Monday, December 22, 2014

Our Hope - This Year and Always

(An unofficial Keister Christmas letter for 2014)

For me, Christmas is always a time of year to recalibrate my perspective and remember the important things in life. Life struggles can smother and sometimes it's hard to see past the present. I love the chance to stop and soak in the tale of a Heavenly Prince leaving everything to gain His bride. A bride who doesn't even deserve Him and who flees Him! That's hope; that's good theater.

This has been a rough year for me. Not as rough as "the college years," but still. . . rough. I look at the pain and the circumstances that so many in the world (friends or not) are going through, and honestly, I know I have a beautiful life and I've been spared so much. But pain and struggles aren't always born in the "big" tragedies like death or divorce or Ebola; sometimes they're the day-to-day.

This has been a year of many minor trials. It started with a bang as we moved into our new (to us) house here in Houston. Adrian injured his shoulder in the move and was incapacitated for several weeks as a result, making our transition to our new abode a bit rockier. I also spent much of the year being monitored for a "suspicious lump" that seems to have resolved, but still cost some worry and concern. We love our house, but it has turned into a downward spiral of one new repair job after another. We also dealt with our 2nd, 3rd, and are now preparing for our 4th bout of mold since we moved to Houston. Houston fosters and breeds mold like no other place I've lived. My already-sensitive health does not respond well to mold, and Hans responds even less well.

We have learned so much about parenting this year. Mainly that we are totally at the mercy of God in this area and have no. idea. what we're doing. Probably our largest trial for this year has been trying to help our 6 year old son Hans process the extreme behavioral issues that seem to flare with each bout of mold we experience (and are still there in more muted form at other times). We love our extremely bright and enthusiastic boy, and knowing how to best help him while still holding him accountable for his own behavior has been. . . challenging. We've worked with a number of professionals this year and seen ebbs and flows in improvement. Our latest round of testing with a family doctor who specializes with autistic children has us optimistic, revealing both problems and possible solutions.

It's so easy to count problems instead of blessings in our hearts. But on the reverse, in Christmas letters it's so easy to give the "safe and air-brushed" version of the past year. "We're all well and loving life. Our children are great. Aren't our children adorable?" Nobody wants the negative at Christmas time. . . and really, during the year, how many people who ask "How are you?" really are expecting an answer that extends beyond "I'm fine"?

I'm not exactly sure where to strike that balance - honesty and rawness, with hope and not despair. But chronicling blessings along with some of the "struggle highlights" is a good start.

We are so thankful to finally be out of apartments. Not just the moldy apartment we were in last year, but apartments in general. We don't mind cramped quarters, but we really wanted a yard for our kids. We are blessed with 2/3 of an acre in our new place, a great quiet neighborhood for walks, and grandparent-ly neighbors who look out for us.

God has shown us a lot of grace in our "house woes." I could bore you with the (truly) long list of minor catastrophes and large house expenses we've dealt with this year, but instead, I'll just admit that God has met us each time. He's still meeting us, as we're preparing for our third professional remediation in the last 6 months and wondering where that sort of money is going to come from :-). He met us in our previous ones with good insurance coverage, and I'm sure he'll meet us in His own way this time.

We were also extremely blessed this year by our brother-in-law and Adrian's parents, who at different times visited us and poured days of their skills and time into helping us with house repairs. We are so grateful. He met us with a generous inheritance we received that helped with many of our unexpected expenses. He met us with an extra job for Adrian this summer.

Adrian loves his teaching job, teaching math and physics at a local classical Christian school. We are grateful for the awesome teaching position he has here and how it fits him so well. Northeast Christian Academy has been a phenomenal fit for him in so many ways. And getting to teach a class at the local community college this summer was not only great additional income, but also a fun experience for him. We're grateful that he's already been invited to return and teach the same class next summer.

