Immeasurably More

It’s a Monday morning in October, just over two years ago. My husband, Andrew, and I had just submitted the final paperwork to become licensed foster parents in the state of Texas the night before. We had been working with a wonderful agency in Austin for the past few months and though the process was tedious, the agency staff had navigated us through everything seamlessly. We had finally completed all the necessary steps and were ready to welcome children into our home. I remember being both excited and nervous to start this new adventure and I was certain our family would end up adopting from the foster care system. Not only that, but I had seen the children we would adopt; two precious, black, identical twin girls. I had envisioned their beautiful faces for almost a year and prayed for these children I didn’t even know yet. They filled my dreams, playing and laughing with our other children. It was all so vivid and clear to me – they were meant to be part of our family.


But as Andrew and I were getting ready to go to work that October morning, I suddenly had a strange feeling. What if I’m pregnant? Before we started the foster care journey, we had talked about conceiving a third baby but it wasn’t part of our plan anymore. We knew we couldn’t effectively care for a newborn, our two boys and fragile children being separated from their family and placed in a strange new environment. I couldn’t be pregnant, I thought. Or could I? I found an old pregnancy test under the sink and in 3 minutes my initial thoughts were confirmed. I was pregnant. What a strange feeling that was. I was incredibly happy but at the same time my heart longed for those two twin girls. But we knew fostering while bringing a new baby into this world would be too much for our family, so we called our agency and gave them the news. The day we made that call, we had no idea how tough the next year would be for our family.


We had our daughter, Storie, the following June. She was perfect in every way and we all fell madly in love with her. I left my job of ten years to stay home with our kids and began homeschooling the boys as well. We went from a family of four with two incomes to a family of five with one income. Needless to say it was a strain financially but it also took a lot of time for me to just adjust to my new role. Navigating homeschool curriculum with a newborn constantly attached to me was a little overwhelming and at times just plain lonely. If that wasn’t enough, about a month into our school year, Andrew lost his job and was faced with some pretty serious health issues. What was exposed through these tough experiences was that our relationship was extremely fragile and we needed to do something about that fast. We were forced to take a hard look at ourselves and our relationship and worked tirelessly reevaluating priorities, praying together and pushing through tough conversations to save the marriage that was so precious to us both.


That time in our lives seems like a lifetime ago. Last month Andrew had his one year anniversary with a new job that has been a financial blessing to our family, his health has never been better and our marriage, while certainly not perfect, has become a supremely sacred relationship we both treasure. The kids and I have also found our own unique way of homeschooling and have met so many wonderful friends along the way. I’m just amazed at how far we all have come.

My friend Susan was one of the people who walked through that difficult time with our family. She is one of my dearest friends but sadly last year, we just didn’t connect that much. She had a baby and was busy growing her non-profit, Austin Angels. I was busy homeschooling and just running our household. So when she asked me to meet her and the kids for a play date last week, I was so excited. While our kids played, we talked about our lives and how much they have changed in the last year. She filled me in on her hopes and dreams and for some reason I felt compelled to tell her about the twin girls I thought we were supposed to adopt. In the last three years, I had never told anyone about the girls except Andrew. I confessed to her that I still thought often about the girls and dreamed that they would be part of our family one day. As soon as I said this out loud, I was immediately embarrassed. It just sounded so silly to say it out loud. But then Susan said something I’ll never forget.


“I know those girls,” she said, “and they need you.”

See, a foster mom of two twin girls had applied a few months earlier to be part of a Love Box program through Austin Angels, Susan’s non-profit. Austin Angels helps facilitate Love Box teams that sponsor individual foster families to provide them with love, support and much needed supplies. It’s a beautiful program that helps care for families walking in the margins with extremely vulnerable children who often times have experienced neglect and abuse. The impact of a friend visiting regularly each month that cares about the children and is interested in what they are doing is incredible. I truly believe Love Box teams are changing the course of many foster kid’s lives.


Susan told me the twins’ foster mom had been put on a waiting list because she lived farther from Austin than most people were willing to drive. In addition to this, she was the girls’ mother’s godmother so she was not financially compensated for caring for the girls and she was struggling, really struggling, to make ends meet. At that moment I knew this was what God had been preparing my heart for. It all made sense now.


Less than a week later, I met the 9 month old twin girls. They were just as I had imagined them; gorgeous, black, twin girls. It was surreal. What’s more, I also met their incredibly brave and selfless foster mom, whose hope is that ultimately her goddaughter will one day be able to care for these precious girls. The foster mom is an absolute gift to the twins and I’m so grateful to be waking alongside her and witnessing the girls flourish the way God intended. I must admit this story doesn’t look quite like I imagined but I have a feeling it’s going to be so much better.

And these words my husband and I clung to desperately two years ago just continue to astound us:

Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Immeasurably more friends.

New Year Intentions – A Family Affair

It’s 10am on January 1st and I’m sitting in a yoga studio waiting for class to start. I’m feeling good, like I’m starting the year off strong when my instructor throws a curveball. Instead of starting class with the typical breathing exercise or meditation, she asks us all to go around the room and share our intentions for the new year. 


