Category Archives: Parenting

Chapter 1: The Boy Who Was Locked in a Tower

Once upon a time there was a woman named Yetzel who didn’t care much for children or men and definitely did not want to live with either. Instead she dedicated herself to the study of sorcery and became a powerful witch. She lived alone in a small cottage, brewing potions in her kitchen and growing illegal plants in her garden. Though her career kept her stimulated, fulfilled, and busy, she would sometimes feel a surge of loneliness and wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be so bad having a child after all. It might be nice to have an obedient, quiet little girl to share her knowledge with and to pass on her wicked legacy. By the time she warmed up to the idea of having a child she was much too old to have a baby, and though a witch can do many magical things, she cannot make herself pregnant. Eventually she decided that if she couldn’t have her own, she would have to steal someone else’s.

. . . And the couple next door happened to be expecting.

She picked some spinach from her garden, made a salad, and set a spell on it to make it delicious but unsatisfying, so that the person who ate it would want more and more. She placed the salad into a basket, put on her best shawl, and walked to her neighbor’s home.

“Hello! I’m Yetzel, your sweet, innocent neighbor,” said the witch to the young husband when he opened the door. “I heard your wife was expecting, so I brought her some of my prized spinach. I don’t have very much, but I made the sacrifice hoping it would bring her some good.”

The husband and wife were touched by the woman’s kindness, and when she left the wife devoured the salad as if she hadn’t eaten for days. As soon as she finished, she begged her husband for more.

“But it would be rude to ask for more. Remember what the woman said? It is her most prized plant and she doesn’t have very much.”

“But I must have more or I shall die!” wept the wife.

The poor man didn’t know what to do, but he couldn’t bear to see his wife in so much distress. So late that night he snuck into his neighbor’s garden and pulled some spinach. His wife was so grateful that the husband felt justified, so the next night, when she asked him to go again, he didn’t even hesitate.

This time, however, he was caught.

“Thief! How dare you steal from me after I was so generous!” said the witch.

The man trembled in fear and embarrassment. “Forgive me, Yetzel! But my wife says she must have it or she shall die.”

“Is that so? Then we shall have to make a deal,” said the witch, for this was all part of her plan. “If this spinach is so important that your wife will truly die without it, promise to give me your child when it is born, in exchange for your wife’s life.”

Now, the poor man, although he was devoted, was not the brightest husband. He truly was convinced that if he didn’t get the spinach his wife would die (which she wouldn’t have) and he didn’t know his neighbor was a witch (which he couldn’t have), so he decided to make the bargain without his wife’s consent (which he shouldn’t have).

The man promised.

After that, Yetzel gave him all the spinach his wife desired, and by and by the woman gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby, whom of course they named Spinach.

A few days later the witch came to claim the child. The husband was forced to explain to his wife the shameful arrangement he had made with the witch, and his wife was so overcome with sadness and betrayal that she died right there of a broken heart.

“Ha! Ha! Ha!” laughed the witch. “This makes it so much easier!” She scooped up the baby in her arms and stole away into the night.

Yetzel took the baby far away and began the task of raising it. As with all first-time parents, she encountered some things she hadn’t expected.

First of all, Spinach was a boy. No matter, she thought. If she couldn’t make him into a great witch, she would make him into a great wizard. But as the months went by Spinach turned out to be much louder, much messier, and much more trouble than she expected. He knocked over her potions, he soiled her spell books, played with her frogs and snakes and let them escape, and he was constantly interrupting her when she was in deep, meditative thought.

When Spinach turned five years old Yetzel couldn’t stand it any longer. “If only there was a way to skip this child stage and train him when he is more grown-up and mature!”

This spawned a dreadful plan.

She locked the little boy in a tall tower in the middle of a desert and bricked up the entrance. She would bring him food and water for a decade or so, and once he had grown to a more manageable age, she would let him out and he would be her apprentice and carry on her wicked legacy.

At first the boy didn’t mind being locked in the tower. At least he was away from Mama Yetzel who was always yelling at him for one thing or another. But as the weeks passed, the boy languished. He had plenty of food and water from the witch, (for she would send it up to him via rope and pulley with a basket and then take the rope away with her), but he had no toys or books or friends to play with. To pass time he would count bricks or birds or clouds, but most of the day he just leaned on the window and wished he had someone to talk to.

