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Family Life | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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5 Steps to Summer Scholarship Searches

Searching for scholarships for my daughter has consumed a huge part of the last year for me. I’ve learned many things along this journey that will help me plan things differently in 2 years, when I begin this quest with my son.

The most important lesson I learned was that summer is prime time to make the scholarship search easier, and you can get an early start. Things I recommend?

  1. Communicate. Start talking about college with middle schoolers or younger. Make sure they know their career and college opportunities. Show the admissions standards of colleges and what classes they expect from incoming freshmen. Listen to what your kids are interested in and observe their passions and talents. Encourage kids to enroll in hard classes – the harder the better. Share what college expenses are and show how student loans work – what the interest means and what payments are after college.
  2. Organize. Designate a central location to keep records of awards and activities. As a 4-H parent, my kids use their 4-H Achievement Records as their primary organization tool. (I’m giving a 4-H workshop on June 21 on College and Career Success Through 4-H.)
  3. Study. Summer can be a prime time for a little test prep every day. Enroll in library summer reading programs and encourage kids to read classic books. Enroll in library summer reading programs yourself so you can lead by example.
  4. Serve. Find ways to serve your community and get involved. Community service is a great way to find ways to not only help people but broaden your horizons and learn about yourself.
  5. Connect. Find resources to help you learn how to search better. Jodi Okun of College Financial Aid Advisors hosts a weekly Twitter chat, #collegecash at 9 p.m. CDT on Thursdays, which taught me a lot about scholarship searches and encouraged our family to keep going when the going got tough. She has a free guide of the 12 most helpful financial aid tips on her website that I highly recommend. If you follow @JodiOkun on Twitter, she will keep you current on multiple scholarship opportunities.

My daughter’s scholarship adventure took us on an unexpected path, with highs and lows, and an unexpected outcome.  We went into her journey hoping to help her find scholarships to go to the school of her dreams. But on our journey, as she explored other opportunities, she realized her dream and what was the best fit for her was a little different from what she imagined in the fifth grade. Fortunately, she won scholarships at a different school that will help her reach those dreams and be a better fit.

I hope along our scholarship quest, my daughter and I both learned that the shot not taken is never made, and it’s better to take a shot than hold back. If we work at it, we can learn from the shots we miss today and do better tomorrow.

What Priorities Do You Juggle?

Music races while the juggler starts the act. First tossing one item, then two, and then more. We all know if the juggle tackles too many items, something will fall.

Life imitates art. When we juggle too many pieces, something generally slips our grasp. If it’s fragile, it smashes into pieces when it lands. We can try to juggle all those things and just hope nothing bad happens.

The older I get, the more I realize it’s better to instead decide which one, two, or three things are most important and focus on those things to juggle at a single time. If I’m juggling 3 things, I still have to know in my head and in my heart which is most important. All cannot be top priority.  Then I have to rank what’s second most important.

There is a reason why our phone numbers and social security numbers are split into 3 and 4 digit sequences. It’s because of digit span – we can best remember chunks of information when divided into manageable parts. Doesn’t it make sense then, in our lives, that they too are most manageable if we limit the number of key things that we do?

So…..when the time comes that  there is no choice but to juggle too many things, decide what your top 1, 2, and 3 things are. Keep your focus on those items first, and don’t let them fall through the cracks. It is not possible to focus equally on two top priorities. One of them has to come first. It’s better to choose which is first and then make contingency backup plans for the one that is second.

As the seasons of our lives change, we get to swap what we juggle. Yesterday’s diapers become tomorrow’s college financial aid forms. Or they can become a whole new business to build and grow. Whether it’s yesterday’s diapers or last week’s garden, all the experiences of the past give us a foundation of opportunities from which we can build and grow a better future.

It’s amazing how I’ve learned in my third act of life – the first being childhood and growing up, the second being raising my family, and this third of growing a new business – how I see that we can’t have it all at the same time.

We can, however, over the course of a lifetime, effectively juggle a wide range of priorities and projects. So long as we are wise enough to choose only a few at the same time.

