Of Hair and Humility

I confess...I aaaalllmost fixed those funky uneven pony tails after this happened Sunday morning.

And then I realized my pride is far less important than what transpired here.

The ponytails stay.


Jar Love: Can-apalooza 2014

Last week, while I was standing at the sink peeling, pitting, and slicing peaches for the umpteenth hour of canning my son asked me, "Mom? Is it fun to can?"


Is it fun? To stand on your feet for hours on end. To have your fingers split from being constantly wet and gooey. To keep your stomach steady while carving out bugs, bruises, and bad spots from produce. To accidentally singe or slice your fingertips. To tremble with fear every single time you have to light the propane-run camp stove. To wash dozens and dozens of canning jars. To have to clean the sticky, wet kitchen afterwards. Fun???

Well...not exactly. But oh the sense of pride. My inner Little Red Hen is practically crowing at the sight of all those freshly sealed canning jars that will feed my family for the coming year. I know exactly what went into my food. No gluten, no dairy, no preservatives, no chemicals, no mystery ingredients. Feeling secure in these ways gives me such complete satisfaction that can be achieved in very few other activities.

This year, my sister Erin and I took on the mother load of canning. Everything kind of lined up two weekends ago. My husband was out of town. I had the truck. I had the time. I drove my truck down to my sister's place stopping at a local farm to purchase apples and peaches. The ladies that helped me load box after box just kept saying, "Are you sure you can do this? This is a project! Are you sure?"

Ye of little faith...

It took us all weekend working together and then a few days beyond that working on our own but we did it! Over 300 jars of peaches, pears, applesauce, apple pie filling and raspberry jam between us. Whew! (I only took home peaches and jam this year. Everything else was for Erin.)

Behold, the Riley Women at work!

Much thanks to my brother-in-law Kip for keeping eight kids fed and entertained all weekend. We couldn't have accomplished it without him.

Kip showing Dee and Cee his bees.

Some notes to self for next year. (Don't mind me; I just need a safe spot to put this stuff so I can find it next year):

*While the 2nd pick peaches ($10/half bushel box) may be the better financial deal, they aren't always the easiest to can. Lots of gross spots to cut out, lots of green produce. If you can afford it, go with the first pick ($20/half bushel box).

*I purchased 10 boxes of peaches but only canned about 8.5 of them for a little over 80 sealed jars. Several of the boxes were too green to can all at once. I did a few batches after Can-apalooza and then just left the rest for fresh eating.

*2014 was O'Henrys peaches. Not my favorite. Hope to get Angelos again next year.

*Each half bushel box makes about 9-12 jars of peaches.

*Wide mouth jars are best for peaches, but not necessary. Just cut up the peaches in smaller pieces for a regular mouth jar.

*You need more rings. Oh and get sealing lids (especially regular mouth) earlier in the year. Everywhere was sold out by mid September.

*Free raspberries are awesome, but don't load up the boxes too full because they turn into a juicy mushy mess. I tried low-sugar raspberry jam this year. We'll see how it compares to regular jam (which is definitely awesome but so full of sugar). Buy more Pectin.

*Maybe do peaches in a few smaller batches, especially if you have to do it by yourself.

*Try applesauce again next year, but use at least 3 kinds of apples if not more like 6. Honey Crisp, Gala, Wine Sap are some good choices. (Half-bushel boxes cost $20-$22 at Mitchell's Farm this year. How does this compare to lady in ward?)

*Buy a Victorio Strainer for applesauce.

*Purchase a bigger strainer spoon like Erin has. Also a bigger pot for cooking apples.

*Try spaghetti sauce like my cousin Elayne did. This looks amazing!

Oven Roasted Marinara! More than once I have tried to boil down juicy tomatoes to make sauce. After hours of boiling, the overcooked tomatoes just don't taste that great anymore. 
Today I discovered oven roasted marinara sauce and it's just too good not to share.

