Thursday, January 31, 2013

sculpting with flowers

i have fallen in love with another art form: ikebana, japanese flower arranging.

what appeals to diana is the minimalism, the simplicity that calls and allows for attention drawn to each aspect.

i love that there is a form and a structure and a mindfulness and connection to nature.  i can easily see this becoming an important element in my personal practices.

diana had participated in a lesson for children a year or two ago and remembered a few of the elements.  she and i received a more formal instruction together, with details on tools and materials and design elements.  helen, our teacher, was so very knowledgeable and guided us smoothly and with great encouragement.

we started with:

a container
a kenzan (spiky floral frog)
clipping tools

typically, seasonal materials are selected in harmony with a container that can accommodate them.  we often see dark containers, black, grey, opaque pieces in a variety of shapes.  white is less common as a container color and would require elements of white in the materials to draw the eye upward and away from the container itself.

i'd seen floral frogs before, in metal and glass, but only with holes, not looking like the sharp porcupine-looking kenzan we used.  it's necessary to have a base that can hold natural elements up to great heights.

i knew to cut stems on a slant to allow more exposure to water, but did not know that cutting them underwater, not allowing oxygen to come in through the stem, would preserve them longer.  i'll keep that in mind when i cut my own flowers for ikebana or any other arrangement.

helen provided us with black, plastic, shallow containers to work with (actually, i used a clay bowl, since i was not taking mine home).  we placed our kenzans is in the lower left quadrants of the containers, according to the diagram for the moribana basic upright style and poured in enough water to cover the kenzans.

our style has three main elements representing heaven (also called "shin" and denoted as a circle in the diagram), man (called "soe" and represented by a square), and earth ("hikae" as the triangle.  the materials are typically the same for shin and soe, with a different material for hikae.  we chose greenery branches for shin and soe and flowers for hikae.

there are measurements to employ when cutting the materials.  the height of shin = the width of the largest part of the container (or its diameter, if circular) + the height of the container at its highest point + half of the first two added together.

the height of soe = three-quarters of the height of shin.

the height of hikae = three-quarters of the height of soe.

the placement of shin, soe, and hikae are just as important as their relative heights.  their locations in the kenzan and their angles from the vertical axis are indicated in the diagram.

it took more than a little getting used to.  this art requires skill, patience, a keen eye, and a willingness to adjust what does not work.

we looked carefully at the elements we were using for shin and soe.  they were heavily leaved, so she encouraged us to prune back enough to allow the shape of the stem to come through, rather than be hidden.

one must take into account the curvature of the material, too.  when i asked helen if it was important to have the stem or the tip of each piece be at the correct angle, she indicated it needed to be considered as a whole.  she was amused by my comparing it to a regression line; i later learned that she and i have some similar background in data and statistical analysis.

my pruned shin correctly placed, more or less
the key to having the stems stick in the kenzan is to make cross-cuts in the stem after cutting it on the slant.  the stem then opens up a little into four little pieces and hooks on better to the spikes of the kenzan and allows water to travel up the stem more effectively, prolonging the life of the material.

then it was time to place soe.

when flowers are used for hikae and supporting stems, one must ensure that the blooms face upward.  in diana's case, it meant trimming off one of the blooms from the bunch of three because it it pointed downward while the other two could be turned so they faced up.

once the three main elements were in place, we could fill in the rest of the arrangement with four or five subordinate stems and sufficient greenery to hide the kenzan from view.  the flowers we used were either of the same kind or color as what we selected for hikae, or at least complimented the color of hikae, rather than contrasting with it.  one idea is that the materials should work with each other, rather than against, and i imagine a vivid difference would be startling and energizing, rather than serving the purpose of calming and harmonizing.

i so appreciated helen's suggestions of what to add, where to place, when to stop, how to take a look and notice how little adjustments can have an incredibly large impact.  her recommendation to add a third yellow bloom at a very low level made all the difference in my satisfaction with the overall effect.  i do not presume to have gained access to the flow and serenity that comes with the time and effort and expertise in this art form, but i was most definitely exposed to enough that i could catch glimpses of the zone i may expect to enter when i make this a regular practice.