Now I’ve been talking with our boys about their 2017 goals since the day after Christmas. Each of them has a list of things they want to accomplish and are planning to create vision boards to hang in their room. The lists are filled with things like “earn my red belt in karate” and “learn how to read independently.” They are all specific, attainable goals that the boys are both excited to achieve. But, the only thing Andrew and I have made time to talk about so far is saving more money. We don’t have a plan, except we want to spend less and save more. Really good plan, right? So I share this with the class and my yoga instructor very sweetly says it is a good goal. But as I sit listening to others share and have time to think about it, our goal is not specific, it’s not measurable and it’s not trackable, which doesn’t give me much confidence in our ability to achieve it. As class goes on I keep going back to my yoga instructor’s word intention. She used this word instead of goal or resolution and it really began to resonate with me.  


When I got home, I revisited this topic with Andrew and our children and we reframed the goal setting conversation. Some questions I asked were – What are the most important things to us? Are they even things? What do we want to be intentional about? Why do we want to save money? Are there certain behaviors we want to change? And from the answers we narrowed down two areas in our life where we felt we needed to be more intentional – with our money and our time. In order to really dig in and make significant change, we are focusing on one intention at a time. The past few weeks we have focused on our finances and I thought I would share a bit of our journey with you. 

Our family of five lives in a modest size home just over 1600 square feet. We really adore our small house and have enjoyed coming up with creative space saving and storage solutions (I’ll try and share those in a future post) but looking to the future, we would like to have a bit more space for our growing family. Not more house per say, just more land – untouched land with trees, a space to grow a garden and room for our kids to explore unrestricted. But land like this in Austin doesn’t come cheap. In addition to this big dream of ours, there is also a voice speaking loudly to both of us to give more of our money. 

So now we have to figure out how to do both of these things. Neither Andrew or I have ever been good at financial planning. We’ve talked about it but never set a budget of any kind (Sorry Dad, I know you have been telling me to set a budget since I moved out 20 years ago). It’s a little embarrassing to say but we’re kind of going into this blind. Currently, we’re reading a book recommended by Andrew’s mentor called Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach. I promise it’s way less superficial than it sounds. What I love about the book is that Bach starts by asking couples to take an honest look at their core values and goals and share this with their partner. This, he says, is the starting point to setting specific financial goals. It is an easy book to read, not boring at all and has really resonated with us. I highly recommend it although we are not quite halfway through yet. By the way, reading a book together has been really fun. When we are finished with this one, we’ll most likely read something else together. Picture me reading aloud to the both of us – it’s not much different than my read alouds with the kids. Recently I was reading aloud while Andrew was driving the family to the gym and Bach was giving examples of how very little money could turn into a million with the right investment strategy. An example he used was, if a seven year old boy invested $1/day at 15% interest, he would be a millionaire by the age of 47. Well that certainly sparked our 7 year old’s attention and suddenly the kids became part of our financial conversation. 


We have set budgets for both boys depending on their age and allowance allocation. They each get a set allowance at the end of the week if they complete each chore on their list. We also discussed how they would like to allocate their money and decided they would put 1/3 into savings, 1/3 will be donated and 1/3 is theirs to do with what they wish. We created their budget worksheets from a simple Excel template and they now have these hanging on their bedroom door by their completed vision boards. 


Recently, we made the decision as a family to sponsor a precious foster mom through Austin Angels‘ Love Box program. As I’m writing this, we are about leave to meet the mom and her 9 month old twin foster daughters for the first time. The foster mom is fostering through the kinship program and gets no government assistance for the girls. We have been talking about and praying for the twins and their foster mom as a family but I was completely blown away when both of the boys asked to give their monthly donation money to help buy formula and diapers for the twins. It’s one of those moments I will treasure forever. 


As for the boys’ savings, we will be opening accounts for them that may soon be transferred to stocks (to earn more interest) as we learn more about investing. Draven is pumped to be saving for his first car and Cullen has dreams of buying spy gear with his spending money. Needless to say, they are both happy to be on this journey with us and I’m just thankful to be able to give them the gift of a financial education. 


I should also mention that Andrew has been listening to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace on Audible on his commute to work. We are currently working on a budget and will be trying Ramsey’s envelope system to keep us in track with some of our monthly expenses like food, spending money and gas. As a family of five, food is one of our biggest expenses but we were both appalled at the money we could be saving if we were simply more intentional about meal planning and avoiding incidental food purchases. Last week we decided to not spend any money except on groceries and gas and it was actually a really fun challenge. Surprisingly, meal planning has also been fun for me – it’s kind of like putting together pieces of a puzzle. We both love a good challenge and I think as long as we’re in this together, we are going to succeed. 


It’s been quite exciting to take control of this part of our life we haven’t been very intentional about. What started as a vague goal of saving money has transformed into us redefining our financial future. I hope to share our plan to be more intentional with our time with you soon and would love to hear about your new year intentions! 

A Children’s Book Club Party

“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more moth balls?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further. 


I distinctly remember reading this passage from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young girl. C.S. Lewis transported me right beside Lucy, traveling through the wardrobe into a magical, snowy world. It’s one of my most vivid memories as a child. So when the kids had the opportunity to join a book club this year through our homeschool co-op, I was overjoyed that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book choice. 