We're grateful for God's grace in our parenting, for listening ears that offer us advice and sometimes just offer sympathy and love, and we're grateful for the opportunity to preach the Gospel to our kids. I can honestly say that trying to work with Hans through his own struggles has given me more opportunities to preach Christ to Him than I ever would have done had he been an "average" child. When my child is moved by God's grace, it's amazing to see him be convicted not by my own rebuke, not by a typical punishment, but by the Word of God. It is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. I still feel so lost in this whole sea of parenting, but I feel humbled and blessed by so many of the things God has shown me this year.

We're thankful for homeschooling. For our family, at this time, this has been a gift. This has been a rocky year in the homeschool department, with a few great weeks or months followed by rough ones, followed by great ones again. I'm so thankful for the flexibility homeschooling allows us, to "step back" when we need - such as when we were actively dealing with mold and just trying to keep a semblance of "normal" in our family life and peace - and also allowing us to plow ahead at "irregular times" - such as during the dog days of summer in Houston, when no one wanted to be outside and we had a fabulous several weeks of clear thinking and behavior for Hans. We got over 2 months ahead in schooling this way, which allowed us to take advantage of the beautiful fall weather to get our of our questionably-safe home air and play outside. I love that about homeschooling! And I love watching the kids learn and grow in knowledge and wonder at God's creation.

We're thankful for our bundles of energy: Hans with his colorful imagination and amazing memory, Gretchen with her sweet and easy disposition, and Martin with his inquisitive nature that keeps me constantly on my toes. We've already been to the ER twice for head injuries for that boy and I've had to call poison control twice, and he's only 18 months! He is a dare-devil! But he's also a sweet cuddle-bug who loves to make smacking sounds while Adrian and I kiss, and brightens up with excitement every time he knows we're heading outside.

Gretchen, at age 4, is all girl. Well, sort of. Sometimes she is Sam Gamgee when she and Hans are on a "Lord of the Rings" verge. But she is Miss Pink (although she now accepts other colors into her wardrobe), is often in elaborate dress-up clothes, and loves having her hair done and playing princess. But she can also hold her own in imaginary battles that she and Hans conduct against their imaginary enemies. And she loves to ride her birthday bike on our driveway and go for walks with us all. She is a sweet cuddler who loves special Mommy time and getting to read books before bed.

Hans is 6 and in first grade, our bookworm who can become lost in a book for hours (favorites currently include Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, Doctor Dolittle, as well as various American history books he reads and recounts to me "for fun."), or he can become Mr. Crazy Superhero, fighting imaginary "bad guys" with his various pretend weapons and his super powers. His thirst and ability to soak up knowledge and retain it is truly amazing. We are constantly amused by his perspective on things and the sorts of things he thinks to say.

We've had a GOOD year, despite many difficult circumstances, and despite many uncertainties and continued trials. We've had a GOOD year, because we serve a GOOD God. Or more importantly, because we are loved by a good God. We love because He first loved us. That is one verse the kids and I have discussed a lot recently. We don't love God because we can conjure up that love. We love Him because He reached out to us first. Isn't that amazing, strange, and hard to grasp, all at the same time?

Why did the God of the universe care to come to earth, be born of a woman, live for over 3 decades in this sin-riddled world, and then die a horrific death. . . just to recover a bride who wanted to spit in His face? Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my Lord, shouldst die for me? This is our hope at Christmas, and throughout the year. We pray it is your hope too.

Merry Christmas from Susan and all the Keisters

Monday, December 01, 2014

Jesse Tree

Isaiah 11

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

We've done a Jesse Tree the last three years during the Advent season. The kids love it and look forward to it. We all do, actually!

If you've never heard of a Jesse Tree, it is a visual story of Christ, tracing the need for redemption from creation, through the fall, judgment in the flood, seeing glimpses of Him in the prophets, in Jonah, Samuel, His lineage through the kings, etc. Generally, each day in Advent, a family has a passage to read from the Bible, and then an ornament to hang on their "Jesse Tree" that symbolizes the passage. For the prophets, we hang a scroll, for the psalmist David, we hang a harp, etc. As the days progress, the passages narrow into the time of His birth. The term "Jesse Tree" comes from Isaiah 11, the prophecy that a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse.