Mission Accomplished – 13 Years Later

Last week, my daughter completed her high school course requirements. Yesterday, I sent in the final paperwork and documentation. And so ended an unexpected journey, with the mission accomplished. Those what to expect baby books never told me what to do when the unexpected happened.

Thirteen years ago, the summer my daughter turned 5, I hoped to prepare her for kindergarten. However, she prepared herself. Somehow that summer, she taught herself to read. I didn’t push it, and it was her own doing. As she started, I found a phonics-based reader set at the library and helped her make her own book. As she learned to read each page, she decorated it with flowers. As she began to read, I saw doors open in her world and her ready to leap through them to new adventures.

Her first day of kindergarten, she proudly took the book she had made and could read with her, into the perfect kindergarten classroom with the best of all possible kindergarten teachers. That afternoon, she came home discouraged. “No one in my class reads. Why should I?” she asked. When I asked if she showed her teacher the book she had made, she told me, “I will never read from that book again.”

Three days later, Richard and I pondered what to do. We saw her wilting and wondered - do you pay tuition for kindergarten for a child to quit reading when she was doing ok at home?

That third day, when she came home, she asked, “Can I stay home and do school here?”

We said yes.

We figured it would be an experiment for a year and if it failed, we would put her in school and pretend the year never happened. I was utterly unprepared, knew no one who homeschooled, and wondered if this were the right path for us. Over time, that changed.  Since I only do life in all-out force or not at all, I dove in with both feet.

Our journey had unexpected detours. First, I thought I could create the perfect classroom to be the best teacher.  I plan, and God laughs. Richard left his job of 20 years to start his own business, and a year after that, our home and business burned. That year, school days began at 6:30 a.m. so it could end earlier and I could focus on rebuilding our home and business.  What I didn’t anticipate was how that year would instill a strong work ethic in our kids.

Slowly, I learned that education is the lighting of a fire more than the stuffing of a bucket. Things went better when I focused on basics and encouraged interests and character development. If I stayed out of Elizabeth’s way, she worked harder – one summer reading every book on Greek mythology and another devouring every science-based agriculture book in our library system.

My goal with our choices was for our kids to enjoy a wide range of experiences, so they would feel as comfortable walking into an urban YMCA as they do a country club.  I don’t know if I always succeeded at that goal, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I hope they also learned that we get by with a lot of grace from God and a lot of help from our friends. There is no way we could have lasted on this path without 4-H, friends who taught my kids science classes, coops that provided a full range of opportunities, online schools, DVD programs, and dual credit college courses.

And I learned over time to change my role from teacher to mentor, especially in high school. She chose to continue homeschooling in high school, though we told her she would need to be more self-directed and was being enrolled in a tough program with high standards. We also told her if she wanted extras, we would encourage her but didn’t have the budget to cover all of them. So she started a baking business, baking rolls and cakes to pay for music and art lessons, as well as choir tuition.

When she was old enough, she started working as a bookshelver at the library to pay her tuition for extra courses through colleges and more. It’s amazing how much more kids value their education when they invest in it.

My prayer is my kids remember good times more than they remember the many times I stumbled and fell myself on this journey, when I lost my temper or grew discouraged.

The longer I stayed on this path, the less judgmental I became. There is no one perfect way to parent or to educate kids. What matters most is that our kids know we’re here to push, encourage, and help them when we can. In other words, they need to know that we love them always – when they succeed and when they stumble and fall.

And when they venture on their own journeys – whether it’s through the preschool classroom door or out the door to college.


Flawed Moms, Perfect Praise

Triple Layer Chocolate Turtle Cake

Not all pictures are worth 1,000 words. Some, of delectable food, fail to tell the adventures behind them. Like the one I took of our Easter dessert, a turtle cake made by my daughter.

Lots of the rest of the day weren’t picture perfect. I woke up with an earache which started my day in a bad mood. With Sudafed, it only sounded like ocean waves in my left ear. As I rushed before church to get dinner ready to go, I ran late. I was so busy taking care of the dinner details I neglected to make time to take care of me.

When I put on my Easter dress, I realized I either needed to shave my legs or wear hose. Except I didn’t have any hose because I threw the last pair out when they got a runner.  How fast can I shave my legs and not cut them? But I got to the church in time and squeezed into the pew.