my completed ikebana arrangement, moribana basic upright style

helen took us through a lesson in the basic slanting style, too, whereby we moved the kenazan and altered the positioning and placement of shin and soe.

my altered ikebana arrangement to reflect the moribana basic slanting style

diana was extremely pleased with her efforts and was thrilled to be permitted to take it home to enjoy.

helen's, of course, was lovely.

there is so much to learn, and i am hungry for more!  fortunately, diana and i have another chance to work alongside helen, and she'll guide us through more freeform styles.

thank you, thank you, helen, for sharing yourself and your artistry with us. it is time well spent and much appreciated.

learn about our second lesson here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


though i do list many/most of the books the kids and i read (at least since i started this blog last year), i realize it can be cumbersome to trudge through the whole tab, especially when looking for one thing in particular.

so, while i work out some design issues to allow for easier browsing, please allow me to offer here what i mentioned in my previous post regarding learning about others.  these are all diana-approved:


the groundbreaking, chance-taking life of george washington carver and science and invention in america by cheryl harness
the adventurous life of myles standish and the amazing-but-true survival story of plymouth colony by cheryl harness
galileo by leonard fisher
tycho brahe: astronomer by mary gow
isaac newton (giants of science) by kathleen krull
charles darwin (giants of science) by kathleen krull
henry VIII, royal beheader by sean price
henry VIII: the king, his six wives, and his court by nick ford
escape! the story of the great houdini by sid fleischman
the trouble begins at 8: a life of mark twain in the wild, wild west by sid fleischman
sir charlie: chaplin, the funniest man in the world by sid fleischman
stephen hawking: breaking the boundaries of time and space by john bankston
marie curie (giants of science) by kathleen krull
sigmund freud (giants of science) by kathleen krull
albert einstein (giants of science) by kathleen krull
isaac newton: the scientist who changed everything by philip steele
darwin by alice mcginty
remember the ladies: a story about abigail adams by jeri ferris
you're on your way, teddy roosevelt by judith st. george
make your mark, franklin roosevelt by judith st. george
minty: a story of young harriet tubman by alan schroeder
ghandi by demi
heroes: great men through the ages by rebecca hazell
joan of arc by diane stanley
the flower hunter: william bartram, america's first naturalist by deborah kogan ray
saladin: noble prince of islam by stanley
sarah emma edmonds was a great pretender by jones
liberty's voice: the emma lazarus story by silverman
marco polo by preston
marco polo by riddle & ingpen
kubla kahn, the emperor of everything by kathleen krull
who was queen elizabeth? by june eding
who was albert einstein? by jess brallier
who was amelia earhart? by kate jerome
who was king tut? by roberta edwards
who was ronald reagan? by joyce milton
who was william shakespeare? by celeste mannis
who was harry houdini? by tui sutherland
who was leonardo da vinci? by roberta edwards
who was charles darwin? by deborah hopkinson
who was martin luther king, jr.? by bonnie bader
who was abraham lincoln? by janet pascal
who is neil armstrong? by roberta edwards

about writing & authors:

d is for dahl: a gloriumtious a-z guide to the world of roald dahl compiled by wendy cooling
oh, the places he went: a story about dr. seuss by maryann weidt
louisa may alcott: her girlhood diary edited/compiled by cary ryan
louisa: the life of louisa may alcott by yona zeldis mcdonough
five pages a day by kehret
spilling ink: a young writer's handbook by potter and mazer
the making of a writer by joan nixon
how i came to be a writer by phyllis naylor
lives of the writers: comedies, tragedies (and what the neighbors thought) by kathleen krull
sholom's treasure: how sholom alcheim became a writer by silverman
the road to oz: twists, turns, bumps, and triumphs in the life of l. frank baum by kathleen krull 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

the martin luthers

we celebrated martin luther king jr day last week.

ander's recognition of it was, admittedly, more about eating the chocolate cupcakes we made to honor both the civil rights leader and the inauguration of president barack obama for a second term.

