will be helpful to be able to write and draw, but not necessary in an increasingly technical world; and it will be of great importance to speak so that others can understand, particularly for a child who loves to talk as much as he does! But there wouldn’t be any deadline on his acquisition of those skills. Without the impending shadow of kindergarten hanging over him, there would be no rush for him to develop those abilities in his own way and at his own pace – with the exception of his speech.

And it is because of the integrated speech therapy that I am considering preschool as a viable option for Rondel at this point, despite the negative backstory I have for public schools, and despite my plan to homeschool. No matter where the rest of his life takes him or what learning and education look like for him, he will be able to do better, with less frustration and fewer tears, if he can communicate his needs and ideas with the people around him. I want to give him this opportunity now to learn the skills he will need to do that, while he can still do “school” for only 7.5 hours a weeks instead of being expected to fit his life around an all-day, every-day schedule of external demands and schedules. If he grows in his other areas of weakness along the way (especially in social and sensory areas) – so much the better! One fewer hurdle to overcome later!

And if it triggers his sensory issues to the point where he has increased anxiety and meltdowns, we can pull him out. Trying the system out, in an attempt to help Rondel, does not mean we are tied to it forever – or for any arbitrary length of time, honestly. It is all about what works best for him, at this moment, in this context. If to him it feels like a “jail”, if all he wants to do is run away and scream, if it feels like his heart is being crushed – well, unlike my parents and my husband, he won’t have to stay in that environment for years while it molds his character and personality. For us, it can be just another tool in our toolbox.

Posted in family life

sensory play without sensory issues

As babies and toddlers, neither of my boys especially enjoyed being dirty and playing in the mud. I still remember the first time Rondel explored the soil in our garden of his own accord, and the poignancy of watching him touch the moist dirt without panic or revulsion (he was better with sand, but dirt was difficult, and mud impossible for a long time). Limerick would tolerate and investigate things, but never sought out the sensations, preferring to watch and observe; there wasn’t the overt sense of something being off or abnormal that there had been with Rondel, but there also wasn’t the “typical” childhood pleasure of immersing oneself in those physical sensations that I remembered from my own experiences.

Aubade, however, actively seeks out the dirt, and very visibly relishes getting wet, dirty, and muddy. While this of course comes with its own challenges (any ideas for persuading a baby not to shovel fistfuls of dirt in her mouth whenever the opportunity arises?), it is so incredibly refreshing for me to have a baby who initiates that kind of interaction with her environment. She is so bent on exploring and experiencing the world around her, with no hesitations, anxieties, or sensory discomforts to hold her back, and I love watching her!