I filled as many pans as I could fit in the oven at once. A few red peppers and onions on top. (I think I would skip the red peppers and do garlic and fresh basil instead.)

Roasted @350 until soft and slightly caramelized. I think mine went about 1 1/2 hours.

Drain them before you process them into sauce. I put mine through a food mill so I didn't have to core the tomatoes or peel the onions before hand.

The end result was nice and thick, I just seasoned it and let it simmer a few minutes before I canned it. Best sauce so far.


Jar Love: Gluten Free Cupcakes in a Pinch

I'm starting yet another weight loss challenge on Saturday in hopes of recapturing that fat-burnin' fire I once had. (Fingers crossed it works this time.) So obviously I'm looking to bulk up over the next couple of days cramming whatever I can down my face while I still can.  Makes perfect sense.

Time for preschool? No problem! Let's make cupcakes for preschool! We can cover Chemistry, counting, colors, hygiene, practical life skills, and fun all while Mommy gets her sugar fix. I call that a win-win.

After a fun preschool session a counter top full of cupcakes greeted the oldest three children as they returned home from school. Dee and Jeigh were thrilled, but poor Elle who has Celiac disease... "But what can I eat?" A question this sweet kid has to ask way too often. "Uhhh...What can you eat?" I was all out of gluten free cake mix and time. Time to improvise!

As they say, Necessity is the mother of invention and so I present today's edition of "Jar Love": Gluten Free Cupcakes in a Pinch!

While this isn't the most ideal "cake" recipe it definitely got us by on this day. And in record time. Less than 2 minutes from start to finish! And finding yet another use for my beautiful jars?? I'm a happy girl!

I found a recipe for "gluten free bread in a cup in seconds" a while ago on Pinterest originally from a blog called One Good Thing by Jillee. I have used this recipe several times when I needed some gluten free bread in a hurry for Elle though I usually leave out the sugar since it tastes a little too sweet to me. I've used a bigger flat bowl to make a pizza crust too. Again, not ideal, but when it comes to gluten free sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

For cupcakes I doubled the sugar in the original recipe where I didn't feel it would be sweet enough for a cake. Make sure to check out her post and the other variations (sugar and spice, Italian, chocolate, cornbread!) she has there.

Gluten Free Cupcakes in a Jar
(adapted from One Good Thing by Jillee)

1 large egg
1 tsp water
3 TBSP buttermilk (or 3 TBSP milk plus 3/4 tsp vinegar, stir and let sit for a few minutes. You could also use a milk substitute such as almond, rice, or soy milk.)
1/3 cup Bisquick All-Purpose Gluten-Free Baking Mix
2 tsp sugar 

Grease a wide mouth pint jar. Mix wet ingredients together in jar. Add Bisquick and sugar and mix until moist. Clean off edges of jar and smooth the top of the batter. Microwave for 85 seconds. Lightly touch top to make sure cake is cooked. Microwave for a few seconds longer if still uncooked on top. 

Allow the cake to cool a little in the jar then run a knife between the cake and the jar and carefully slide out. Allow cake to cool completely on a rack or plate and then cut into 2 or 3 cupcakes. Frost and enjoy!

We struggle with gluten free baked goods in our house. Elle doesn't seem to like many of the mixes and recipes I've tried so far. Gluten free ingredients and mixes are atrociously expensive so I get really frustrated with spending so much money on something that my girl only takes a bite of and pushes away refusing to eat anymore.

I can hardly blame her; a lot of gluten free breads, cakes, cookies, etc range from tolerable to repulsive. I was pleased she found this quick and easy substitute acceptable. She actually ate the entire cupcake!  Add that to all the win we are made of today and I think this calls for another cupcake! Gotta get them all out of the house before Saturday, right?


For the Love of the Written Word

I used to be quite the reader.

In fact, my family still introduces me as the one who always holed up somewhere in the house devouring books instead of playing outside with the other kids.

