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Mary Biever | One Writing Mother |

A Strong Education Includes Real Literature

When I first saw that Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird were being replaced in core curriculum with dry product guides, I thought it was a spoof story on The Onion. Then, I realized it was real. Whoever made that decision never read Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Bleak House.

Reading great literature has been one of the cornerstones of my children’s education. Real literature. With great stories, complex characters – books that both taught and delighted us. Reading great literature is one of the best methods I know to help kids grow into strong, creative writers.

If this becomes a trend, then it will be up to parents and family members to continue to introduce children to good literature. Here are ways we did this in our home:

  • Summer library programs – your librarian should be your friend. Make the most of their collection.
  • Read alouds can become part of family nights. In Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family by Maria von Trapp (a la Sound of Music), she described her family’s reading great literature aloud together at night.  Until last year, we incorporated family read alouds of books for my children’s entire lives. As a family, we’ve twice ventured through the Little House series and also through the chronicles of Narnia. We didn’t begin with those books – we started with Thomas the Train, Peter Rabbit, and Grimm’s fairy tales when our kids were young. (Walt Disney attributed much of his inspiration to his mother reading fairy tales to him when he was a child.) Another favorite of mine was a fully illustrated children’s book telling the story of the Odyssey.
  • Bible stories are vital. We are now on our tenth round as a family reading aloud a children’s Bible; we start in August and will probably finish in May, reading a story a day. During my daughter’s high school years, we bumped this up a notch, reading aloud the complete Bible. With family schedules, this took us four years to finish but was worth it.
  • Go for the classics. It’s ok to read abridged versions of books. But make time to read the real ones too – until we read aloud as a family, I didn’t know how ornery Tinkerbell really was in Peter Pan. And I wouldn’t have cried during Heidi when the grandmother described how she liked to pray on the mountain.
  • Don’t just read American authors. Add a good sampling of British authors because often, the sentence structure is more complex, as are their characters. This will help develop your kids’ minds.
  • Find older books. For several years at homeschool conventions, we sold Bethlehem Books, which specialized in reprinting old books of historical fiction. I loved their characters, and their stories are among the finest we ever enjoyed as a family. A good way to introduce historic fiction to kids is to correspond the historic era being studied with books studied so students can better draw parallels and see the big picture.
  • This can continue in high school. With my kids, they studied world history and world literature the same year. Then, the next year, they studied American history and American literature.  As a literature fanatic, I wrote my own curriculum for my kids to use – a blend of traditional anthology combined with reading several novels and plays.
  • Shakespeare can be good even at an early age. There are great Shakespeare picture books with his greatest moments from his plays in them. I used those. Several times in English or communications classes, I’ve adapted sections from his plays into oral reading exercises for classes to enjoy. After my kids study a Shakespearean play, we make sure we see it on DVD so because Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not just read.
  • We used to call them books on tape – but they are wonderful. We love Jim Weiss and his countless stories.

Thomas Gradgrind, the utilitarian schoolmaster in Bleak House, begins the story demanding his students only learn “facts.” By the novel’s conclusion, he grows to appreciate poetry and literature.

The images we carry in our souls from the stories we read help carry us through life’s future tragedies. When we lost our first baby, I remember thinking that for the first time I understood the Biblical phrase of the daughters of Rachel weeping for their children. Do we really think a future generation of kids is going to draw their inspiration from an insulation EPA product manual?

I would hate to see a generation of children lose their imaginations because Gradgrind’s mistake is repeated. A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing to treasure and a terrible thing to waste.

The 7 Days of an Angry Irish Prayer

Yes, I have an Irish temper, which is most profound when roused in defense of those I love.

When that happens, I have the most interesting chats with God, all attuned to my wanting to fix the problem now and be the instrument of divine vengeance against the oppressor. A timeline of my prayers as I wrestle….

Day 1: God, I can’t frickin’ believe it! How could you let something like this happen? Please restrain me before I march myself over there and say exactly what I think and give that jerk a punch in the gut.

Day 2: God, I trust in your divine judging and timing. My only request is that you let the true colors of that no good such and so show themselves and that good people get protected from the likes of him. I’m still ready, willing, and able to be the instrument of your justice. Give me a sign, and I’ll go stop it. I’m thinking to the tune of peanut butter jelly time – “Mary Biever justice time, Mary Biever justice time. Mary Biever justice and a baseball bat.”

Day 3: Thank you Lord for restraining my Irish temper. I no longer want to punch him in the boxing ring, but I can use my words instead. Written words. I’ve written a first draft of just what to say and send. Let me know if it’s ok.