Before the party, each family read the book together. My only concern was that the book might not keep the attention of a wiggly 4 year old. I couldn’t have been more wrong – they were both captivated throughout the story, as was I.


The kids talked about the party for weeks leading up to it and planned out which characters they wanted to be. Draven knew immediately that he wanted to be Peter, the oldest of the children who is very brave. Cullen decided he would be Mr. Beaver, a character who lives in Narnia and helps the children find Aslan, the king of Narnia. I loved seeing all the children in their costumes embodying the characters. They were so into it. 


Two of my amazing friends had a vision for the party and completely transformed a neighborhood park into a winter wonderland. Each family pitched in and brought food or decorations. We hung paper snowflakes the children had made and set a table for tea. There was a beautiful wardrobe created from kraft paper with coats behind it at the entrance of the park that the children walked through. 



On the other side, Narnia awaited them. They had tea, like Lucy did with Mr. Tumnis, while discussing the book. After tea they made snowflake sugar cookies, had snowball fights, ate Turkish Delight and just played. It was all simply magical. 




I hope it’s a memory they will treasure. 
I’m already dreaming of our spring book club party. I have it on good authority that we will be reading Anne of Green Gables. Be still my heart. 
I’d love to know some of your favorite books you read as a child. We are always looking for good ones to add to our reading list. 

A Minimalist Christmas

First off I should give credit to my dear friend Jaclyn for inspiring this post. She recently interviewed me on the topic of slowing down during the busy holiday season on her podcast, Mountains Are for Moving. On it I share a few ways our family is intentional about our time, our giving and our purchases and several moms I look up to share what works for them as well. If you are looking to connect better with your family and bring meaning to your holiday season, check it out at mountainsareformoving.com or search Mountains are for Moving on your podcast app. 


The holiday season is so busy, isn’t it? I have always just accepted that as how it should be. There are parties, festivals, light shows, shopping, Santa visits, the list goes on. I myself have a natural tendency to over schedule our lives. At the start of the school year I tried to keep our schedule light and simple but bit by bit, other activities creep in. I decided to reevaluate in early November what I wanted our days to look like going into the holiday season.  
So what does it mean to slow down? For starters, since we homeschool, this means cutting out some of our work and saying no to extra activities. My oldest, who is seven, still begins his day with math, a handwriting exercise and guitar practice but that’s about it for formal school work. During this time, my four year old also works on his handwriting and spelling (only when he is interested in it) and an activity of his choosing. The rest of our time is spent reading together, listening to music, baking, crafting and discussing the season. And as always, we get outside as much as weather allows, which is quite often in Central Texas. Here are some of our favorite ways to enjoy time with each other during the holidays:


Books

The single greatest way to share the message of the holiday season is through stories. Reading aloud has been such a gift for my children and me but finding the right books with a good message and ones that spark their interest can sometimes be a challenge. It is also very important to me that my children are aware that while we celebrate Christmas as Christians, there are other holidays and traditions celebrated by our friends and neighbors and that diversity in our culture is beautiful. Here is what we are currently reading:


The Family Read-Aloud Christmas Treasury

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

The Legend of the Poinsettia

Together at Christmas

The Story of Hanukkah 

Room for a Little One

The Nutcracker

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

Together for Kwanzaa

Advent readings from the Bible 


Giving

I’ll be honest and say that giving has not been an area where we have spent a lot of effort this year, simply because my husband and I have not made it important. But it’s so important. Our resolve in 2017 is to give more; more of our money, more of our time and more of our lives. And tuning our children’s hearts to give is in turn a beautiful gift to our world. What is so amazing is that kids love to give and it comes quite naturally to them. Children have an uncanny ability to see without filters and prejudices that allows them to extend grace and mercy to anyone if given the space to do so. I also believe it’s important for our children to see their parents model a giving heart by donating money and time or simply inviting someone into our home for a meal. 


Here are some things we have done as a family in the past or will be doing this holiday season:

  • Donating food to a food bank – its fun to check your local food bank’s website for needed items and have the kids make a grocery list to shop for and then deliver the food. Many food banks also give tours of their warehouses which is super fun for the kids. 
  • Baking cookies for neighbors, police and firefighters, and various local ministries. 
  • Making bags filled with small toiletries and snacks to hand out to the homeless men and women we see when we’re out
  • Donating to Blue Santa, which is a great local organization that provides needy families in Austin with a holiday meal and presents for children. We have not worked with this organization yet but are hoping to participate this year. 
  • Filling and sending shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. 
  • Connecting with a foster family to help with holiday needs. We do this year round through Austin Angels but the holiday season is such a special time to start. 
  • Visiting a local nursing home.  


Creating

My boys love working with their hands so we spend a lot of time creating and crafting. All of the gifts we will give as a family this year are homemade with the exception of a few books. If you know my family, we spend a lot of time outdoors so naturally many of our crafts use pieces of nature we’ve collected. We also participate in a Nature Pal Exchange which has inspired many of our projects. Currently we are working on ornaments made from branches and acorns found on our hikes and rolling beeswax candles. Next week we will be making bookmarks by laminating foraged leaves and hand painting Christmas cards. It always amazes me how simple crafts can engage my energetic boys and keep them at the table. There’s also something to be said in making a gift rather than just purchasing one off a shelf. 