Back in his cottage, Spinach’s father was also lonely, and tormented with grief and regret. He couldn’t forgive himself for being duped by his neighbor, whom by now he realized was a witch. He vowed to not cut his beard until he found his son. He journeyed near and far, telling his story to everyone who would listen, and asking them if they knew anything about the witch who had taken his precious little boy.

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Syrena Dyreng

One day, when the boy was looking out his window at the vast desert, he saw a bearded man crossing the dunes.

“Hello! Hello!” the boy shouted, and the man looked up.

“Hello, little boy! What are you doing way up in that tower?”

“My mother is hiding me here until I grow up.”

“That is a strange thing for a mother to do,” said the man. “What is your name?”

“Spinach.”

The man knew that there could only one child on the earth with a name like that. “Spinach! I am your father!” he shouted and started dancing around in the sand. Spinach didn’t know he had a father, and didn’t know if he even wanted one or not, but he liked this funny dancing desert man and he laughed so hard he almost fell out of the window.

“How can I get you down?” asked the funny man. “Is there a door?”

“There is no door,” said Spinach. “I can’t ever come down, nor can you come up.”

But this father didn’t travel all around the globe to be stopped by a mere tower. He started to climb. It took him all day, but finally, with bloody fingers and skinned knees he reached the top and dropped over the window sill.

“I’m glad you came, because I have been very lonely,” said the boy. “But now we are both stuck up here.”

“We’ll make do,” said his father. “We are together again, and that is all that matters.”

The father told Spinach the origin of his birth and Spinach was overjoyed to learn that the mean witch was not his real mother. This man was loads more fun than she was, and he never got mad at Spinach for making a mess or being too loud. Instead, they made messes together and were loud together. And every few days the witch would come and bring food and water which they always shared.

“Too bad we don’t have that rope,” said the father one day after the witch left, taking her rope with her.

“We have your beard,” said Spinach who was cleverer than his father. “If you don’t cut it, then someday we can use it as our rope.”

The father thought this was an excellent idea and was proud to have such an intelligent boy.

Over the course of the next few weeks the boy asked the witch for greater portions of food, and the witch obliged, knowing that if he was hungrier, he must be growing, and the sooner he grew the sooner she could use him as a proper apprentice. Meanwhile, the father told his son stories about his travels and the people he’d met. He taught his son to read and write and they sang songs together and created stories on the walls of the tower. On windy days they made kites and flew them out the window. They roasted marshmallows at the fireplace and told ghost stories. They had arm wrestling matches and jumping contests, and all the while the father’s beard grew and grew and grew.

On Spinach’s 15th birthday, they decided to make their escape. The father cut his beard and braided it into a strong rope. That night they tied the rope to the pully, climbed down, and silently slipped away under the desert stars.

The next day, when Yetzel came to bring food, she noticed a long rope coming down from the pulley. She climbed the rope and found the tower much different than when she left Spinach there 10 years before. There was a checkboard carved into the table. There were stories written on the walls. Most telling of all, there were pictures scrawled on the floor of a boy holding hands with a long-bearded man.

Yetzel was furious. Not because someone ran off with her boy that she didn’t particularly want, but because she had been fooled by a fool.

Spinach and his father located a nice place to live next to a blue lake where there was a good school that Spinach could attend. He was very bright and got along with his classmates well. He was so happy that he barely remembered the witch at all, and looked back at his time in the tower with his dad as a happy memory.

Then, one dark night there was a knock at the door. When they opened it, there stood Yetzel, holding a large staff, her bright black eyes blazing with anger.

“You rat!” she said, pointing to Spinach’s father. “How dare you steal away the child that I stole away from you! We made a deal, and you shall pay for this!” She pointed her staff at the man and it began to spark with magic blue light. But just as she began her incantation, Spinach grabbed a mirror from the wall to shield his father. The witch’s spell hit the mirror and bounced back at her. Spinach and his dad watched in astonishment as the witch’s body shriveled and shrank until all that was left of her was a large, black rat.

“Ahhh!” squeaked the rat. “You are more trouble than you are worth! Next time I shall steal a girl baby!!”

Spinach and his father lived happily together for a long time after that, and eventually Spinach got a good job working in the castle and married a lovely young woman. They had many children which made Spinach’s father a very joyful and content old man.