The truth of the matter is...I haven't read much since I was in high school. Even then, most of my reading was required. So let's just be honest here: I traded books for boys...well, at least the idea of boys...because we're being honest, remember? Boys eventually became one boy man who married me and gave me all these delicious babies. So long story short, I traded books for babies. Well now those babies are growing up and not needing me for every second of every day and I have found myself reunited with my first loves.

Ladies and gents...I am READING again! It's pretty exciting. At least to me. And none of this Kindle, e-book, electronic crap. Real, tangible, hard copy books full of dusty, papery pages and blacky, blocky ink, borrowed from the hallowed halls of the local library. Can't you just smell them?! Mmmm!

Last year I tried to make my way through a list of 23 books some random person out there decided you needed to read to amount to something. I made it through about 5 of them before I had to turn tail and run. They were mostly anti-war novels and just so. darn. depressing. I can't help but feel a great load of guilt for hiding from this list. Am I guilty of burying my head in the sand? Of trying to deny the existence of pain, darkness, and evil? No, I'm not ignoring the bitter ugliness of the past but I just couldn't handle the emotional toll these books were taking.

Maybe I'll revisit that list later when four little ones aren't depending daily on my mental health. For now I'm devouring whatever strikes my fancy. Adult fiction, children's literature, juvenile fiction, the classics, old favorites, book club assignments. (Did I mention I'm in a book club? I'm in a book club! My first one and I LOVE it! Food, friends, AND books! Does life get any better? No. No it does not.)

There's a meme circulating through Facebook right now. "Name ten books that have meant something to you or stuck with you or something blah blah blah through your life". I've been tagged multiple times and I've purposefully ignored every tag.

Several reasons...

1- I have such a bad memory! I cannot remember most of the books I've read.

2- Most of the books I come up with are books from my childhood. Which isn't a bad thing...It just looks so...juvenile.

3- It's not a competition. But it kind of feels like a competition. All the sudden I am keenly aware of what a pseudo-reader I am. I am not the well-read lady I claim to be. Remember the whole "babies for books" thing I mentioned at the beginning? I'm a lover of books that hasn't actually touched too many in the last twenty years. The truth is out. I am exposed. I look like a Twilight fan next to a bunch of War and Peace intellectuals.

SO WHAT! As I embrace reading once more so will I boldly create and share my list of ten books. Do with it what you will, World.

TEN BOOKS. In your status, list 10 books that stayed with you in some way. They don't have to be the 'right' books, or books of great literature, just ones that affected you in some way. Tag 10 friends, including me, so I can see your list. 

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are few books I want to read more than once. This is one I've read over and over again. Such a treat every single time.

2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. A childhood favorite. It makes me giggle every time I think of this one and the memory of asking my mother what "testicles" were when I misread "tentacles".

3. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. While not a favorite book, it was the first book where I learned about symbolism in literature, especially "Christ symbols". And that books don't always have happy endings and that's okay.

4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. A childhood favorite, but enjoyed multiple times throughout my life; once in high school when I used it as the basis for my biggest high school paper and again as a mother with my own children.

5. The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques. I loved this entire series. I remember very vividly throwing my book down with angry tears streaming down my face when a beloved character was killed and being amazed that I could become so attached to something fictional.

6. One Second After by William R. Forstchen. I'm a sucker for post apocalyptic material. This fueled that fascination as well as helped me to consider just how physically prepared I am for the end of the world.

7. What to Expect When You're Expecting by Heidi Murkoff. I poured over this book with each of my pregnancies. I was very honored to do some free lance writing for the WTE website a few years ago.

8. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. I remember my mom reading this to us when we were little. Powerful message then and now.

9. I'll Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch. I have a love/hate relationship with this book. Then and now.

10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I am in the middle of reading this beautiful book right now and I can already count it as a lifelong favorite. I wish I had read this in my youth and will require each of my daughters to read it as they come of age. There seems to be a powerful life lesson in every single chapter.