with diana, though, i took the time to read the entirety of his famous "i have a dream" speech.  i felt chills when i read it aloud, moved by the words spoken by their author nearly a decade before i was born.  diana was interested in learning about his beliefs and ideals in his own words.  she was happy (maybe reassured?) that there were - and are - people in the world who advocate for and work towards gaining equality through non-violent means.

she knew something of his life already; we have the who was martin luther king, jr? by bonnie bader in our home library.  we perused a variety of titles from the library, and the one that involved her the most was my uncle martin's big heart by angela farris watkins because of the compelling autobiographical way the story was told (i loved the astounding illustrations, myself).  march on! the day my brother changed the world by christine king farris was another wonderful selection for similar reasons.

we got another peek into his life from an unexpected source: astrophysicist neil degrasse tyson's star talk radio interview with nichelle nichols. you remember her from her role as chief communications officer lieutenant uhura on star trek?  she talked with neil about her conversation with martin luther king, jr. about the significance and importance of her role.  her vivid personal recollection of meeting and talking with him gave us such a incredible insight into him as a person.

quite coincidentally on the timing of this, we were also reading about martin luther during our history lesson from SOTW.  unfortunately, there aren't many children's-section books at our local libraries about him, and the ones we found are a bit too textbooky.  we made valiant attempts to read through his disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences, commonly known as the 95 theses but the wording is such that i had to stop to explain or elucidate each one for diana.  she may have great vocabulary and comprehension skills but there is a whole lot of theological context here i had to provide.  i think we'll be better off with a simpler interpretation, though, admittedly, i wonder what biases will be present in the translation i found.

what struck us, beyond the obvious similarity of names, was the firmness of conviction these two men had.  they each challenged the prevailing system of the time and effected powerful, enduring changes in the world.

why examine the lives of others?  why read about and listen to and learn about other people, whether they are fictional, or historical, in our present or in the past?  first and foremost, because people are interesting.  every one of them.  everybody has a story, whether they realize it or not, whether they choose to share it or not.  our willingness to ask for - and listen to - each others' stories is a sign of our desire to understand others, to develop compassion and empathy for them, to make a connection with them.  this examination also serves as a good model for our own introspection, which at times can be emotionally challenging.  when we can treat ourselves with the same gentleness and dignity that we offer to others, we can connect better to ourselves and within ourselves.  we can find release.

it's really been through homeschooling with diana that i am developing my own interest in reading biographies (i have always been interested in people, my early recognition of a desire to study psychology was indicative of that).  diana freely expresses to me how she especially enjoys autobiographies.  she loves their storytelling style; she can connect with the authors and feel a kinship with them and realizes that their life's details might be very similar to her own and she feels not so alone.  at my much older age, i am learning to find solace and inspiration in the stories of others, too.

take a look here in the long list of what we read to see a smattering of what diana has enjoyed in the way of "biographies" and "about writing and authors."

final note: i have been working on this blog post for a while, meandering around the core topic(s) and not finding much satisfaction in my words.  then i read patricia zaballos' illuminating post about the writing process at rhythm of the home (in truth, she has a lot of such wonderful posts at her own blog, wonderfarm), and i eased up on myself and kept coming back and reworking.

the kicker for me was early this morning, after a decent night of sleep, when i read this post about growing up from a newly-found blog i enjoy, first sip.  i have appreciated reading snippets of pema chodron's work. but have yet to read any of her books in entirety. now i will.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

one of these things is not like the other

we went back to cache creek for another visit.  we concentrated on some other topics this time, but did explore the changes we could spot due to the difference in seasons.
our gathering place.  perfect for hide-and-seek and exploring and table-work.
i enjoy trees in all seasons.  bare branches have a quiet, solemnly majestic stateliness about them. they project a silent awareness and confidence in the promise of spring and new leaves.

there's a display i missed before, about how aggregate from the area has been used for construction

it was a sunny, dry day, but prior precipitation made for marvelously muddy goings, and captured a multitude of tracks

our group started in the visitor center, where our senses were treated to an array of displays and touchable exhibits.  after a participative discussion about ecology cycles and food chains and webs and producers and primary & secondary consumers and decomposers, we got to look and handle to our hearts' content.  for the first time, diana got to touch an otter's pelt and remarked how now she could understand why people would want to wear fur - it was so thick and soft - even though she believes the original owner-animal needs it much more than a person with a variety of options to keep themselves warm.  she also had not realized how soft duck feathers could be and said that by touching them, it was clear to her why some people enjoy feather pillows and beds.