And they always had rat traps set.

 

 

 

 

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Coming Soon: Fairy Tales for Boys

SMP_5137If your family is like my family, you raided the town library as soon as you heard they were about to shut their doors. And, if your family is like my family, you’ve already read all of the books you checked out.

And we still have weeks to go.

Months, perhaps.

Whatever shall we do?

Well, I have a suprise for you.

First, some background: As much as I love all the girl-power movies and books, sometimes I feel like the boys are getting left behind. So a few weeks ago I wrote some fairy tales for my kids. I took stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Goldilocks, and I changed the main character from a girl to a boy.

You’ll be surprised how this small change can alter the entire plot of the story (no matter what people tell you, boys are different than girls). Each fairy tale hero uses the best of his masculine virtues to outwit foxes, outcompete wicked stepbrothers, outcast evil witches, and ultimately achieve his own happy ending . . . with as little kissing as possible.

Girls will love the stories, too, since there are plenty of strong female characters for them to identify with. (Psst: these make great bedtime stories.)

I will be publishing each story, serial-style, on my blog every other day, starting tomorrow. I hope they can be something you and your kiddos can look forward to during these strange and extrodinary times.

The first one is about a boy who was locked in a tower . . .

 

 

 

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A Word You Never Forget

Today my son competed in the school spelling bee. Danny is an incredible speller, and the whole family was very excited for him. Even his older sisters ducked out of school, happy to receive tardy marks in exchange to watch their younger brother compete.

Dan and I worked for weeks on the spelling list, replacing sacred piano practice with spelling practice, and going over words like “gingerbread” and “menthol” over and over again. Danny, competative and confident by nature, was eager to study and excited to display his spelling prowess in front of his classmates and teachers.

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When I arrived at the school library, there were about twenty 4th graders, arranged in two rows on little wooden chairs, facing the proctor. The anxiety in the room was intense. Just before the bee started, six of them needed to use the bathroom and one said she had a migraine (but when questioned further, took a deep breath and said she felt confident she could carry on).

The bee began with the first boy who was asked to spell “chicken” and spelled it wrong. Most of the students did well, though, and they moved on to the second round. By the 5th round half of the students were out.

Danny breezed through the first 7 rounds.

But then, in the 8th round, he stumbled on the word “messenger.” He never missed that word in our practicing. As soon as he finished he knew exactly what he’d done wrong. I could see his face grow hot and red, and watched as the tears threatened.

It was a sad and uncomfortable moment for him, and instead of sitting with the other “defeated” students he came and sat by me, eager to vent his frustration in hushed whispers. (He’s always been a very verbal child.) I told him he did great, handed him a vitamin C lozenge, and told him to be quiet so that we didn’t disrupt the final spellers.

The champion word, the final word that the last boy spelled, was, anticlimactically,  “amino.” Danny looked at me with big, tragic eyes. It was word he knew.

When it was all over, Danny dispared about the paper certificate he received (who wants a certificate?! he says). Yet, he smiled like a champ for the group photo, and he went up to the winner and gave him a high five.

Someone told me once that you should pray for your children to have disappointments. Who came up with such a cruel idea? But over the years I see the wisdom in that advice, and I am grateful for these small disappointments, so that when they experience the inevitable, big disappointments, they’ve already had practice. How else do we learn grace, humilty, composure and resilience

I went up to the mother of the winner, congratulated her on what a fine job her son did, and asked her (with Danny listening at my side) how she prepared her son for the bee. She gave me some great tips, and as she turned away Danny muttered, “I’m going to beat him next year.”

I smiled. Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t. After all, that boy has won three years in a row now, setting a school record. I am confident, however, that Danny will never spell “messenger” wrong again. Just like my husband who will never misspell “walnut” (he spelled it wallnut) and my daughter who will never misspell “undertow” (she spelled it undertoe). You never forget the word that you missed in a school spelling bee.

At the dinner table we will laugh about it and commiserate, everyone will (once again) share their past spelling bee fumbles, and Danny will know he is in good company.

And tonight I will thank Heavenly Father for all the things Danny learned because he did not win.