Baking is a huge hit in our house as well. I’ll admit, I haven’t always enjoyed having my boys help in the kitchen. They’re loud and messy and always spilling something but I’ve found when I just let my issues with mess go, I actually have a lot of fun baking with them and they so enjoy it as well. We really enjoy baking things from scratch but that being said, I always choose simple recipes without a lot of steps, simply for my own sanity. 


Many of our holiday recipes and crafts, along with our Advent readings have come from a book by called Slow and Sacred Advent by Jennifer Naraki. I highly recommend it if you are wanting to slow down and celebrate Christmas more purposely and with intention. It has been such a blessing to us this holiday season. 


A few final thoughts…

We can do more with less. Less gifts, less decorations, less comparison, less stuff. We are bombarded with excess everywhere. It’s hard to avoid but it’s not impossible. All we have to do is turn off the TV, put down the phone and open up a book with our kids. Hope you all have a wonderful holiday filled with lots of memories your children will cherish for a lifetime. 

Halloween, Homeschool and Hot Buttons

If you read my last post, you know we started studying Asian culture at the beginning of the school year. I anticipated this study to last a couple weeks at most but the boys just kept asking for more. Much of their interest was fueled by their love of martial arts so we started our studies learning about ninjas and samurais. This evolved into studies of early Asian civilizations and what the lives of Chinese and Japanese children look like today. 


We read tons of books and learned about Japanese kite making and a beautiful form of Japanese street theatre called Kamishibai. Our favorite story was about a dog named Hachikō whose owner was a professor at the University of Tokyo. Hachikō waited for his owner everyday at the train station and was well known and loved by the daily commuters. When he passed away, the town erected a statue of Hachikō and it still stands today.


 Draven, who is seven, is now reading a biography on Bruce Lee and we’re planning a trip to an Asian market so we can try our hand at preparing a traditional Japanese meal. 


It’s not uncommon for me to walk in the boy’s room to find them playing ninjas or samurais or pretending to be Bruce Lee. So when the boys asked me if they could be ninjas for Halloween, I thought it was a natural fit. I suggested that we find Storie a kimono so she could join the fun and they were ecstatic. 


I didn’t think much else about our decision until I saw an article from The NY Times on costume correctness. The pretense centers around racially and culturally insensitive costumes that are meant to exploit specific groups of people or reinforce certain stereotypes. The article mainly references college students wearing offensive costumes but I couldn’t help but wonder if my kid’s costumes could be sending the wrong message. I know both my children and I came from a place of complete admiration and respect when choosing their costumes but I certainly wouldn’t want to offend someone unintentionally. 


There are different views on where the line lies and it’s definitely blurry. I mean, the University of Washington sent out a video to it’s students and used the example of not wearing a karate uniform with a black belt unless one earned it. If we’re playing by their standard, my kid’s costumes are totally unacceptable. They certainly don’t have Japanese heritage much less ninja blood running through their veins, just complete admiration of the culture. But until they head off to college, I get to draw the line and their joy wins. I know if anyone asks them about their costumes, they’ll get more facts about a ninja than they ever wanted and that’s good enough for me. 

So what were some of the acceptable costumes mentioned? A Starbucks coffee, a Crayola crayon, Where’s Waldo and Spider-Man. While these costumes might sound perfectly harmless on the surface, I actually have a big problem with all of them. They are all heavily marketed consumer goods. $17 billion is spent annually by companies advertising to our children friends. They are bombarded by it constantly. Consumerism can’t be the solution. Not in my house. 

Easing Back Into School via Ninjas

Yes that’s right friends, ninjas.  
Our boys had a busy start to the summer with a vacation in Florida, a visit with family in Georgia and then family visiting us in Texas. When all the excitement died down at the end of July, boredom crept in and they started getting antsy. August is brutally hot this time of year in Central Texas with temps hovering around 100 degrees so we don’t get outside as much as I would like. About three weeks ago I suggested we start school a little early and to my surprise the boys jumped excitedly at the idea. So the following Monday, August 1st, we started our first day of school. 

Cullen learning to spell very important words.

I really wanted to ease into our school year for all our sakes. The boys had very little structure over the summer and it can be hard initiating a daily school schedule when there is not a finite separation between home and school. I also knew I would be working much more in depth with Cullen and wanted to see how he responded to sitting at the table for a project or listening to a story with more difficult vocabulary than he was accustomed to. Factor in a now mobile baby sister, and the upcoming school year was looking a little daunting. 

Labeling the five Chinese elements.

I’m a big fan of child-led learning. It’s one of the many things that drew me to homeschool. I believe we naturally apply ourselves more when we are interested in a subject matter. Obviously, there are things that need to be learned no matter the interest level but I’ve found that with a little creativity, you can take a child’s interest and turn it into an extensive lesson plan encompassing a multitude of subjects. Since I hadn’t planned on starting school until mid August, I decided to give the boys free reign on subject matter for the first three weeks of school. I asked them what they would like to learn more about and was met with the unanimous answer of ninjas. I wasn’t the least bit prepared for this answer. I thought for sure it would be animals or the ocean or something else science related. 
Nope. 
Ninjas it was and there was no way I was going to talk them out of it. 