As I sat, trying to collect myself, I thought I would read this Sunday’s readings and clicked on the icon on my Droid. Except I hit the wrong button – the one that blasts Catholic radio that I thought I deleted from my phone. “Oh shit, shit, shit,” I hissed hoping I didn’t once again embarrass my family with this mistake at church. The phone volume was down. Disaster averted, except I just whispered shit in church on Easter Sunday morning and was now praying that the elderly couple sitting in front of me were hard of hearing and hadn’t heard me. I then sat pondering that you can take the girl out of the trailer park but the trailer park still stays in the girl, and my mouth is sometimes my thorn in the flesh.

Then it was time to sing the first song, and I couldn’t see the words. I’m too young for bifocals and now keep a pair of reading glasses in my purse. Once I got them on, I was able to see to read and sing. This weekend was the first time ever at church I realized I absolutely couldn’t see to sing without them.

So I’m the flawed mom. Strike one – an earache and I’m not hearing right on that side. Strike two – I just cussed in church. Strike three – I can’t see without the reading glasses and keep forgetting it till it hits me.

This time, however, I’m not out. My misadventures continued after church. I grabbed a casserole lid just out of the oven with my bare hand and burned my left hand. I’m left handed. So during our perfect Easter dinner feast, I sat with my left hand in ice water and had to have my husband cut my food because I couldn’t hold anything with my left burned hand. I’m left handed and struggled to eat our perfect lunch holding my fork in my right hand. The food was wonderful.

Four hours later, the burns are such that I can now type so long as I stop every few minutes to put my thumb on ice.

But I realized through my misadventures, that I’m a flawed mom but it’s ok on Easter Sunday. My imperfect adventures that amuse my family – most of the time – make my praise on Easter Sunday perfect. God fills in my gaps, even the big ones, and loves me just the way I am.

We sing in Mass, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Then we sing it again. Finally, we conclude, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

With that perfect peace, this flawed mother can still sing perfect praise.

Easter Dinner Menus

Deviled Eggs

Easter dinner is one of the easiest holiday menus to make. My challenge this year is finding ways to add more fruits and vegetables to the menu but still have a feast so they feel like it’s a holiday dinner.


  • Salad (with artisan lettuces, green peppers, broccoli, cucumbers, celery, and carrots)
  • Fresh strawberries and pineapple
  • Deviled eggs – note the how to peel hard boiled eggs on this site – the techniques will result in prettier eggs
  • Glazed ham (I buy Appleton Farms hams from Aldi’s that are spiral sliced and use the glaze that comes with the ham. When I bought one last year, my family said it was one of the best-tasting hams I had ever made. This year, they are on sale for $1.69.)
  • Dinner rolls (Tomorrow morning, I’ll grind Prairie Gold Montana wheat and make them from scratch)
  • Oven Roasted Asparagus
  • Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes
  • Turtle Cake – this is my daughter’s contribution this year – layers of chocolate cake with pecan halves and a caramel glaze drizzled on top
  • Lemonade and southern iced tea

The salad vegetables and fruit can be prepared the day before, as can the deviled eggs and to-die-for dessert. That means the only real work tomorrow is to make the ham, rolls, asparagus, and mashed potatoes.

My rule of thumb for holiday meals is my kids are each assigned a dish to make the day before a holiday and one to make the day of. They can choose from our menu and decide what they want to make. That decreases my workload, gives them practical cooking experiences, and gives us all more time in the kitchen.


Sunrise, Sunset

Sixteen years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed fighting for my survival and that of my unborn son, my grandmother lay dying in a hospital 30 miles away from me.

Before I was hospitalized, I was able to see her one last time with my toddler daughter and share with her that I was going to have a son. My son and I survived, and I took him to see her soon after his birth.

Unfortunately, in that time frame of 2 months, she had lost more of her memory. For a single moment, she recognized me, and then she had no idea who I was or who my children were, though she enjoyed seeing them. A month after that, she died.

Amazing how many times in life birth is followed by death.

Now, as a sandwich mother who’s watching my children spread their wings at the same time I see elderly parents at the other end of the spectrum, I see it’s part of a sunrise, sunset effect. The challenge now is sometimes that the sunrise is happening at the same time as the sunset, and I’m in the middle trying to figure out which one to see or help.