I grew up hearing of the concept, as my elementary Sunday school curriculum had a special Advent series that uses a Jesse Tree. It wasn't a regular part of growing up, but I was exposed to it, and liked the idea. Adrian had never heard of a Jesse tree before, and when I first approached him with the idea he was skeptical, wondering if it would be shallow (like a lot of popular "family devotion ideas"), etc., but he agreed to give it a try a few years ago. He was definitely impressed after we did it ourselves and doesn't need any more convincing :-).

(On a side note, two other non-Jesse-tree resources that have similar themes of the entire Biblical story building up to the birth of Christ: I recommend Andrew Peterson's album "The Lamb of God," and also this short film by the Skit Guys. I gotta admit the Skit Guys butchered a much-beloved hymn - "Come, Though Long-expected Jesus" - but I like the film for the amazing progressive painting showing the story from creation to the birth of Christ.)

So basically, there is no exact "one way" to do a Jesse tree. If you search online, you will find different lists of passages and corresponding events/people/objects. Some lists stick strictly with the lineage of Christ, but most will delve into the prophets as well and other events that point to Christ. The main thing is to tell God's preparations for bringing His Son into the world.

I basically combined the best of several lists, if I remember correctly. I also chose to keep ours to 25 days, which allows us to start December 1st and end on Christmas. Some suggestions have more or fewer days. Here is what I ended up doing (much of this came from blog posts I cut/pasted from, but that was a few years ago, so I don't have the original links to share and can't remember how much I altered and what was original):

1. Tree (Jesse's lineage) I Samuel 16: 1-13 Jesse was King David's father
Isaiah 11:1,10 Prophecy about Christ coming from the “stump of Jesse”; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2. Globe (creation) Genesis 1 Creation
John 1: 1-5 Jesus was from the beginning with God; Jesus is light
3. Apple (Adam and Eve, fall) Genesis 3 Sin entered the world, but God promised to send Someone to crush Satan
Romans 5:12-19 Sin came into the world through Adam, but God gives us life through Christ
4. Ark and rainbow (Noah) Genesis 7:1-9:17 God's promises and covenant
5. Stars (Abraham) Genesis 12:1-7, 15:1-6 God's promise to bless the earth through Abraham
6. Bundle of sticks (Isaac) Genesis 22:1-14 Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son points to God sending His only Son to be the perfect sacrifice for us
7. Ladder (Jacob) Genesis 27:41-28:22 Jesus is our ladder to God
8. Coat of many colors (Joseph) Genesis 37:1-36, 50:15-21 God used Joseph to save His people
9. Lamb (Moses, passover) Exodus 12:1-30 The blood of a lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites' houses was the sign for God to spare His people
John 1:29 Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world
Mark 14:12-16 Celebration of Passover becomes the celebration of the Lord's Supper
10. Bread (Moses, manna) Exodus 16 God gave His people manna to eat in the wilderness, to save them from hunger
John 6:46-51 Jesus is the bread of life
11. Law tablets (Moses, 10 commandments) Exodus 20:1-21 God gave His people His law
Romans 10:4 Christ is the fulfillment of the law
12. Wheat (Ruth) Ruth 4:9-22 Ruth was not born into God's people, but she loved God and was humble and obedient. She became David's grandmother, part of the lineage of Christ
13. Ear (Samuel) I Samuel 3 As a little boy, Samuel heard God and believed Him
14. Shepherd's staff (Jesse) I Samuel 16:1-13 Samuel annointed Jesse's youngest son, David, because God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance
Isaiah 53:2 A prophecy that Christ would not attract us by His appearance
15. Slingshot (David – warrior) I Samuel 17:17-51 David remembered God's provision in the past, trusted God, and would not stand for Goliath insulting God
16. Harp (David – psalmist) Psalm 23 God teaches us how to praise Him in the Psalms; the Psalms point to the Savior
17. Crown (Solomon) I Kings 3:1-14 God gave Solomon wisdom
18. Altar (Elijah) I Kings 18:16-46 Israel was worshipping false gods; God showed His people that He was the true God
19. Scroll (prophecy) Isaiah 9:1-7 God sent prophets to tell Israel of the promised Redeemer
20. Lion (Daniel) Daniel 6 Daniel trusted in the Lord; God protects His people
21. Fish (Jonah) Jonah 1-3 Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights; God's desire was for the people of Ninevah to repent
22. Hammer (Joseph) Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph was a carpenter who listened to the angel of the Lord and was obedient in faith
23. Angel (virgin birth foretold to Mary) Luke 1:26-38, 46-55 Mary had faith and obedience; she praised God for His plan
24. Donkey (Bethlehem) Luke 2:1-5 Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem
25. Manger (birth of Jesus) Luke 2:1-20 Jesus is born.