Korean and Chinese numbers.

Both my boys take karate which I’m pretty sure led to the fascination of ninjas so I decided to start there. The form of karate they practice is called Tang Soo Do which is a Korean style karate with some Chinese influences. All the commands are given in Korean and they are required to learn these as well as many other words as they progress in belt rank. Thanks to our awesome instructors and karate manual, Draven learned several new commands in Korean and we worked with Cullen on counting to ten in Korean. 

Cullen practiced spelling simple words by both writing and using letter blocks. Draven has been vocal about wanting to learn Chinese as well so we practiced writing the five Chinese characters that are represented on the Tang Soo Do flag (foreign language and spelling…BOOM!)

Some of Draven’s finished work. We painted the background of our papers beforehand with watercolors.

We also worked on memorizing the Eight Key Concepts of Tang Soo Do and their school’s Student Creed that the boys will be expected to know for future belt tests (memorization, handwriting and art…BOOM!)

A few exploding ninja stars along with the karate school’s Student Creed.

There were a few days we snuck in some real fun. I let the boys play ninjas while their baby sister was sleeping and gave them tasks to complete like army crawling under and around things and collecting weapons (picking up toys). This is an awesome quiet time game because ninjas are super sneaky and quiet. We also found an easy tutorial via 

Youtube on making exploding ninja stars and had a blast throwing them at the fence outside (arts and crafts, science and hand-eye coordination…BOOM!)

Cullen testing out a ninja star.

Several days I read aloud about China from The Story of the World and Draven worked independently through two Magic Tree House Fact Tracker books, one on Ninjas and Samurai and the other on China. The Fact Tracker books never disappoint – they are chock full of history in a fun to read and easy to understand format.

A little free reading on our subject matter, sporting karate pants of course.

We also used our Pin It Map to label China and it’s rivers, mountain range, desert and adjoining seas. Draven drew and labeled his own map of China with a narration from The Story of the World (history, geography and language arts…BOOM!)

Pinning various landforms and bodies of water in China and east Asia.

Our final projects will be finished this week and are original pieces by the boys culminating all they have learned in our three week unit study. Draven is writing a fiction book titled The Ninjas Versus the Samurai. Cullen is working on several artistic ninja pencil drawings (it’s okay, you can laugh).

. Both have high aspirations of selling their finished products (creative writing, handwriting and art…BOOM!)


We spent about 1-2 hours a day for what will be three weeks. It was a lot more educational than I thought it would be and a ton of fun. Both the boys were really engaged and that’s not always an easy feat with a 7 and 4 year old. I would definitely encourage a project like this even if you don’t homeschool. It’s a great way to learn more about your child’s interests and just get them excited about learning. Deep down I think we all just want our kids to find something they are passionate about. Something that stirs their soul. Their interests most certainly will change as they grow and mature but it’s never to early to light that fire and instill a love of learning. 

A Guide to Austin Area Parks, Trails and Watering Holes

“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.”-John Muir
We are so fortunate to live in Central Texas with its unique geologic history that has created some of the most breathtaking scenes I have seen. Combine that with Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, which has acquisitioned over 31, 780 acres of endangered species habitat and we have a wealth of green space in our area, much of which has public access.

You can find beautiful, secluded parks and trails nestled away all over the city and surrounding areas. I’m always on the hunt for the next awesome discovery but it can be quite time consuming, perusing websites and reading reviews on local parks and watering holes. A lot of people have asked me about the places we frequent so I thought I would compile a list of the good, the awesome and the yet to be explored.

I’ve tried my best to label everything like it is listed in google maps so once you’re ready to explore, all you need to do is type the name of the park or trail into your gps and go!

Finding treasures on the greenbelt at Campbell’s Hole.

Our green spaces are all maintained to some degree but I am a big believer in us each doing our part to help preserve them. My children know to stay on the marked trails and pick up after themselves. We leave nothing but footprints and I must ask that if you visit the places below, you do the same. You can always find trash along the greenbelts as there are no entrance fees and many people frequent them so we try and pick up what we can. I make it a game and the boys really enjoy it. Often times we have had others around us pitch in to help. It’s pretty cool.

Draven enlisting the help of a friend to pick up trash at McKinney Falls.

Almost all of the places I included are easy hikes to do with children and many have access to water which is always a winner with my crowd. So without further ado, here is a list of our favorite spots in no particular order. 

Free Greenbelt Access Points, Parks and Trails:

1. Barton Creek Greenbelt – Main entrance on 360 between Mopac and S. Lamar

2. Gus Fruh entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt

3. Campbell’s Hole entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Spyglass access


4. Trail Head entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, by Austin B-cycle Station

5. Trailhead to Sculpture Falls – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Camp Craft road

6. Twin Falls entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Capital of TX Hwy and Mopac


7. Bull Creek Greenbelt Upper

8. Lower Bull Creek

9. Bull Creek District Park

**A note about Bull Creek – It has been known to sometimes have high fecal content, most likely from dogs. Plenty of people swim in it but we don’t usually because Cullen swallows a lot of water when he swims and Storie’s favorite pastime is tasting river rocks.
 