ancient valley oak

american beaver

great horned owl

you lookin' at ME?!

diana with her favorite, a barn owl, like soren, one of the characters in guardians of ga'hoole

the girls were amazed at the softness of feathers on the back of this duck's neck
we transitioned into a hike around the preserve area, stopping to observe the plants and evidence of animal presences and slip-sliding our way through muddy surfaces to see how the creek had changed.
california wild rose hips
horehound. i impressed myself by asking if it was a mint. turns out they are related.
i have no idea what this is but it was floating en masse near the water's edge and i fell in love right away. i want to have a fabric printed with it.
diana saw it in a different way, interested in how it connected and globbed together when disturbed by a prodding stick

i'm fairly certain this is tule

seeing this brightly-colored rock standing out amongst its companions really captured my interest
the kids waded (with boots) in this area back in september
our guide identified this as a raccoon track

cemeteries for trees
i can look at this happily with the understanding that little decomposers are at work
our docent guide recognized that some of us were ready for our lunch break after our hike, so he offered to give us time and space to replenish our bodies and attention spans before heading into the last topic of exploration, looking at beaks.

the demonstrations were simple, yet powerfully effective in communicating the hows and whys of bird beak and bill differentiation.  mark allowed us to look at the skulls of a variety of birds and then group them in ways that seemed reasonable based on the similarities and differences we observed.  besides the sizes, which were remarkable in an of themselves, especially that of a hummingbird, we took careful notice of the shape of the beaks and bills, comparing and contrasting the sharp, hooked raptor beaks, perfect for tearing apart prey; the tubular hummingbird beak, designed for sucking nectar; the long, slim beak of the egret (or heron), effective at poking into the water and grasping tasty morsels; and duck bills with their tiny side teeth for filtering fine particles.  we matched up common household and kitchen utensils and tools with the bird beaks and bills based on their design and function.

the long-beaked skull in the middle was a heron, if memory serves
these raptor skulls included two kinds of owl and a hawk
the group sorting and discussing turned to individual choice and action for the follow up.  pouring out an assortment of food-like substances onto plates, the young students were instructed to select a beak (tool) from among many different kinds and pick up as many pieces of food as they could.  they remarked on the ease (or difficulty) of using their tools and the size and shape of the food bits they could each acquire.  then, they chose beaks that they guessed would be the hardest to use and tested their hypotheses.  finally, they each picked a final, different beak to try out.

this was such a simple, well-conceived, and powerful set of exercises that i believe had more of an effect on our understanding of beak and bill diversity than any other course of study diana and i have undertaken.

in fact, i think the entire visit worked better in a small group of homeschooling compatriots than what we might do in a large class field trip or an individual visit because of the opportunity to offer and consider interesting questions and ideas with other people just as curious as we are.  we were not rushed or shushed.  there was plenty of space to accommodate a variety of temperaments and energy levels.  the thoughtful, well-conceived efforts of the people, particularly the volunteers, who designed and facilitated our experiences at cache creek were well worth it, and very, very much appreciated.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

union of the snake

no, wait, that's a song from duran duran.  oh, how i adored simon le bon back in the day...

what i meant was the year of the snake.  chinese new year begins on february 10th in 2013.

it is the second in a series of holidays we are celebrating in the next month, the first being groundhog day.  we've started decorating for it already.

firecracker craft from the year of the rabbit in 2011

no, these are not cny decorations, but the red bow and baby's breath and greenery from my anniversary roses look sooo pretty on our table, still
we've watched the chinese new year video from our favorite collection at the library: schlessinger media's holidays for children.

the excitement - particularly the intensely and purposefully loud sounds of drums, cymbals, and firecrackers - of watching a live performance of a lion dance is too much for the kids right now, though when each was much younger (maybe ages one or two) we took them to local demonstrations and they had a lot of fun watching the big eyes blinking at them and the giant mouth opening and closing.