I also took pictures to show you the ornaments I made/obtained to go along with the passages. Once again, there is a lot of flexibility. For example, for your Jesse tree you can draw a tree on a poster board (which we've done before) and hang the ornaments on with thumb tacks. Or you can purchase an artificial mini tree to use each year for your Jesse tree. You could even just add the ornaments to your regular Christmas tree, though I think there is something special about having a separate tree. What we're doing this year is using a branch from our yard, stuck in a vase with rocks to weight it down and hold it erect. We'll hang the ornaments off the different twigs branching off of the main branch. We'll see how it goes :-). 

For the ornaments, there are plenty of options online for printing off pre-made images and pasting them onto discs to make your ornaments. You can make or purchase objects/ornaments, collecting from various stores or using craft supplies you have. It's up to you. You'll see in the pictures that we kind of did a little of everything. I worked on collecting and making the ornaments over several weeks. I don't think I actually had to buy anything, but used a lot of what we already had. The lamb was a toy that I turned into an ornament. The harp was already an ornament, but I plucked off the bear that was attached. I made Joseph's coat from felt, Jonah's fish was an embellished washcloth that I converted, etc. I'm particularly proud of my Lego ark, I have to admit :-).

Don't feel like you have to have the "perfect ornaments" for it to be a meaningful experience. You can go easy with pre-printed options, and then you can always branch out and replace with more intricate ones as the years progress. There are a few we have that I'd still like to replace with "better" options if I find them, but I'm using what I have until then. For example, the three stars to represent the Abrahamic covenant. . . not exactly awe-inspiring :-P. I want to make/get something that has LOTS of stars, but I just haven't yet.

Also, you can use artistic license and decide that instead of a crown to represent Solomon, you want to use a mini replica of the temple. Or instead of a fruit to represent the fall in the garden, you could use a serpent or a little tiny tree ornament. Whatever. Use your imagination and work with what you have or can find/make easily :-).

Here is our current collection:

The tree (1) and globe (2).

Apple (3), ark/rainbow (4), stars (5).

Bundle of sticks (6), ladder (7), coat of many colors (8).

Lamb (9), bread (10), law tablets (11).

Wheat (12), ear (13), shepherd's staff (14).

Slingshot (15), harp (16), crown (17).

Altar (18), scroll (19), lion (20).

Fish (21), hammer (22), angel (23).

Donkey (24) and manger (25).

Friday, November 28, 2014

Our Thanksgiving Meal

Okay, honesty: I'm mainly posting this so that next year when I can't remember for sure which recipes I used, I can always revert back to this post :-). Also, I took very few pictures. This is not an "eye candy" post. Just the facts, ma'am. We have an assortment of food restrictions. Some of the ingredients we were avoiding were: wheat/gluten, dairy (except butter), soy. Those are main ones, anyway :-).