10. Five Mile Dam in San Marcos – This park has easy access to the water but not much shade.
 

Draven getting a close up look at Five Mile Dam.

11. Balcones District Park – A nice park right in Austin with trails that lead to a pretty waterfall, just know you will see graffiti and hear street traffic.

12. Secret Beach (Roy G. Guerro Colorado River Metropolitan Park) – This is a fun little spot that’s tucked away. Here’s a link that tells you exactly how to get to Secret Beach.

Dirt digging and shell collecting at Secret Beach

13. Circle C Park – If you park in the first parking lot and you can walk right down to the water under the bridge or follow the walking trail to the right and take a quick hike before finding the water (this creek dries up in the summer without rain).

Hunting crawfish at Circle C park.

14. Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary – This trail is heavily wooded so you really feel like you’re exploring in the wilderness and it leads right to the Colorado River. Be sure to wear bug spray and watch out for poison ivy!

An awesome tree formation at the Colorado River Wildlife Preserve.

15. Mount Bonnell – A fun, short little hike uphill with a fantastic view at the top.

16. Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve – Right across the street from Mt. Bonnell you can visit the beautiful grounds of Mayfield Park and hang out with their peacocks.

17. Wild Basin Creative Research Center –Run by St. Edward’s University, the preserve has several self-guided trail maps of the 227 acres. It is home to eight endangered species and 27 species of great concern. There is a $2-$3 suggested donation.

Checking out a scenic view at Wild Basin.

18. Spring Lake Preserve – Located in San Marcos, this lake is fed by more than 200 springs and is absolutely beautiful.

19. Stagecoach Park in Buda – There is no swimming access here but I love the trails and historic landmarks.

A giant stone compass circling a firepit at Stagecoach Park.

20. Austin Nature and Science Center – Housed on 80 acres in Zilker Park, the center has beautiful landscapes, nature exhibits and educational activities. One of our favorite places!

Parks and Preserves that Require a Small Fee:

1. Krause Springs – Located in Spicewood on 115 acres, it is hands down my favorite place in Texas. There is a breathtaking man-made pool and a natural pool, both fed by springs. If we lived closer, we would most likely be there every day.

The lush falls at Krause Springs.

2. Blue Hole – A beautifully forested swimming hole with rope swings. What’s not to love?

3. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – If I was by myself and it wasn’t 100 degrees, I could walk around here all day long. The center is home to 650 native Texas plant species and has a plethora of nature trails. Their children’s garden is simply dreamy!

Creating in Ladybird’s children’s garden.

4. Westcave Preserve – Guided canyon tours are given to a lush grotto on the weekends or you can schedule a group tour Tuesday-Friday. I love the staff here! You can tell they really enjoy educating their visitors and they offer the coolest adventure packs to check out which include field guides, nature journals, binoculars and more.

Hiking at Westcave Preserve.

5. Hamilton Pool Preserve – Right down the road from Westcave, Hamilton Pool is a breathtaking swimming hole. We typically visit in the spring or fall because it gets so crowded. Note that you must make a reservation to enter now until September 30th.

6. Zilker Botanical Gardens – Located on 26 acres in Zilker park, this place is simply magical. Our favorite gardens are the Japenese Garden and the Prehistoric Garden. 

Checking out tadpoles at Zilker Botanical Gardens.

7. Umlauf Sculpture Gardens – This is a unique outdoor museum centered on the works of Charles Umlauf. Admission is free through August 31 thanks to donors who gave through Amplify Austin!

Working on a scavenger hunt at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

8. Barton Springs Pool – A natural spring-fed pool in Zilker park, known by most everyone. We love the free Splash exhibit right by the entrance.

9. McKinney Falls – This is an awesome state park with falls that cascade over super cool limestone formations. It’s a fan favorite!

Jumping from the cliff at McKinney Falls.

10. Landa Park – We recently discovered this park in New Braunfels that has beautiful nature trails and the most spectacular spring-fed pool with the coolest water slides ever. 

Exploring the spring-fed pool at Landa Park.
Below are a few more places I’ve been dying to check out:

1. The Narrows, Blanco TX – The pictures I’ve seen of the formations are simply amazing. Everything I’ve read says it’s quite difficult to get to because the land around it is privately owned but that makes it all the more intriguing…

2. Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg, TX – I adore the legends about this gigantic pink rock and can’t wait to go hiking with the kids here. I’ve also read that it’s a great place to stargaze.

3. Emma Long Park, Austin, TX – I’ve heard great things about this large park with lots of trees and a big sandy beach. Apparently it even has a motorcycle trail.

4. Pace Bend Park, Spicewood, TX – I honestly can’t believe we haven’t been here yet. This park has tons of scenic views from these amazing limestone cliffs and nine miles of shoreline on Lake Travis. 

For more information, you can check out a full listing of Austin area parks here. Please feel free to share your favorite places in the comments below. We love finding new spots!