When I was 16, I sang “Sunrise, Sunset” as a vocal solo in music contest. Then, it was a song from a musical. Now, it the story of my life.

And now, I realize more than ever to make the most of every sunrise and sunset. Seize the joy and savor the love.

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset.

Swiftly fly the years. One season following another,

Laden with happiness and tears.


My Chicken Little Dancing Adventure

Chicken Little Runs

“A baby bird is in our backyard,” my son told me yesterday. “I don’t know what kind it is.”

“Really?” I answered in a distracted voice. Little did I know a chicken adventure had begun. I assumed a baby bird had fallen from a nest and would be dead before sundown.

“The bird is walking around the garden eating worms,” my son told me later, after he had tilled our garden. Then I ventured to see the bird. This was no robin. It looked like a chicken.

But how would a chicken land in our yard in the middle of town? We got rid of our chickens 7 months ago, and there were none in our area. It didn’t look like the chickens we had raised. So I posted its picture and Facebook and asked what kind of bird it was.

It was a chicken. My son asked, “Can I put the cat beside the chicken and see what happens next?”

“No!” I told him. My mission had begun: how to save that chick.

Doing the Chicken Dance with a Public Speaking Workshop

One friend on Facebook told me it was my baby because 2 weeks ago at a public speaking workshop, I had opened with the Chicken Dance. She said this is what happens when you do the Chicken Dance in public.

The chick was running around our backyard hunting bugs and catching worms. When we got to close to us, it would dash into underbrush. “Will you put it in the coop?” I asked my family – we still had our empty, abandoned chicken coop.

“Why would I do that?” my son asked.

“Because you love your mother.” I told him.

“IF we catch it, it’s YOUR responsibility, and YOU have to take care of the food and water,” my daughter lectured me. Then my husband caught the bird and put it into our coop.

I started trying to find a home for the bird, posting it on Facebook and calling all my chicken-owning friends to see who would take this one lost bird. I don’t have the time to start chickens again, and it isn’t fair to just have ones. Prepping dinner went by the wayside as I tried to save the bird. I saw a couple of neighbors wandering through brush and wondered if the chicken were theirs. They disappeared.

An hour later, I saw them again, and I asked if they were looking for a chicken. Yes! They thought it was gone – they had gotten chicks that accidentally got open, and the one I found was the only one still missing. So they retrieved their bird, and my little chicken adventure was done.

I was barely able to fix dinner and eat it before leaving for a meeting.

There are people who do great things to serve their communities and to help the animals in our world. Some save lost puppies or find homes for stray cats. I have never done any of that.

But once, just once, I saved a chicken that was dumb enough to wander into my own back yard. And I sort of saved it.

Crying For Our Children

I saw a father sobbing over his child’s heartbreak.

As a parent, we know in our heads that the challenges our kids overcome build their character and develop their empathy.

That doesn’t matter one bit when in our hearts we feel their pain. Not the pain of a hangnail or an inconvenience. But the pain of heartache, disappointment, and loss. We would absorb every gut punch and take it tenfold if it would save their heartbreak.

Life doesn’t work that way.

The father – or the mother – who is sobbing has already given their kids the great gift of all: love.

When our kids know they are loved and we are there to comfort and encourage them, they have a well of strength that will carry them through the heartbreak.

As I saw the father crying over his child, I had a different perspective. My own father never cried over me and never will. I will never know unconditional love and support from him.

My husband and friends have stood in that gap for me.

Our youth need more mentors. I know many young people who have dad gaps like I do. If we want them to flip their childhood scripts and build better lives, it’s going to take responsible adults to mentor and encourage them.

The risk of mentoring young people – both those with parents and those without – is that we too feel their pain.

Would that all young people had a host of friends and family to watch over, encourage, and occasionally cry during their life journeys.

And a warning to the young people I’ve taught, tutored, or worked with as a youth leader – you have a cheerleader in your corner, ready to cheer and rejoice your victories and to cry and pray over your sorrows. For a lifetime.