Recipes and preparation notes, for my own reference next year:

Turkey: Okay, yeah, that turned out kind of dry. I really need to watch the temp better next year :-P The 15 minute estimate per pound for a free-range turkey was about spot-on. Remember for next time. Still turned out edible, especially with gravy. And yeah, yeah, brine. I KNOW it's a good solution, but confession: I hate raw meat. Brining means extended time with raw meat in contact with something I later have to disinfect. *squirms*

Gravy: We tried something different this year. The last few years Adrian (our gravy master) has made gravy with the turkey drippings and a combination of arrowroot and almond meal (1:2 ratio) and had good results. It's more "earthy" and coarse than a standard smooth gravy, but we have really liked it. 100% arrowroot for thickener closely resembles snot. We tried that one year. Do NOT ever repeat. This year I had bought a bag of Namaste gluten-free flour blend as a splurge to try to make some "real" pie crusts. Since we had it, we used it for the thickener for the gravy. I actually really liked the result. Adrian prefers the arrowroot/almond combo, as the Namaste is a bit more snotty of a consistency. But a very edible consistency, not the same level of snot-ness as 100% arrowroot. Plus the Namaste gave a smoother and more "normal" result.

Cranberry sauce: Seriously, this is the EASIEST thing to make and tastes so much more amazing than that awful canned stuff. We have made this for a few years and it is a nice "pizazz" of color and flavor. This is the recipe we use.

Mashed potatoes: Since Gretchen can't have milk, we just omitted it. Just potatoes, butter (lots), and salt and butter. It really worked well. I think certain kinds of potatoes would need a liquid, but the kind we had worked well. We used Russet. Another dairy-free option that I've tasted before is using a small amount of poultry broth. This gives a bit more creaminess and wetness, and actually is not a "distracting" flavor, but blends in nicely. We don't do soy or rice milk or coconut milk, so those weren't options. Almond milk is. . . over-rated.

Sweet potato casserole: Pretty much always a universal favorite. The recipe we have used for a few years now is one I found I-don't-where. All I tweaked for the base was simply omit the milk (and even though it was a full cup omitted, it has never been dry!) The topping, I made up.


Sweet Potato Casserole

4 pounds sweet potatoes (about 5 large), peeled and cubed
1/4 cup Sucanat (you could use brown sugar)
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Bake or boil sweet potatoes, then peel and mash with other ingredients. Transfer to a buttered 9x13 glass baking dish. Then prepare topping.

Topping: Combine equal parts almond flour and semi-soft butter by mashing with a fork, then add a small amount of honey to sweeten - not to much or you get a gloppy mess. Add chopped pecans (as many as desired) and "plop" the topping onto the casserole in penny-sized pieces, scattering evenly.

Bake uncovered for 50-60 minutes at 350 degrees or until heated through and topping is browned lightly. (This casserole preps ahead nicely. Just pull straight from fridge to bake.)

Stuffing: This was a new idea for me. Stuffing wasn't super-important for holidays growing up, from my memory, and of course being gluten-free does limit options now. But I saw an interesting recipe for a Wild Rice Stuffing and wanted to try it! Results: deliciously tasty but the cooking was not as predicted. After an hour, practically no liquid had absorbed and the grains were still pretty hard. It took about 2 hours of simmering (maybe a tad less) for the wild rice to cook properly, but even then, there was lots of leftover liquid. It actually made for a nice thick soup that was really flavorful, and with leftover turkey added, made a nice stand-alone leftover dish. Because the wild rice took so long to cook, we gave up on eating it with our main meal :-D. Another recipe note: instead of the 2 tablespoons of poultry seasoning, I added: 2 t sage, 1 1/2 t thyme, 3/4 t rosemary, 1/2 t nutmeg, 1/2 t black pepper. I would have added 1 t marjoram, but was out of it.