Homeschool Planning, Expectations and Child-Led Learning

I’ve been reflecting a lot on our first year of homeschooling and what worked best for us. There were days that went so well and others that went terribly. I have a tendency to force things sometimes, particularly art and handwriting. I have this idea of how things should look and sometimes I forget that I’m working with a 7 and 4 year old…

The two things that could ruin a perfectly good day were – not planning our day out and having unrealistic expectations of my children and myself. As I plan for the upcoming year, I am constantly taking these two things into consideration. 

A few living history books we will read this year. Many more are on my Amazon list or will be checked out from the library.

Last year my oldest, Draven, was in 1st grade and we used Ambleside’s curriculum guide that follows Charlotte Mason’s method of teaching. I have really grown to love the use of what Charlotte Mason describes as living books to teach children a range of subjects from history to geography to science and beyond. Oftentimes you can combine subjects with living books. 

A few months into last school year I made adjustments as some of the books have difficult language for a six year old, and sometimes for his mom as well. This year I’m feeling a bit more adventurous and have created my own syllabus based around living books and tailored to our interests (a copy is at the bottom of this post if you can’t wait). I did keep a few books Ambleside suggested and we are following their bible guideline because I think it’s spot on. 

Read aloud literature selections for Draven. The third book from the left is My Side of the Mountain, one of my husband’s favorite childhood books.

We won’t follow the syllabus exactly every week but it will be used asmore of a guideline so we don’t leave anything important out and stay on track for the year. We may not even get to everything because sometimes we end up spending longer on a book or subject matter or discover something else that interests us. This is where child-led learning comes in and where it’s important for me to keep my expectations in check. While I’ve created our curriculum around my children’s current interests, I’ve also left room for things that spark new interests and am willing to deviate a little from our original plan. So keep in mind as I share my syllabus, that it is a working document and will most likely be edited several times as our interests develop. My plan is to share resources, successes and failures throughout the year. 

Independent reading for Draven based on current interests.

Our day starts around 7:30 with breakfast. I typically read a few poems aloud while they eat. We don’t analyze anything at this time, just read and enjoy the words. We also work on memorization before leaving the table. For September we will be reciting The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge of Allegience and Karate Concepts 1-4 (something they must memorize for belt tests at their karate school). After breakfast we move to the backyard or living room to practice yoga. My kids love doing yoga with me and especially enjoy meditating. This doesn’t last longer than 10 minutes and it’s a great way to get focused for the day. They may practice their karate forms at this time as well. We always end our yoga time with prayer and daily intentions. 

Give Your Child the World has over 600 book recommendations from around the world. We will be studing a continent each month using these books and also working through our Pin It Maps curriculum.

The majority of our work is done between 8:30 and 12. Draven will work on math independently after a little instruction (we use Math Mammoth) and I will give Cullen his reading lesson (we are working through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons). I realize it’s early to teach reading (Cullen is 4) but he is very interested so we will through the lessons as long as he stays engaged. I will read aloud several stories for both boys and we will work on a map project (using Pin It Maps) or watercolor painting. We use Waldorf’s wet on wet water coloring technique. It’s quite easy and always turns out beautiful (expectations friends).

Examples of Draven’s original books, narrations and science diagrams from last year.

The kids will then have a bit of free time to play while I get lunch ready. After lunch, the paintings are dry and we use them as base for Draven to write his narration and Cullen to write letters and simple words. They create beautiful backgrounds for their work. If you’re unfamiliar with narration, it is simply the retelling of a story back in your own words. This is our writing, grammar and spelling rolled into one activity. Last year, I had Draven tell me each narration after a story while I wrote it down. I read it back to him and we made changes together before he copied it onto his paper. As he copied, we focused mainly on handwriting and punctuation. This year he will be writing his narrations from memory which is much more difficult but will allow us to go deeper with grammar and sentence structure.  After the boys are done writing, they will add an illustration to go with their story.
A few of our favorite science resources. The open book on the bottom left is Cellular Biology by Super Smart Science Series. I highly recommend these books! The boys also enjoy working through the Awesome Science Experiments and playing with their circuit board.

After narrations are complete, the boys may work on a science project, craft project, or Spanish, which is done Online through Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids. This is their only source of technology in our school day and a treat they look forward to.
Read aloud selections for Cullen. The top right book is The Jesus Storybook Bible which has the sweetest stories and most beautiful illustrations. My other favorite is Over the Hills and Far Away, a collection of nursery rhymes from around the world.

Mixed in throughout the day, the boys are helping with household chores and their baby sister. Cullen may play with Storie while Draven and I read a difficult book and Draven may read books with Storie while Cullen and I practice sounding out words. 

Several of our nature study resources. Much of our free play will be centered outside in the garden or on nature walks. The brown nature journals are by Molskin. We use colored pencils to draw and label plants and animals.

We are so fortunate to be involved in a wonderful co-op this year that meets every Monday for additional literature, art and science studies. We also attend classes at our local library and parks, lead a Wild Explorers Club, regularly go on field trips, train in karate and Draven will begin guitar lessons this fall.