And can I just add as addendum: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables, anything by Roald Dahl, the Little House on the Prairie books, Stuart Little, and Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic (one of, if not the very first real book given to me, given by my Grandma Riley)?

Sigh. Books.


Hiking with my Herd: Mt. Timpanogos Caves

There is just something about mountains. They move me. They uplift me. They calm me. They center me.

And I don't think I realized it until I left them behind for a couple of years when we moved to Arizona.

Brown. Big. Flat. Empty. Achingly empty.

And please don't try to tell me that those few hills scattered throughout Phoenix are "mountains". In spite of the eternal sunshine and heat I found much unhappiness in Arizona. There was a plethora of reasons but one at the top of the list was the lack of great, green, rocky earth piled high in inspiring heights.

And then we moved to Nevada. (Getting warmer...)

And then we moved to Utah. Behold the Wasatch Front! *angels sing*

I look out my windows every day and bid a very fond greeting to "my" mountains. They wave cheerily back, beckoning me, and all is right in the world. Whether they be graciously green, blushingly red, or snow capped and frosty they are lovely.

We've lived here for almost 4 years, the longest we've lived anywhere in our entire marriage. Every now and then we consider moving to another job in another state and my first question always is, "Are there mountains?" quickly followed by "But are they REAL mountains?" for I have become wiser after my two year Arizona sentence in which I discovered one man's "mountain" is another man's "molehill". Now that I know how essential REAL mountains are to my happiness I know better than to distance myself from them. No salary increase is worth it. 

I wish I could spend many more hours frolicking--ahem...hiking with a sense of decorum and dignity through them, but home and hearth requires my feet to stay firmly planted here and I must settle for my ritual morning/afternoon/evening gazes full of longing.

But every so often...I get to have days such as these.

To this soul there are very few joys in this world that can compare to being with some of my favorite people in my favorite place.

I had heard from several friends with children my children's ages that Mt. Timpanogos Caves was a great hike for families. We had stopped outside of it before on one our family drives but soon discovered that you have to reserve (and pay for) tickets well in advance. Finally a date was reserved and we looked forward to it with much anticipation. My sister and her family would be joining us. Hiking PLUS caves PLUS cousins!

On Friday (September 12th) at 3:15 pm we approached the forest ranger at the beginning of the trail. She asked if there would be any more adults joining us. After a quick safety briefing we began to understand her concern. This trail is STEEP and NARROW with no guard rails and the occasional rock slide. As we started hiking up the path I worried that I had put my family in unnecessary danger and questioned the sanity of my friends.

This didn't help.

And we all laughed at this. Though it was a sweaty nervous laugh that sounded more like heavy huffing and puffing.

 Steep. Yup.

 But cool. Definitely cool.

 And sooooo beautiful. Just gorgeous.
After 1.5 miles of hiking straight up a girl could use a bathroom. Oh look! There just happens to be one up here. "Last chance!" indeed. But I can't help but ask...Who is the poor soul who has to plumb these???

The view from the Loo
 The kids did great! We made several rest stops and let the candy flow forth. While this is definitely one of the steeper hikes we've done there wasn't as much whining on this hike. I think the promise of caves at the end helped as well as the distraction and fun of cousins.

We made it! 1.5 miles and 1,092 feet of elevation.

 The entrance to the cave. Though I'm quite convinced that if you recite an incantation or two you will walk into the love nest of a lost hobbit and a rebellious dwarf instead.

Cave popcorn

Cave bacon
The heart of the cave
The caves were impressive. A knowledgeable tour guide took us through in a group of 15 (our 12 plus 3 "fortunate" others). We saw lots of formations (cave bacon and cave popcorn), learned all about the mysteries of caves, and did cave yoga where we twisted, crouched, and sucked it in to get through all the passages. Joe was particularly happy about finding the cave bacon. "I'd know you anywhere," were his tear-filled words. And I don't know why someone always feels the need to bring up earthquakes while buried deep within the ground, but someone always does. This day was no different.