 

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Without Fear There Are No Stories

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Four months ago we were driving up I-15 on our way to the Salt Lake City International Airport. We sold our house, gave away our cat, loaned out our dog, said goodbye to some of the dearest friends I have ever had, and now were heading to England with our five kids and 17 pieces of luggage.

And I felt like I was going to throw up.

To be honest, it wasn’t that we were moving to England that was causing me to be sick. It was the airplane ride across the Atlantic.

I hate flying, and the only way I can get myself on a plane is to remind myself that there are worse ways to die. I remember once flying across the country by myself and forcing myself to read a book so that I wouldn’t think about the plane engine catching fire and spinning out of control and crashing into Kansas. The book was called In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson. It is about Berlin, Germany in the years leading up to WWII. Halfway through the book I realized that dying on a plane crash would actually be a relatively pleasant way to go, and to this day I remind myself of that every time I board a plane.

When we arrived in Oxford there were a myriad of new things to worry about. Talking to people I didn’t know, figuring out how to get from point A to point B without getting lost or mugged or run over by double decker buses, and making sure my kids didn’t cross the road without looking both ways.

One thing was for certain: I would not ride a bike. It was far too dangerous. There is so much traffic, and the roads are cramped. So I spent the first couple weeks walking from the grocery store, to church, to the schools, and my feet were killing me. As I walked dozens of bikers would leisurely sail by and I gazed at them the way a man in a rowboat gazes at passing yachts. There would be a father on a tandem bike, his child peddling along behind him, or mothers who had sometimes up to four children chatting away happily in little rickshaw-like contraptions. Grannies passed me, with their big baskets and bells chiming and scarves flying. College students casually peddled down the road with ear buds in their ears and their hands in their pockets. The more I watched these people, the more archaic walking seemed. One day I walked by the train station and saw hundreds upon hundreds of bikes in a bike rack the size of four tennis courts. Surely, I thought, these people are no more intelligent or coordinated than I am. Finally I started to think that if all of those people can do it, so can I.

But what really drove me to get on a bike was laundry day.

The nearest laundromat is 2 miles away, and I had four loads of laundry. There was no way I could do this job on foot. So I loaded up a huge duffle bag and strapped it to my back, said a prayer, and that is how I started biking in Oxford.

And guess what? Biking is my favorite thing to do. I can’t even tell you how much I love riding my bike around Oxford. Many times I can get places faster than my friends who have cars. I create no pollution. I buy no gas. I know the quick routes and the scenic routes. I love biking along the canals where the swans and ducks swim along side the long canal boats. I love braving the roundabouts where I am the only bike and their are four cars. I don’t even mind carrying my bike up steps and bridges, since it makes me feel like an athlete. I have biked to all corners of Oxford, from the LDS church in the south, to JRR Tolkien’s grave in the north, to CS Lewis’ home in the east and of course, the laundromat and craft store in the west. I feel like I am ten years old again with the wind in my face, soaring like a bird.

We mustn’t be afraid. Seriously. We will all die some point anyway, and to not do something that we want to do simply because we are afraid ensures that we don’t even live. If I find that I am not doing something that I want to do simply because I am afraid than I make myself do it. (This is different than doing something I DON’T want to do. For instance, I am afraid to go sky diving, but I also do not want to do it, therefor I see no reason why I should. However, I do want to go to Australia someday, even though I am afraid to (plane ride), so I should just do it.)

This whole England experience has been a series of  stepping from one fear to another. Should I let my kids walk to the store by themselves? Should I let Dan ride his bike to school? Should Scott rent a car and drive on the left side of the road?

And should we ride with him?

If I had listened to that fear we would have missed out on the White Cliffs of Dover, Stonehenge, the Battle of Hastings, hiking in the Cotswolds and Tintern Abby in Wales. Those were some of our best memories. Scott turned out to be an absolutely brilliant driver, just like he is when he drives on the right side of the road. 😉

I remember walking my daughter to school one day and she confided to me how nervous she was to go on the school trip to Wales for a week. I told her I knew how she felt. But if we only did safe things we’d never have stories to tell.

Letting kids conquer their own fears and allowing them to be brave and successful is one of the most satisfying things about parenthood, and has been the best part of this trip to England. I could make a huge list of things my children have accomplished these past four months that they didn’t think they could do, but I won’t embarrass them. But I will say I am so proud of all of them, for they have done hard so beautifully, and now they have so many stories to tell!