Below is our syllabus for September which outlines our core reading, written work, memorization and all other activities. I also created a weekly schedule to reference until we get back into the flow of regular school days. I’m happy to send one or both in excel form if you comment below with your email. Currently, I’m researching Waldorf methods for Cullen and Storie and plan on sharing our daily rhythm soon. Happy homeschooling friends!

Operation Police Project

“Everyday he sees people on the worst day of their life,” she said.

I let that sink in.

My friend was talking about her husband who is a police officer in Austin. Strangely I had never thought about his job that way. I have always had the upmost respect for police officers; they protect our neighborhoods and keep our families safe. But until recently I never really thought much beyond that. I didn’t think about the deplorable things they must see, the disrespect they endure, the life or death decisions they may have to make, the uncertainty they must feel when pulling someone over, the beloved families they leave each day not knowing if they will see them again.

And the plain and simple fact that they don’t have the luxury of having a bad day.

Everyone they serve is having a bad day. 

I want our officers to have more good in their days and just feel valued by the people they serve. 


The kids and I normally do small acts of kindness together throughout the year like handing out granola bars to the homeless or taking food to the food bank but it just occurred to me that we could serve our police officers. This would be so easy to do with children and a special way to show our appreciation to those who really need it now. Plus, police officers are like super heroes to my boys. So Operation Police Project begins! Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with so far but I’m hoping some of you reading this may have more insight and offer suggestions.  

  • Take snacks to our local police department like cookies, fruit or chips.
  • Make handmade cards to just say thank you and drop off at a local station. 
  • Talk to a police officer and tell them thank you when when see him or her out. 

  • Offer to buy an officer coffee or lunch at a restaurant. 
  • Tell the police officers you know (and their families) that you appreciate what they do everyday to keep us safe. And keep telling them. 
  • This last one is more for my husband and me and it’s to simply be kind in all interactions with law enforcement, even when, especially when, it’s hard (see my post from last week). 

I would love any suggestions friends, especially from those of you close to a police officer. We want to serve them in the best way possible! 


A few notes:

The lovely pictures of our family were taken by the talented Amy Melsa. 

Don’t forget that politics and the media thrive on division. We don’t have to choose friends. #blacklivesmatter #bluelivesmatter #chooseunity

Compassion, Kindness and Gentleness

We just arrived home yesterday from our family vacation on the coast of Florida. For some crazy reason we decided to drive the 788 miles from Texas with our three kids. My husband thought it would be a good idea to leave around 2am so the kids could sleep for the first leg of the trip. So off we went last Saturday in the middle of the night.


We hadn’t been driving for more than an hour when we got pulled over. We were on the side of the highway so the officer came to my side of the car. I had my window rolled down and he asked us to roll the window down behind us (they are heavily tinted). He shined his light in the back where all three kids were sleeping. I was already annoyed (mostly at my husband for speeding) but at this point I snapped at the officer telling him that my baby was asleep. He immediately let us roll the windows back up and asked us where we were headed. We told him we were going to Florida on vacation. Then he explained to my husband that he was going over 15 miles above the speed limit and that’s why he stopped us. He asked if there were any weapons in the car to which my husband replied yes and pointed to the glove box. He asked him if he had a concealed weapons permit and my husband said no. End of conversation. He looked at my husband’s license and sent us off with a warning telling us to be safe. And that was that.


My goal in sharing this is not to condemn the officer who pulled us over or make broad generalizations about the mindsets of our police force who risk their lives each day. But as the week went on and the tragedies started happening I really began to wonder if our traffic stop would have been different if our skin was a different color. I was outraged, devastated, and felt completely helpless. I looked around and everyone everywhere seemed to be enjoying their vacation without a care in the world but I couldn’t stop thinking about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My husband patiently listened to me sort through everything that happened. I monopolized conversations and sobbed through our date. Then finally he gently pointed out that this is not a police problem or a black problem or a white problem, it’s a heart problem. We have barriers up that prevent us from uniting but we must begin to break down the walls that divide us if we ever want peace. And I realize now that this change has to start from within. So I made a list, because that’s what I do, and I’m sharing in case anyone else is struggling with where to go from here. Here goes:


– I will pay attention and speak up when I spot injustices because silence is acceptance. 

– I will teach my children from a non-European perspective, our country’s real history and how it was founded on the exploitation of African slaves and indigenous people. 

– I will commit to seeing things not through my own privileged lenses but through others whose life experiences and realities are so much different than mine. 

– I will strive to make real, genuine friendships with people who are not like me even when it is outside my comfort zone.  


– I will wrap my arms around the people I know in my community who are affected the most by prejudices – my black brothers and sisters, my LGBT brothers and sisters, my Hispanic brothers and sisters and the police officers I have the privilege of knowing. 

– I will try to spot and overcome my own racial biases that were ingrained in me and be brave enough to confront them. 

– I will surround myself with people who challenge me and gently guide me to think outside my very small worldview as a white American. 

– I will remember that everyone’s individual experiences shape how they see the world and be kind and patient with those who see things differently than me. 

– I will engage in rational, non-emotional dialogue with others who’s views may be different than mine in hopes that we can better understand each other. 

– I will choose unity over division always. 


We are so much stronger united friends. May we all choose compassion, kindness and gentleness.