On our drive to the mountains Dee told us an old Indian story about star-crossed lovers that died a tragic death together deep in the cave. Their bodies bound and formed the heart of the cave. Our guide was a young geologist and full of factual information if not a tad geeky. But he was not fond of cave legends or folk lore and refused to recite any such "offensive tales". But we did find the heart of the cave (It was huge and as heavy as an elephant. FACT.) and we'll just have to rely on Dee to satisfy our need for cave myths.
Waiting for the cave water to drop off a stalactite. We learned cave water is very pure and safe to drink.
After about an hour of cave exploration, we reentered the world, no worse for the wear. The caves were very interesting for the kids and adults alike. Definitely worth the ticket fee.

We made it through!

The family that caves together...

"And don't forget to sign the book on your way out." I couldn't resist.

Neither could my sister. Nerds.

Again with all the gorgeous!

Steeeeeeeep! Do you see how far up we are? It made you dizzy just to peek.

I'm very proud of the kids. They did really well hiking and following the rules so that we could enjoy the day. This was a great adventure for all of us.

Oh these two.
When I tried to sleep the night after our hike I couldn't relax with several mini nightmares about one of the kids or myself falling. It wasn't so scary while we were on the mountain but just thinking about how badly it could have gone afterwards was heart pounding. I'm very grateful that the day went well and no one was hurt.

What a gorgeous gorgeous place! I can't believe we've lived here as long as we have and just barely made this trip. It was beautiful and challenging and just plain fun. We saw several people hiking up and down and up and down again just for exercise. I think I'm going to have to return and do that very soon. I'm already feeling the need for some more elevation.

"What are men to rocks and mountains?" ~Jane Austen


Back to School, Back to Blogging?

The last few weeks I feel my heart yearning again for the self-fulfillment of blogging. It's probably partly thanks to a need to fill the emptiness from three kids being back in school. I've wandered over here a couple of times thinking maybe I'll write something up. So far nothing has happened. Maybe now? If anyone is reading this then "now" happened. Hooray!

School year 2014-2015 has been in session for three weeks. I was so ready for it. Which makes me feel a hefty dose of Mom Guilt. No other year have I been so excited to send my kids back to school. In fact, I was always kind of depressed at the thought of having them go back. But this year I was counting down the days. Let's blame it on the screaming/teasing/fighting sessions between Child #3 (Elle) and Child #4 (Cee). That contention and noise level took an immediate and very noticeable decline the very first day of school. Ahhhhh. Sweet audible relief!

The best image I could get of the hallway tantrum
After a summer of living on the battle front imagine my surprise to find that my girls really do love each other. That first day of the new year Cee and I visited Elle's classroom shortly after school had begun for a brief meeting with the teacher and parents. When it was time to go Cee clung to Elle with everything she had and began to cry when I tried to pull her away. A very toddler tantrum was thrown in the hallway when I finally pried her away from her sworn enemy/bosom buddy. I never knew "hostility" was a love language. You learn something new every day. 

As previously mentioned, the three oldest children are now all in school for a full day. (Yahoo!!) They were less than thrilled about returning. I mean, we did manage to have one of the best summers EVER this year so it's understandable. But still...when I was a kid I LOVED going back to school. Old friends, new friends, new teachers, new clothes, and best of all, NEW SCHOOL SUPPLIES! These three weren't feeling the love Monday morning when the alarm went off for the first time in months, but they were speedily convinced all was well after that first day. 

Dee is loving his 4th grade teacher. She's very chill and casual, even though she has a whopping 32 kids in her classroom! (Ugh!) He came home declaring her to be the best teacher ever and wished he had her for every class EVER. Very high praise indeed. 