Day 4: Are you there, God? It’s me, Mary. The one who told you about that problem and the bully who needs to be stopped and the innocent victim who needs to be protected. What time frame are you on? I’m waiting….

Day 5: Lord, this is wearing on me. Show me the path you want me to take. How do you want me to handle it? The bully’s still at it. Is it time now?

Day 6: God, this whole problem is horribly frustrating. Can you show me some way – any way – that a situation like this can be used for good purpose? I just don’t see it.

Day 7: God. What? Are you talking to me? What is that? You say you’re going to handle this your way? I gave it to you, and now I need to give it to you? And I need to remove this problem from my head and think about the people I’m supposed to care for – as in my family? Are you sure? Well, if you say so….

And with that answer, I resolved to let go of the problem and trust that God will handle it better than I ever could.

As each hour passed, I felt as though the weight of this terrible problem was gradually being taken from my shoulders. For the first time in a week, I could breathe.

So I guess you could say – on the 7th day, I rested.


For the Guys Who Get the Glasses

Tonight in church, the pianist started to play before the service began. That’s when I saw the unseen action few will ever know.

Her husband quietly walked up behind her and set her reading glasses beside her. She had apparently left without having them, and he went back to the car to get them for her.

She put them on, and I doubt 2 other people noticed the exchange.

The first reason I noticed is  because of my own relationship with my reading glasses because I’m determined that I’m too young for bifocals. Sometimes I forget them, and things become a struggle.

The second is a hat tip salute to all the guys who get the glasses and behind the scenes people who make things work seamlessly. We often praise the performer, the person who is front center stage. But we may forget the person who build the stage, who cleans the stage, and who manages the money so the organization stays afloat. Their roles are all vital.

And I know how many times my own bacon has been saved by my husband. He’s found my reading glasses, found my keys, and help me find my way home when I’ve been hopelessly lost.

So the next time you go somewhere, look for the guys who get the glasses, who prepare the programs, and who do the thousands of behind the scenes things we all enjoy but sometimes forget to appreciate. And thank them.

Eleni – A Heroic Mother’s Love

For most mothers, something remarkable happens at the moment their babies are born. The world shifts, continents collide, and you know from that moment forward, you will passionately love this precious child.

In the American dream of this, you resolve to give your children a bigger, stronger world than the one which you knew.

If you came from less than perfect surroundings, you aspire to something bigger. We can build a stronger home and family.

No movie better exemplifies for me the strength of a mother’s love than the 1985 movie, Eleni, a true story starring Kate Nelligan and John Malkovich. We see a Greek mother who sacrifices herself to help her children escape from occupied Greece. She passionately wants her children to enjoy freedom.

The moment my children were born, I was determined they would have a stable home. They would have a security as children that I never knew.

Of all the goals I ever made with my life, that was the most important one.

Good mothers stand behind their children. If unfortunate circumstances present themselves, those mothers will do what is necessary to protect their children. They will sacrifice themselves if needed to give their kids a better life. They inspire their children.

As Eleni told one of her daughters the night before she died, “It is such a joy to be a mother. And I thank God for letting me know it.”

Eleni is now difficult to find….it is available on Youtube. I saw it before becoming a parent, and it has influenced me for the past 23 years. I knew it was possible to give my children a better world so they could have their best chance at life. No matter what the personal cost was.

Viewing hint: The video embedded is part 1 of 4 of the movie. Here are the other parts. The book upon which this movie is based won first prize by the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain.

How to Pull Yourself Out of a Psychopath’s Cesspool

Getting sucked into a psychopath’s cesspool can be easier than you think. First you’re dazzled by the caring, charismatic leader who shows such concern for his fellow man. Then the world seems a little off – you don’t know whether it’s them or whether you put your contacts in the wrong eyes, and your focus is a little blurred.

The first step is naming your problem. You have to realize you are dealing with a psychopath. It can be difficult at times. This checklist can help:

  • If he grooms you by first giving you presents and then pressuring you to do things he wants that makes you uncomfortable, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he has a callous disregard for the law or likes to live just on the edge of it, to see how much he can get away with, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he tries to manipulate you so that you act against your core beliefs or do things that make you uncomfortable, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he lies easily and manipulates the truth on a whim, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he turns quickly on former friends and likes to harm them after the fact, he might be a psychopath. Watch carefully who he turns on. They might be others who told him no, wanted to uphold rules or laws, or set a boundary.
  • If he enjoys making people feel uncomfortable as he tries to turn their lives into his personal chess board, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he has messianic delusions of his own role in the world, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he never shows remorse or guilt, no matter what he does, he might be a psychopath. Caution: saying “I’m sorry this happened” is not showing remorse. It’s using words to manipulate out of a situation.
  • If he seems to enjoy pain or discomfort in others, he might be a psychopath.
  • If he works to convince you that you are stupid or helpless, he might be a psychopath.
Also, pay attention to your reactions with him.
  • If you set a boundary and he ignores it, he might be a psychopath.
  • If you find yourself objecting to his behavior in situations and he weasel words his way out of it, telling you “it’s in your head,” and you “misunderstood,” on a regular basis, he might be a psychopath.
  • If you tell him no and he responds with intimidation, ridicule, or harassment, he might be a psychopath.