 

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U.K. Schools: Uniforms, Hymns, and Fish & Chips

With all of my kids in school now I can finally sit down and write about it.

They are LOVING it (not really) and I am so pleased with the way they are getting used to their new environment. At the very least they are getting their exercise! I walk Naomi and Levi about .5 miles to school every day, while Scott bikes with Dan to his school (2 miles away).

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Sophia and Syrena win the prize for distance–they walk 2.5 miles to school AND back. That is five miles a day for them . . . and if you include our Sunday trek Sophia and Syrena walk 30 miles a week.

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The main reason we wanted our kids to go to school here is so they could experience school life outside the United States and gain a broader perspective of the world. We came to the right place . . .  I went to a parents meeting on Friday and the parents were from Poland, Italy, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Brazil and Africa. The true Brits were actually in the minority, and I was the only North American. This is the nature of Oxford.  People come from all over the world to attend or work at this world renown university. (In fact, I just found out that Malala Yousafzai just started at Oxford this month! We will be on the lookout for her.)

My kids have noticed a lot of differences between their British schools verses their American schools, and we have complied a list. But first an important disclaimer: This is not a list to compare the quality of the education between US schools and UK schools. There are good schools and not-so-good schools here, just like their are good schools and not-so-good schools in America, so it would be impossible for me to compare the merits of the education as a whole (plus we are not here long enough to do that). This is simply a list of the minor cultural differences in every day school life.

  • There are no school buses here. Kids walk, bike, bus or are driven to school by their parents. I was told that British kids think our yellow American school buses are “cute” . . . probably the way we think red London phone booths are cute.
  • There is no such thing as paper lunch bags. We have looked everywhere for them. They don’t exist. Or perhaps they reserve them in the back of the grocery stores and only sell them to kids who go to the private schools. I have no idea.
  • Children are taught to do all of their school work in pen–no pencils allowed–even for math (or “maths” as they say here). Apparently British children do not make mistakes.
  • Many (but not all) public schools in Oxford wear uniforms . . . and some uniforms are more appealing than others. For the most part uniforms are not that expensive, unless you are buying for four children. I probably would have spent the same amount of money on school clothes shopping in the US as I did on uniforms. I’m sure some of the private schools here have more expensive uniforms. Also, not everything is “compulsory.” For instance, at the secondary school (high school) that Sophia and Syrena attend, the jacket with the crest on it is compulsory, but you don’t have to buy the sweater to go with it unless you want to. IMG_6656
  • In North Carolina the schools would sometimes have a fundraiser called “Hat Day” and if you paid a dollar you could wear a hat. Here, instead of Hat Day they have No Uniform Day and you can pay one pound to wear your normal street clothes and leave your uniform at home! Woo-hoo!
  • Recess is called “break” and my kids get a lot more “break time” here than their public schools in NC.
  • Naomi, Dan and Levi all attend church schools. Naomi and Levi go to a Catholic school and Danny goes to a Church of England school. During school they have prayers and sing hymns. At Naomi’s school they even light candles at the school, and every week “Father Daniels” comes and prays with them and gives them a little sermon. Even though Naomi’s school accepts Christians as well as Muslims, the children get little awards for memorizing things like the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Lively Virtues and the Apostle’s Creed. Naomi received her first award last week, proving she is on her way to becoming a good Catholic.IMG_6944
  • Kids seem to go on a lot more field trips here. Every other week the kids are going somewhere. Sometimes the school doesn’t even tell me. (The other day Levi *said* that he went on a field trip to an island and they handed out swimming suits to everyone . . . but I don’t believe everything Levi tells me about school.) Right now Naomi is in Wales on a school trip. She’s been there for a whole week! We will all be so happy to see her when she gets back.
  • Children start to specialize sooner here. If Sophia and Syrena were going to be here for the entire year they would have a chance to have work experience in a field that they intend on pursuing and all of their classes would start to focus on this field.
  • Danny goes swimming as part of school. On Wednesdays he spends the entire morning swimming laps. He doesn’t think it is great, but I think it is AWESOME.
  • They start kids a year earlier than we do in the US. That is why Levi gets to go to school.IMG_6947
  • They feed all the younger kids *free* school lunch. A friend of mine who lives here says that that is how the government gets the kids hooked on eating hot lunch. Some of the menu items: Yorkshire pudding (kind of like a German pancake or popover, but you eat it with meat and gravy instead of powdered sugar and syrup) and Dan’s favorite: fish and chips.