I met Jeigh's teacher briefly that first morning. Less than an hour into the school year and she already had her shoes off. As a big fan of bare feet myself I'm not judging her for that. What I didn't care much for was her sarcastic manner and abundance of eye rolling along with the inability to make eye contact. Sarcasm is lost on 3rd graders. And their skeptical mothers.
We've already had some issues with Jeigh's homework this year. As in the back-breaking amount that is coming home each week. The second week in Jeigh was sent home with a THICK packet of math, language arts, and spelling. We worked together on it every night for 2-4 hours. Each night ended in tears of frustration on Jeigh's part and deep breathing and counting to 10 on mine. In spite of our best efforts we still had to turn in empty pages on Friday. I was hoping it was just a fluke but when the next week was met with an even thicker bundle I sent a message to the teacher asking to speak with her. 

These are 3rd graders. This isn't college. They are at school for 7 plus hours a day only to have to come home and work for an additional several hours?! With that load of homework there was no time for chores, room cleaning, piano practice, sometimes reading, dinner prep (for me since I had to sit and help her through every part), much less down time, play time, or family time. With two other school-attending children I cannot give that much time to one child's homework, even if I wanted to. Even as much as I love school, believe me, this isn't something I want.

I was so nervous to meet with the teacher but fortunately she seemed very understanding and gave us permission to cut it off at 30-40 minutes a day. Math is the priority, then Language Arts, then Spelling last. I assumed this was on top of reading so an hour of homework total each day. I'm absolutely good with that. I think a little homework is great but nothing like we were doing the first week. 

Here's the remaining problem: I'm too OCD to let her turn in those empty pages so we still slogged through every single page of homework and spent far more than an hour a night. 33 years old and I still can't defy authority. That's my own weakness. I need to work on that. What's best for my child is more important than pleasing some 3rd grade teacher and hours of homework every night is not what's best for an eight year old child. Balance. Balance in all things.

Elle's 1st grade teacher is very sweet. This is her first year of teaching and she looks like she's 14 years old. With her youthful looks, soft spoken manner, porcelain skin, and rosy cheeks she reminds me of a character you would find in a children's book, such as Miss Honey from Matilda. I think she will be perfect for Elle who is the child I worry about the most.

Even with this very kind, gentle teacher Elle is having a hard time transitioning to a full day of school. She has come home grouchy every single day. She has been extra whiny, mean, and stubborn. Getting her to do her daily reading has been especially trying. I figure she's just tired and overwhelmed from a full day but I hope she makes this adjustment quickly. (Please oh please oh please!)
I laughed harder than I have in ages at this. THIS is my life right now.
One thing she is loving about school is the gluten free lunches. I was really worried about how to feed her at school. Gluten free bread is less than appealing fresh out of the bag. I shudder to think how it tastes after several hours of sitting in a lunch bag. She has had a lot of fun trying the variety of hot lunches from the school. This is a huge relief for both of us.

While all the kids are off at school, Cee and I are left to our own devices. It has been quite pleasant to spend the quiet hours of the day with just her. I foresee much spoilage in this child's future; it's almost like she's an only child. I suppose the baby of the family has all the fun (...says an Oldest Child).
First day of school lunch and cookies with Mom

These kids got a little spoiled too with our traditional first day of school ice cream trip

She and I have started some very casual, yet purposeful educational efforts about three times a week. Since we don't care to get dressed if we can help it I've dubbed it "Preschool in Pajamas". So far our lessons have been "let's read a book and then do a little activity based off what we read". Very little effort but it's going beautifully. This is the most successful I've been with preschool ever. Before my "lessons" were too big and grand and structured. Plus there were too many kids at home to focus on. This is very quiet and homemade and takes only 15 to 30 minutes. I should probably humble myself a bit, but I can't help taking great pride in our little school sessions. She seems to be loving it too.

So that's the nitty gritty of the beginning of school this year. As much fun as summer was, it's always nice to get back into a schedule and a routine. And in a couple of years...it might be MY turn to head back to school too! What a terrifying/exciting thought!

Oh one more thing! It's super silly, but I'm giddy about this little Amazon purchase:

I was pretty sick of wasting my money on pathetic pencil sharpeners that basically chewed up the ends of our pencils. School work has never been sharper!


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