thank goodness for youtube, where i easily found examples that they could watch at their leisure.

the kids are both really excited by the animal dancing.  ander is jumping up and down and all around with a flowing red cape, mimicking the movements of the lion's body, and diana is fashioning her own dragon costume, complete with a working mouth.

for our home library, i acquired one of diana's favorites for this time of year, the rooster's antlers: a story of the chinese zodiac by eric kimmel.  ander likes chinese new year: count and celebrate by frederick mckissack. my personal favorite is moonbeams, dumplings & dragon boats: a treasury of chinese holiday tales, activities & recipes by nina simonds, leslie swartz & the children's museum in boston.  but celebrating chinese new year by diane hoyt-goldsmith looks appealing, especially for its photographs and details about celebrating chinese new year in san francisco.

now is the time we'll probably search for titles by awesome author laurence yep and pull out the seven chinese sisters by kathy tucker and the moon maiden and other asian folktales by hua long, more for the fact that they are cultural, not because they apply specifically to the new year.

we like to admire and practice making chinese characters, too.  we've had a usborne kit about it for quite some time (i don't think they make it anymore, sadly) and it has been especially handy for this time of year or whenever we are studying chinese culture.  these days it's much quicker to print a page or two from sites like this, which offer mandarin and cantonese versions of happy new year greetings, among other things.

we'll give the kids lai see or hong bao and remind them how to ask for it (see here for an excellent demonstration of the pronunciation and writing of the characters and a simple interpretation of their meanings).

i'll likely bring out some craft materials so we can create some snakes, dragons, or other creatures, based loosely on ideas from kaboose.

now that i've found a kind of rice and a kind of long noodle that i know both of my children will eat, at least i know two of the dishes i'll make to celebrate.

and maybe, just maybe, the kids will put on the gorgeous red outfits we found at the thrift store and pose for a picture.  oh, how fabulous they look!  but, it's about comfort for them, understandably, and they may be too busy celebrating diana's birthday to dress up for chinese new year.  of course, the celebration goes on for fifteen days, culminating in the lantern festival, so i hold out some hope.

'tis the season for red!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

if you're feeling sad because all the chrismas decorations are down

...i humbly offer our preparations for the next month or so.

there are so many things to look forward to, particularly in february.

groundhog day

chinese new year

mardi gras

valentine's day

what?  you didn't know about all these?  here, let me clue you in.

groundhog day is celebrated on february 2nd.  i snagged diana's favorite book from the library already, the groundhog day book of facts and fun by wendie old, and i have several others on request to see if they appeal to my littlest reader.

perhaps we'll watch the movie by the same name, starring bill murray and andie macdowell.  we've already enjoyed schlessinger media's holidays for children: groundhog day, which had a great little explanation about forecasting.

i definitely think we'll make the cookie recipe i found at this website; i might even splurge for a special cookie cutter!

diana will probably enjoy making these from our favorite papercrafter, the toymaker.

ok, so maybe there aren't a whole lot of household decorations for groundhog day.  stay tuned for chinese new year...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

making it work

most of our friends and family are familiar with the fact that steve has been living across the country since july of 2012.  he made a career change that has been all for the best, and the kids and i are looking forward to joining him in the d.c. area in the spring.

we are making good use of technology to keep in contact with each other; skyping allows for face time, which is especially important for the kids.

finding the opportunity for us as a long-distance couple, though, to participate in something simultaneously has been a challenge exacerbated by the difference in time zones.

we did something over the weekend that really worked.  i'm certain we are not the first couple to think of it or implement it or even write about it, but i am so excited about its success that i felt compelled to share.

we are fond of watching things together.  we spent many (pre-child-days) dinnertimes watching star trek: the next generation (and a multitude of spin-offs) and babylon 5.  we laughed together over jeeves & wooster and monty python and space ghost coast to coast.  we enjoyed early seasons of the west wing and gilmore girls and the entirety of battlestar galactica.  we've indulged in silly games while watching adaptations of jane austen's works (emma, in particular) and shakespearean comedies (much ado about nothing).