Those are few of the most noticeable differences. Since wearing a uniform is probably the biggest change for my kids, I will do a future post on the pros and cons of uniforms after my kids have been in school for a while. But for now I love love love love being here. I love walking my kids to and from school every day, I love that they are out of their comfort zones, and I love watching how they adjust to these new experiences and make new friendships.

 

 

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Home School, Bribes and a Ghost!

This has been a great week, if you don’t count the ghost.
But first I’ll tell you about school.
I started “school” with my kids and is how it goes: We sit down at the kitchen table and I pass out their journals. They spend some time writing about a topic that I have chosen for them. Then we do math, then penmanship, then some vocabulary. And then school is done!
This takes about 8 minutes.
As you might guess, my kids are loving this school. But I’m afraid their teacher is lacking. I have decided that my music/English degree did not train me for this and I am having a hard time coming up with meaningful projects. . . Naomi’s current project is to draw and identify every plant in the back garden.
But good news–! I found out that two of my kids will get into Oxford schools! Sophie and Syrena have been accepted into a very good school . . . and they will wear UNIFORMS. When I broke the news to them, Sophie and Syrena, who had been bubbly ever since we got here, became graveyard-silent. They didn’t laugh for 24 hours. We went to London the next day to sight-see and they walked around all day as if they were on their way to the gallows. There is a lot going on in those two heads right now.
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I think that if those two made it into school the others have a good chance, but we shall see. I will have a more clear picture this week. I don’t think Chelsea’s 8-minute school will last forever. . . but Naomi has already identified two plants!
Now . . . about the ghost.
Remember I told you that my closet door keeps opening when my back is turned? Well, so does an attic crawl space door above Naomi’s bed. At night. And it creaks.
Not only that, but a couple days ago I was on the phone and I heard a tremendous crash. Not just one crash, but a series of crashes. It sounded as if someone had fallen down the stairs with a mirror. But no one was on the stairs (either stairs) and nothing seemed amiss in the house. Danny thought it might have happened outside, but no one was in the alley. It was a mystery . . . until we went into Syrena’s room. And there, in a catastrophic heap on the tile floor, was Syrena’s collapsed desk and all of her books and pens and pencils and a broken mug.
No one was in the room when it happened.
At least no one . . . living.
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And speaking of living, on goes the struggle to keep my boys alive. I decided that boys are born without a common sense gene. I’m sure they develop it later, but they are definitely NOT born with it. Somehow they can’t comprehend that every time we go out for a walk we are inches from death with all the zooming cars. Scott keeps reminding me that the cars are only going about 20 miles per hour, but to me that is fast enough. 
Since the boys still resist holding my hand I have resorted to bribery. I keep a package of Skittles in my pocket, and every time the boys willingly hold my hand to cross the street I put one in their hand and say “thank you for holding my hand.” It is working grrrrreat. I make sure Sophie and Syrena also have skittles in their pockets.
Of course, Scott doesn’t need to have any skittles because the boys *love* to hold his hand. Grrr.
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Here is a parting shot of a street near our home and one of the sweetest kids I know:
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The Year We Changed Our Lives

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After months of deliberating, strategizing, decision-making and then fine-tuning those decisions, Scott and I are finally on the brink of a dream we’ve wanted to achieve for many years: we are taking our family to England.

We gave away our cat, loaned out our dog, put our house in beautiful North Carolina on the market and just finished driving across the country. All of our things are going into storage, and now the only obstacle between us and the biggest adventure my family has ever had is 8 days.

Scott will be working at Oxford for only a semester, so we will be back to the States in December, but it will be enough time for us to have a wide range of experiences in the United Kingdom and surrounding areas that we would not have if we were simply tourists. To make things even more interesting, we won’t have a car and we will be living in the middle of a city.

If you are wondering how we are feeling about all of this, imagine you are about to jump off of a bridge, step into the gladiator’s ring, or are standing on a street in Pamplona, Spain just before the bulls are released and you will have a good idea.

Wish us luck. Updates to follow.

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