Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Noah's Birthday Bonfire

There's a magic about the dark.

Last night Noah had a birthday celebration. We had daytime and early-evening committments, but he wanted to celebrate his birthday on the day, and in the dark, in part because it was a full moon. So we lit a big bonfire at our place and arrived back here with a swarm of friends just after it got really dark, just before moonrise.

We roasted marshmallows, popped popcorn and cooked bannock-on-a-stick. We doled out a big birthday cake. Every kid had brought a flashlight and they swarmed around the property, through the woods, to the apple and plum tree for (more!) food, played hide-and-seek. Then I went off secretly into the forest and hung a dozen and a half 'light-pens' off the trees. These were inexpensive ball-point pens we'd found at a store a month or so ago. They have three coloured lights in them, and button batteries and a clear plastic shank. When you turn them on you can select one of 7 colours, or a flashing sequence of all 7. They're really bright. They also had lanyards attached. So I "hid" them around the forest, all flashing like fairies, and sent the pack of kids (aged 3-17) in to find one for each of them. The sight of the lights dancing in the woods was amazing!

Then we had various packs of kids running around the property with their coloured lights spinning on lanyards. They decided you could be on a "team" by setting your light to the colour matching that of the other team members. Joining a team was easy -- set your light pen to a different colour. They roamed for a couple of hours like this at least, just being together. We had the telescope out and practically burned our retinas out looking at the bright full moon. It was totally magical. I don't think anyone will forget it for a long time.

And it made realize again that simply being together in the dark creates magic. I remembered the "Shadows in the Forest" game we have, a Waldorf-style board game played with a candle, shadow-casting wooden trees and little gamepiece gnomes. Everyone loves it and we have a fiercely-guarded tradition of saving it for certain special times of the year. This summer on warm nights we used the air mattress and an Itty Bitty Book Light to do our bedtime readalouds under the stars on the lawn. There was an amazing display of northern lights one night, and there were plenty of shooting stars and satellites to be seen. And we just love power failures. Out come the candles and the lantern, we cuddle in front of the wood stove and read aloud or play guessing games, drinking hot chocolate warmed on the stove. And I remembered the nights we skated under the stars on our home-made rink. And the night Erin and I bundled up at 2 am in snowsuits and sleeping bags and watched a meteor shower. And I remembered one of my favourite picture books of all time, Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon", which evokes the dark so beautifully. And the scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy" when the family clusters around the fire in the winter-dark evening each doing their handiwork.

It's so easy to turn the lights off and create magic. The darkness creates a surrounding cloak that draws people together.

We must do more of this.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

On an even keel

Lately Fiona's language has really taken off. "Cheese" is now "chizz", not "zzeee". There are several new words each day. We've lost count. And phrases ... 'happy kids' and 'pee done' and and 'want cookie'. What fun! She's fallen in love with a little doll, and with a harmonica. She is insisting on having picture books read aloud to her.

Today we tried needle-felting and it was a huge hit. Normally when I try out a new skill or craft, the kids (Erin especially) keep their distance. My guess is that they figure I have "ownership" of the activity, so it can no longer be theirs. (This makes it tough to 'strew' and 'model' effectively!) But they were quite intrigued by needle felting, perhaps because I didn't expect them to be. I felted a small beaver tail. Then I added the beaver to match. The kids all helped with the felting. They want to try their own creations tomorrow.

We're back to regular piano lessons. Three days before they started Noah reminded me that early in the summer he told me he didn't want lessons this fall. Oops. That rang a bell; I'd conveniently put it out of my mind. I'd told him that since we'd paid for the music summer school week I expected him to continue with piano until then, and we'd talk later. He cheerfully continued, and kept practising (fairly lightweight stuff, but practising nonetheless) afterwards. But he raised the issue again. Erin was sleeping over at a friend's, and Sophie had a friend over, so Noah and I managed to have a long heart-to-heart at bedtime. It was wonderful. We talked about the joys and benefits and advantages of doing piano, and the challenges and frustrations and difficulties. We did some trouble-shooting and discussed the whole issue of lessons. The upshot was that he decided to continue lessons, but on his terms: no 'testing' or 'scorekeeping' at lessons, and less focus on reading skills. When we attended the first lesson it turned out that his teacher had re-thought her reading approach with him and decided to focus on an intervalaic approach rather than a note-naming approach. Noah was pleased with this; since he's grappling with the alto clef on viola as well as treble and bass clefs on piano, the note-naming was getting even muddier.