that's not to say that we like all the same things, though we do have plenty in common.  steve has been known to drag me into a new series, like true blood or game of thrones and i end up enjoying most of them in spite of my misgivings along the way.  i prefer watching episodes of agatha christie's poirot or sherlock on my own and i don't even know if he has watched any of them, nor does it really matter, as i appreciate them enough for the both of us.  especially sherlock.  sigh.  i'm a sucker for an intellectual, articulate, curious man.  that's why i married one.

we tried viewing some online comedy once but it didn't go so well because we were both tired and it was weird paying attention to the comedy and watching each other on skype.

we needed a new idea. or strategy. or something.

everybody i know, it seems, is watching downton abbey.  i don't know why i have held off so long in starting to watch it.  probably it's because i know myself very well; if i start an episode and like it, i'll stay up all night to get through as many episodes in one sitting as i can and i'll get even less sleep than i already do.

i asked steve the other night if he was interested in watching it, and, if so, could we try a date night with it.  (i had so much fun at my first twitter-movie-watching party with long-distance friends that i figured he and i could make it work somehow.)

he was game for it!  another reason he's awesome!

rather than skyping, which would be distracting and slow, or texting, which would be too limiting, or tweeting, which would be too public, he suggested google chat.  he helped me set that up and made sure we could each watch the episode on our respective computers.

why did it work so well for us?
  1. we had it at a time of night where neither one of us would have to be up terribly late.
  2. the episode is only an hour long, unlike movies that can stretch into many hours.  my attention tends to wander after a while, or i get antsy or uncomfortable and need to move.
  3. the show was something that would be ok if the kids came in to see what was playing on the computer; it was also easy to pause and restart, unlike an action flick where the tension of a scene would be disturbed by interrupting it.
  4. the kids had their own movie date in the living room, complete with popcorn.  diana was wonderfully responsible for and accommodating to her brother, and ander was ok with letting her do things for him, rather than needing me.  hooray for siblings!
  5. in google chat, we could (and did) engage in the kind of commentary we would do in person.
although we are behind the rest of the world in all the intrigue that is happening upstairs and downstairs, steve and i take no small amount of delight in the fact that we are on our own timeline and path, exploring together, virtually turning our heads towards each other with eyebrows raised, saying, "i can NOT believe she just said that!" or "zomg! seriously?!"  steve is, after all, not just my husband but also my best friend.  it's worth it to find a way to make this work.

i'm really looking forward to our next date.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


twenty years has passed by in the blink of an eye, or so it seems.

is it still worth the energy, the effort required to participate in this relationship?

yes, because the spectacular displays released when we convert our potential energy into various manifestations of kinetic energy are oftentimes breathtaking.

count me in for another twenty, thank you very much.

these arrived to my door this afternoon, courtesy of my loving, attentive, indulgent husband

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

word for 2013

some of my friends choose a word for the year, a kind of  "...guiding motivate and re-center..."

i haven't done it before, but it makes a lot of sense to me and it is consistent with some of the practices i follow.  to focus attention on a single word helps bring clarity of thought; it both narrows one's mindfulness to allow distractions to fall away and expands one's consciousness to the meaning and application of the word.

i surprised myself, pleasantly, by having a word come to me with little more than a single fishing line of wonder, cast into a rather calm pool of possibilities.


some definitions i gleaned from online dictionaries:

  • to set free from restraint, confinement, or servitude
  • to relieve from something that confines, burdens, or oppresses
  • to give up in favor of another 
i'm going with the transitive verb form of the word (rather than the noun) because i like the imagery of movement that comes from an action word.

i have a lot of ideas about how i can apply this word to myself, to how i live life, to how i interact with others.  i look forward to the unexpected places this word takes me.

here's how it's turned out so far (and the day's not yet over):

ander is interested in what happens when pressure is released.  he's designed a smaller version of a homemade rocket based on what he watched.  he's preparing himself for conducting the actual experiment when we have all the materials for the full-scale project.

diana is expressing herself creatively and enthusiastically when i release her from most of the obligations of a "typical" day: she's writing the first issue of a new magazine and one of the sections involves a recipe of her own creation.

we all worked on art displaying fireworks, a release of explosive and spectacular light. 

it's going to be an interesting year.