Green beans: No exciting prep notes here. Frozen green beans. Cooked. Yum.

Wassail: This is a carry-over from the Keister side of the family. Kind of like a mulled spiced cider, with some cranberry attitude. If you like sweet drinks, it's good. It's too much for me :-), but generally popular when we serve it to others. Combine in a 6 qt crockpot: 1 liter cranberry juice cocktail, 1 liter apple juice, 3/4 cup orange juice. In a tea infuser or a cheese cloth bag, place 1 stick of cinnamon and 4 whole cloves and let steep in juices. Add 1/4 cup sugar. Heat all ingredients in crockpot (a few hours on low). When ready to serve, remove spices and taste, adding more sugar if desired.

Pecan pie: This was yummy. Not as gooey as a traditional one, but very moist and flavorful. We used the crust from here (but used the Namaste flour instead of all-purpose) and the filling from here.

Pumpkin pie: This was kind of a combination of a lot of recipes. And alas, I cannot find my scribbled notes for it anywhere. Best I can remember, I combined the following and poured in a pie crust: 4 eggs, 2 cups cooked pumpkin, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, and maybe 1/2+ cup of honey? I wish I could remember for sure. I might have also thrown some nutmeg in there. This is why I'm noting all this in a blog post now, because my memory will be far hazier next time I want to make it :-P. I used the same pie crust recipe/ingredients as I did for the pecan pie.

Chocolate "pudding": Okay, really not pudding, but close enough, and yummy. I just took this chocolate gelatin squares recipe and poured it into a bowl to gel instead of molding into squares. I always use butter instead of coconut oil.

Fried pears: I just sliced some pears up semi-thin (removing seeds, but leaving skin) and sauteed in butter in a frying pan. Then added some honey (to taste) and sprinkled on some arrowroot for thickener. Then stirred and heated until it was yummy and a good consistency.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Children's Books We Love

By request, and as a follow-up to my last post:

(Side note: books simply cannot be rated absolutely on a pass/fail or good/bad scale. These are just books *I* love and that my family loves. If you see inconsistencies in my recommendations of some of the below books, but in my rejection of Dr. Seuss, that's because I'm human. I have inconsistencies. The below books are *my* idea of worthwhile kids' books. They are not an absolute list, nor are they a complete list even from my own perspective. Nor do we limit our home library only to these books.)

Before I list my own recommendations, here are some recommendations of recommendations ;-) for you. You know, people older/wiser/more-experienced than me who have done this sort of recommendation thing. Books Children Love is a great starting place. I've heard from many people that Honey for a Child's Heart is another great source.

And also, for a free online list, try Ambleside Online's recommendations. Although I'm not technically a Charlotte Mason-ite, I'm a serious stalker, and AO is an AMAZING free curriculum resource for ideas, both for books, but also homeschool ideas in general. (Charlotte Mason is heavily into reading, so the books ARE the curriculum, not a supplement.) They have week-be-week options for study, for those who want to follow AO exactly, but I just use their site for book ideas as supplements, because like I said, I'm not a Charlotte Mason-ite, just a stalker :-).

Onward to book suggestions! I'm sure we've read many more great ones, but I gotta admit my memory is shot, so these are basically the ones we own or I happen to remember :-). Also, I'm focusing on picture books for two reasons: (1) I'm giving alternatives to Seuss, and (2) although my children - especially my 6yo - love and enjoy "chapter books," I've definitely spent more years as a mom reading picture books :-). You'll notice a variety of reading level in the books I list, from short books like "1 is One" and "Sheep in a Shop," to much more involved books like "Paddle-to-the-Sea."

If you notice that these are in a weird order and random groupings/pairings, you are right. I decided to go the lazy way. My OCD-ness may get the better of me later and I may go into convulsions, but my desire to finish this post and go read my Agatha Christie book is currently winning the inner battle :-D.