He came home with a fair number of assignments, but he's done very well with them; his new piece was easy (mostly rote-learned), his reading work is more to his liking, and his review and technique is getting fluid fast. He's feeling really good about his learning ability on piano.

Erin is amazing me with her piano playing. She's suddenly leapt light-years beyond my own piano ability. The grade 7 & 8 pieces are coming easily to her, even the modern, unpredictable, atonal ones. Her teacher promoted her officially to grade 7 (despite the fact that she only moved to Grade 6 in January) and seems to be fast-tracking her with technique work and theory.

Origami is big around here lately. The kids have discovered (or rediscovered) an Usborne origami book, and they've been teaching themselves and each other out of the book with no adult help. Even Sophie has read her way through the instructions for making a bead, a snapping mouth and a pinwheel. Erin has perfected the star box, and Noah's specialty is the fox.

The Sodaconstructor site has also been big lately. Interestingly the kids have pointed out the geometric similarities to their origami work. The Neopets site has also been getting rather too much play.
All three kids are reading voraciously the past few days, since we began firing up the woodstove on chilly mornings. They grab a quilt and a book, and cozy up on the living room floor in front of the stove. The other afternoon I found Noah and Erin crammed into the wingback chair side by side each with their own novel. Today's choices: Erin - "A Year Down Yonder" by Gregory Peck, Noah - "Moominsummer Madness" by Tove Jansson, Sophie - "The Children of Noisy Village" by Astrid Lindgren.

Noah and Sophie have continued to work occasionally in their math workbooks. Noah is partway through Singapore 3A, Sophie is in the early part of Miquon Blue.

Sophie, Fiona and I harvested some wheat the other day from where the highways department had planted it for erosion control. We've had fun threshing and winnowing on a micro-scale. Winnowing consists of jiggling half a cup of wheat in a plastic cup while blowing into the cup. It's quite spectacularly efficient -- we have to be sure to do this outside because the chaff just flies out of the cup. We shall see if we can grind enough flour for a batch of muffins.

Today we went down to the lake to stake out the site of the future organic gardening children's club. We've got about 2100 sq. ft. marked off. Hopefully the site owners will be okay with where we've situated it.

Our own garden is proving fairly productive. I think I didn't prune back the late tomato blossoms and new growth aggressively enough; the tomatoes are taking months to ripen! So I've done a better job of pinching them back in the past 2 or 3 weeks, and Noah and I built a hoop & clip small-scale greenhouse over the tomato and pepper bed. Things are ripening like crazy in there now, so there are tomatoes, beans, corn, greens and carrots for supper every night, as well as apple crisp for dessert. There's something appealing about eating only "in season" produce from one's own garden. Frost is due soon, though, so this won't last. I'm amazed we haven't had frost yet.

We had our first violin group class of the fall last week and the kids learned to dance a minuet. Noah is being very helpful with the two boys about his age who have just joined the class, having only started lessons last spring. They're nice kids; I'd like to see friendships flourish. We have three more weeks until orchestra starts but Noah has his viola music and is working studiously away at it. Both he and Erin are very keen for the start of orchestra.

Other fall activities haven't really materialized, at least not yet. Art class is delayed a month or two. Gymnastics seems destined not to happen this fall. We haven't really looked into the details for choir yet. I quite like the rhythm of our weeks for now. All our scheduled activities fit between Monday morning and Wednesday noon. Later in the week we get down-time, family time and visits with friends and grandma. Perhaps we should hold steady.

Our readalouds have got stalled a little, because we stumbled upon the two Moomin books we'd only read once at a bookstore last week, and we've had to read those before continuing with our 'in progress' books. We've read "Finn Family Moomintroll" and are almost finished "Moominvalley in November". Noah has nicknamed himself "Thingumy", because he has a good friend named Bob. (Thingumy and Bob are Moomin characters.) The 'in progress' readalouds are "Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell, "Silverwing" by Kenneth Oppel and "The Lantern Bearers" by Rosemary Sutcliff. The latter has me really intrigued by the historical setting (post-Roman Britain) and I find myself reading through reference materials to fill in my own (appallingly poor) understanding of world history.

Amidst it all we mow the lawn, practice violin/viola/piano, bake bread and cookies, feed the chickens, play games with Fiona, draw, paint, sculpt, attend meetings, lessons and rehearsals, run errands and the like.

It's been a really good couple of weeks.