I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist. I don’t know enough to discuss whether someone is a psychopath, a sociopath, or a narcissist.

However, I have survived the master manipulations described above and learned that there is a better, healthier way to build relationships. (Tip of the hat to my husband of 21 years.)

The end result after spending too much time with a psychopath is that you doubt your own judgment and think that you mis-judge real situations. The only way to regain your self esteem is to get away from the destructive relationship and slowly realize that you do have good judgement. When you get away, get help and learn new ways to communicate, to find people who will treat you with respect. The sooner you get away, the easier it will be to learn healthier ways to relate to people.

From my experiences, I have found that when I pull myself out of a relationship with a psychopath, there is no way to continue any sort of relationship. It becomes a constant tug of war, where talons of the past try to drag me by my heels back to an unhealthier place where I’m not respected. It’s easier to cut the cord, turn the page, and move forward.

I have also learned from my experiences – if you cut ties with a charismatic psychopath, he may try to harm your reputation. Don’t let that stop you from moving forward with your own life. You deserve to be  treated well. Further, your real friends won’t believe calumny or gossip. They will stand by you.

Leave yesterday’s nightmare to yesterday’s pages. Build a whole new story today. With help, you can build one where people love, encourage, and respect each other.

There is hope for a better future. It is possible to break the chains of yesterday’s traumas and build a stronger, brighter future – not only for yourself but your children and your children’s children.

See also – We Are Not Objects

Turn the Page

In children’s books with sound, they used to say at the end of each page, “Turn the page.”

There are times in our lives when we turn the page. In early chapters of our story, there may have been people or things that were key to the story line. Our story would not be the same without them.

Turn the page.

Then new chapters begin, and we make choices. We build a future based on present circumstances and new opportunities, or we stay locked into the pages from the past. How do we know when to look back and when to build a new story?

First, listen to your gut. If talons from the past reach up to grab you, and you feel as though you’re being dragged back to a painful memory, a smaller world, and a cloudy outlook, you know the old chapter has ended.

Turn the page.

Second, build a dream team of cheerleaders. These are people who encourage and empower you. They see your potential, love you for who you are, and cheer you to meet new challenges. Choose carefully who is on your dream team; they will help you write the new chapters in your story.

Another way you will know whether or not people belong on your dream team is if they are interested in you and your story – or if their sole concern is how you play a role in their story. If they belittle, manipulate, or distract you from your end goal, you will know it’s time. If they are only interested in their own stories and care nothing for yours, pass them by.

Turn the page.

If your past story included negative choices or association with people who disrespected you, your future story can go in a different direction. You can start fresh. You can find friends who will support you, respect your boundaries, and encourage you. If your family does not include people who will do this, build a new one. Find a few good people for that dream team.

Turn the page.

As you begin writing your new chapters with your dream team’s support, your gut will tell you things are going in the correct direction. At times, it will be a tranquil peace in your soul. Other times, it will seem as though each new challenge is a sunrise on the lake of life, offering you new opportunities.

When you finish painting the picture of today’s story, look at it for a moment and rejoice. Just for today, your life probably included some problems, a few frustrations, but also a rainbow if you looked hard enough. After giving thanks for today’s story, you know it’s time.

Turn the page. Tomorrow’s story will begin, and we can share it with those we love – who love us back.

How will you complete tomorrow’s pages of your story? Make the most of them!

When Rudolph Quit Playing the Reindeer Games

Another version of Rudolph’s story.

When Rudolph was little, he wasn’t very good at the other reindeer games. Dasher was the star, the leader. He took poor Rudolph in and told him, “You don’t have what it takes, but do what I say, and I’ll take care of you.”

So for a long time, Rudolph stumbled through the games, following Dasher’s lead. He was grateful to Dasher and would do whatever Dasher needed.

Even as he tried, Rudolph continued to fail at the games, and his well-being on the reindeer playground was utterly dependent on Dasher’s benevolence. The other reindeer laughed at Rudolph but tolerated him because of Dasher’s protection.

One day, Rudolph got tired of playing reindeer games. They  bored him, he had never liked them, and he wanted to do something different.