Top 10 Things You Can’t Give Up for Lent

Ash Wednesday is here again. I enjoy the seasons of the Church Year because the feasts of Easter and Christmas are sweeter when we have a quiet, reflective time to balance them. That, for me, is the meaning of Lent.  When we give up something for Lent, we consider carefully. Here is a list of top 10 things we can’t give up:

  1. School. When my son was younger, he always asked for this one. I always told him no.
  2. Chores.  He tried this one too, with the same answer: no. (By the way, if you think kids who grow up on farms benefit from helping on the family farm, the Dept. of Labor is trying to regulate them from doing this. Public comments have been requested by the Dept. of Labor.)
  3. Animal Care.  Yes, the litter box must be cleaned during Lent. Animals must still have food and water.
  4. Musical Instrument Practice. We paid for the instrument, we pay for the lessons, and you WILL practice!
  5. Paying bills. Mortgage companies, utilities, and banks will not buy this.
  6. Exercise.  Not an excuse. Keep on moving!
  7. Things You Don’t Have or Do. As my daughter said,  “You can’t give up Playstation 2 if you have a Playstation 3.”
  8. Bathing and Personal Hygiene. Once upon a time it might have been ok to take one bath each winter. Queen Elizabeth I may have bathed only once every 6 months. No longer in style.
  9. Laundry.  40 days is a long time to wear the same clothes. Or to have that many different outfits to wear.
  10. Cooking. I have been tempted to take a Lenten holiday and quit cooking for my family. They can cook for themselves. However, someone is going to have to prep the meals.

Bottom line: what we give up for Lent is something that distracts us or is bad for us. I’m thinking of giving up second helpings and am still thinking what else to give up.

The other part is if we give something up, we also need to add something – to add something positive to our lives.

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday. So today, we begin Lent so we can reflect and be best prepared to celebrate the Holy Triduum, concluding in Easter, in 40 days.

Give Health a Chance

A week's produce share from Seton Harvest, a CSA in Evansville, Indiana.It’s 2012, and we know what it takes to have a nutritious diet. Whether you put those choices into the food groups I grew up with, or the pyramid, or now the plate, the basics are the same. A varied diet that is low in fat, high in fiber, and full of fruits and vegetables is good for you.

So how do we get that people don’t know what nutrition is? We were all taught it in school. We see it on TV. It’s in newspapers, on the web, and in magazines all the time.  Yet I still go to the grocery store – whether it’s the low budget no frills store or the high end suburban grocery store – and see the kid who only eats chicken nuggets made of cut up processed chicken parts which could conceivably include bones, fat, dyes, breading of who knows what, and any semblance it once had to real meat is now gone.

Or the other choice is a pre-packed lunch box because we are incapable of putting together cheese, crackers, and a cookie all wrapped up in an MSG high calorie package with a cholesterol bow on top.

We don’t want to know. We want to live in a world of denial where:

  • Eating a pickle spear counts as a vegetable because once upon a time part of it was a cucumber.
  • That ketchup packet in the drive thru counts as a vegetable serving.
  • French fries count as a double vegetable because we super-sized the order and threw extra salt on top.
  • We justify fruit drink as a fruit because it’s the color of a fruit and has fruit in its name.
  • We say we can’t afford healthful food choices when a grocery card is full of sodas, snacks, box mixes, frozen snacks, and more.

Bogus. We know better. Isn’t it time if we are going to make bad choices for our menus that we just own them and say, “I know these food choices will boost my cholesterol, make me gain weight, suck the nutrients I do eat from my body, and shorten my lifespan, but I don’t care.

I deserve better, and so do you. Try a single baby step. Swap out a single snack for a vegetable. Next week, make it two. If we plan menus for our families or for others, work twice as hard to give health a chance.

Warning: if I cook a meal for you or help you plan an event, I’m going to ask, “Where’s the food?” And that is going to mean real food, as in original source fruits and vegetables.

I’m doubly determined because last year my town was highly ranked for its obesity rate. Like others concerned in my community, I’m working to do my part to knock down our rating and build the fitness of our community.

All I am saying is: give health a chance. I know that if I want there to be health in Evansville, I have to let it begin with me, and my own dinner table.

Won’t you join me?

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