So he didn’t go out to play. Dasher went to him, “Why aren’t you there? You need to get out there. Do you realize how much trouble it is for me to keep you in the game and how much harder it will be when you’re late?”

Rudolph told him, “I quit.”

Dasher pranced angrily. “I didn’t tell you to do that.”

Rudolph continued on his path to do something different.

Then Dasher raced to him and patted him on the head saying, “I understand sometimes we make foolish mistakes. This is yours. If you turn back right now, I’ll forgive you and we’ll make everything well again. I want to help you succeed.”

Rudolph continued walking away.

Dasher bounded in front of him, trying to get Rudolph back into the game.

Rudolph went his own way.

Once Rudolph was on his own, he began to play games with his red nose – how to make it light, how to direct the light, and how to play his own games with it. He taught himself to fly with his red nose flashing.

All was well, and Rudolph was on his own.

One foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came and asked him to lead the reindeer.

When Rudolph went into Santa’s stable, Dasher went to him and told him, “All is forgiven. Rely  on me, and I’ll show you the ropes.”

Rudolph told him, “Thanks. But I’m fine on my own.”

When the sleigh ride began, Rudolph lit his nose, his way. All the games he had played had perfected the skills he needed to save that Christmas.

The question is – if you’re the one with a red nose that’s different from all the other reindeer, what are you doing to nurture your talents?

Your singular talent could be just the one that will one day be needed to save everyone else. It’s the talent you were born to share.

Fly, Baby, Fly – and Dance Your Dance

When my children were babies, I carried them in my arms onto the dance floor of life. In those moments of holding them and feeling the waves of music, I swayed to the beat and hoped our moments together would last forever. Often, they would nod to sleep in my arms and nap to awaken with more energy.

The time came when they learned to crawl, and then stand, and then walk. Then, I held their hand, took them to the dance floor and began to show them basic building blocks for the dance. Sometimes they wobbled and occasionally, they stumbled.  But I was there to catch them, cheer their victories, and help them stand back up after they stumbled. Often, I got to choose the music and their dance partners as I worked to give them the best dance training possible.

As they grew older, others began to show them dance steps I didn’t know. I was still there, right on the sidelines, often organizing the rules of the dance and keeping the show running. That’s what moms are for, isn’t it?

Advance a few years. They choose their own dances and show they have more stamina than I do. The time comes when they want to choose not only how they dance but where. And they don’t want mama or daddy organizing the outskirts of the dance floor, ready to rescue them at the first sign of trouble. They recognize role models – both good and bad. Except now they are old enough to discern the difference and use bad role models as people not to emulate.

I’m at that place now where I see my kids who are no longer kids – they are starting their own dances. We raised them to fully engage in the dance of life, and that’s what they are doing. On their terms. In their own ways. If I try to grab them now and force them to dance just like me, where I tell them to go, I’m trying to take away their free will.

Not that that would work – they are too independent for me to try to manipulate. And I respect them too much to try.

They will encounter problems and challenges just like we did. Drawing on their past experiences and training, they will decide how to handle them. It’s no longer up to me to set the rules, choose the music, or solve the problems. They will make their own moves.

We can still sit on the sidelines and sometimes pass the popcorn. At times, I’ll tell them, “Fly,  baby, fly.”

And in doing so, I continue my own dance of life. Watching theirs and celebrating who they have become.

Red and White Lasagna For a Party

When I originally made this lasagna, it was as a fundraiser for 4-H Leaders, to feed 70 people. We opted to make 6 pans of traditional “red” lasagna and 3 pans of “white” lasagna (chicken alfredo). Days before the event, I ran a trial run at home and worked on steps to streamline and combine varied recipes to make it achievable (and affordable) for a group.

What is listed below would be a recipe to make 1 pan of red and 1 pan of white lasagna for a group. If you cut each lasagna into 20 pieces, theoretically, with 2 pieces per person, this would be enough to feed 20 people – anticipating other side dishes. We had a salad bar, oven roasted vegetables, and Texas garlic toast. If you are feeding people with appetites the size of my son’s, I would make the number of people this serves smaller than that.

Warning: this is a labor intensive recipe. There are times that good cooking takes time. This is one of them. One thing this recipe does differently is incorporate a white mozzarella sauce into both recipes.

Shared Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (I use the shredded in large containers sold at Sam’s.)
  • 2 lbs. cottage cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 C parsley
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 sticks margarine
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 cups Parmesan cheese (to sprinkle on them while cooking)

Red Lasagna Ingredients:

  • 1/2 pound lasagna noodles
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground Italian sausage
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 bottle of your favorite marinara sauce

White Lasagna Ingredients:

  • 1/2 pound lasagna noodles
  • 2 lbs. boneless chicken breasts of thighs, cut into small pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 package frozen, chopped spinach
  • 1 bottle of your favorite alfredo sauce (or increase the white sauce by 50% and use that.)
  • 1 can mushrooms. (or you can use fresh)

Your biggest challenge will be to prepare the multiple layers for assembly.

Red Lasagna meat: Brown both of the meats together with the chopped onion. Drain the excess fat. Stir with the marinara sauce and set aside.

White Lasagna meat: Cook the chicken meat together with the onion. Chop the mushrooms. Stir the chicken and mushrooms in the alfredo sauce and set aside.

White Mozzarella sauce: You will make a basic white sauce and add cheese to it after it thickens. Melt the margarine and stir in the flour. When it becomes a roux, add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce thickens. Stir in the 1 cup of the mozzarella  Parmesan, and cheddar cheeses. Stir until the cheeses are melted. Set aside – your white sauce is ready.

Cottage cheese layer: beat the eggs together and fold into the cottage cheese. Mix into the parsley. Set aside.

Spinach layer: defrost the spinach and squeeze excess water from it.

Now prepare your lasagna noodles. Take a large pan, fill with hot water, and put all the lasagna noodles into it to soak for about 5 minutes. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Prep your casserole pans for the lasagna. First, spray them with non-stick cooking spray. Set the 2 pans together so you can assembly-line prepare them. Put red meat sauce in one pan and white sauce in the other, covering the bottom of the pans.

Put 3-4 lasagna noodles into the bottom of each pan. For the red lasagna, put in a layer of half of your meat filling. For the white lasagna, put in a layer of half of your white chicken filling. Then sprinkle 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese on each. If you have extra, sprinkle Parmesan cheese on each. Scoop 1/4 of your cottage cheese filling into each of the pans, smoothing it.

Then sprinkle half the spinach onto the white lasagna.

Now comes the tricky part. You might divide your white sauce into three parts. Pour 1/3 of it onto the two lasagnas now.

Then put down another layer of lasagna noodles. Follow the same order of layers: meat, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, cottage cheese, and 1/3 of the white sauce. Then sprinkle the remaining spinach onto the white lasagna.

Top with a final layer of noodles. Pour the remaining white sauce on top of the lasagnas.

Bake for 1 hour. After the lasagnas have baked 45 minutes, sprinkle an additional layer of Parmesan cheese on them.

After it has baked, let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes before cutting it and serving it.

In Defense of the Well Set Table

Table setting by LT Home Design

Yes, Virginia, there is still room in our lives for a well set table beyond the boards of Pinterest.

In a “good enough” world where many prefer the convenience of paper plates and plastic silverware, sometimes someone has to take a stand. There is a place in this world for “good enough” disposable.

But can’t there also be a place for the beautiful table setting?

I was born with a love for beautiful tables, table clothes, and matching accessories. Taking what I have and making it into a celebration at a dinner table is something that makes me happy.

We all know that kids who grow up in families who sit to eat a family meal together regularly are less likely to engage in risky, self-destructive behaviors. Has anyone ever thought about how a nicely set table can help those dinner conversations? They invite a family to sit, relax, and enjoy conversations.

Is it possible that putting everything paper on a table increases the likelihood of a “git ‘r done with the eatin’ part” mood to finish eating, toss the plate away, and dash out the door? I’m not dissing on the paper. There is nothing wrong with relying on paper.

But many times I hear people mock the person who wants the real plates or tableware. Has anyone ever stopped to think that for people like me, those beautiful tables make us happy? They give us a constructive outlet into which we can steer our creativity.

I have a table cloth fetish. I love them, and nothing makes me happier than new linens that can create an all new look for our table. I like pulling out the china and silver for family gatherings. Isn’t my family worth pulling out our best and using it together?

In England a lifetime ago, my adopt-a-mom ate with her best china, silver, and crystal every day. She told me, “Why would I only save it for a special day? Today is special. I have them and want to enjoy them.”

Her point hammered home to me when our home burned. The family heirloom china I saved for special occasions and rarely used on fear of breaking great grandma whatever’s dish that had been in the family for generations were all in the same cabinet. All the dishes in the cabinet partially melted and adhered to the shelves. I was in the kitchen when the cabinet collapsed, shattering all the china in to shreds.

So much for saving for good occasions. If you have someone in your family who loves to set a beautiful table, why don’t you just say thank you and enjoy the moment?

Life is short. We need to seize the joy and savor the beauty wherever we find it.

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