Picture Books

We also love original fairy tales by Grimm, Anderson, et al. Lots of goodies there. But our versions are actually very picture-sparse. I'm sure there are great retellings out there with more pictures :-).

Now please share YOUR favorite children's books! (Even if they are Seuss, we can still be friends ;-).)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why Dr. Seuss is not my idea of a great children's literary experience. . . (A post to inspire, not to judge!)

This is not a moral issue. This post is meant to inspire, NOT to judge. And I truly mean that. Please read and ponder, and know that you can read Dr. Seuss to my kids AND let me visit your house without hiding Dr. Seuss books from your shelves :-D. But here's why you won't find much Dr. Seuss around our house. . .


I grew up reading a number of Dr. Seuss books and loved them. And I can remember many fond memories of reading Dr. Seuss to young kids who I babysat. They're light years better than "Captain Underwear" and other similar wastes of paper that appear on library shelves and book stores everywhere :-P. Quite frankly, most of the kids' literature out there today is just trash. If it isn't obscene, it's just gross, or trite, or P.C., or dumb. So Dr. Seuss is better than a lot of options :-). And I speak of both early children's books and general elementary literature.

But leaping to the conclusion that Dr. Seuss is great literature (because it's better than Captain Underwear) is like saying that Subway is great food because it's better than McDonald's. (I could make similar potshots at modern art, but I won't.)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with exposing kids to Dr. Seuss. We own a select few, and I have absolutely no problem with my kids getting read Dr. Seuss by others, just like (allergies notwithstanding) I don't mind if they have the occasional fast food french fries or chicken fingers (gag!) as a treat, but that would not be a regular standby in their diet. And just like there are zillions of movies I would let my kids see at someone else's house (and many, of course, that I wouldn't), but not many of them would I want us to own. Ken Myers, who wrote All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, has some fabulous things to say about the difference between "main diet," and occasional exposure/consumption. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of the book on hand (a friend is borrowing it), so I can't give any exact quotes. But definitely read the book! It's fabulous.

But back to Dr. Seuss. He is not great literature. Seriously, folks. Stop trying to pretend he is the end-all, be-all of fine literary experience for kids! Agh. The drawings are medicore at best, most of the text is nonsensical (and not even in a witty nonsensical way, for the most part), and the plots are limited in scope. There is a reason, though. Dr. Seuss was written for early readers.

Let me say that again:
Dr. Seuss books were written as early readers. 

^That is what they should be used for. They are fabulously great and fun early readers, and when my son first finished phonics and we were looking for early readers, I reached for Dr. Seuss as a primary source. Dr. Seuss is fabulous for early readers! And so much better than 2/3 of the early readers in my local library. We read, we laughed, we enjoyed (for the first few readings, and then I was like "moving on," PLEASE, to a better plot), and then thankfully we returned them so I didn't have to have all my brain cells die slowly from Dr. Seuss overdose ;-).

My son would have been quite happy to remain reading Dr. Seuss books ad nauseum forever and ever, but he was also quite happy to move on to bigger and better things. I'm not talking Dickens and Tolstoy. I'm just talking about children's literature that is great stuff. And I do think his reading ability, his attention span, his reading comprehension skills, and his mother's sanity are the better for the short duration of our tryst with Seuss :-D.

Read The Cat in the Hat or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Laugh, enjoy. But there is nothing to keep thinking about.

But read a kid the original Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne (not the trivialized Disney adaptations). They are so accessible to young kids (once again, I'm not trying to force my kids to read Dickens novels at the age of 3 or 6). They are hilariously witty and complex, but simple for kids, all rolled up into one. I can read them again and again and they do not get old. There are layers of complexity and brilliance in there. The illustrations are fantastic but not over-the-top and distracting.

Next read Beatrix Potter. (Did you know she wrote many more stories than just Peter Rabbit??) Charming illustrations that are unmatched in children's literature. Beautiful tales for children and adults to enjoy. Try A Child's Garden of Verses next. And anything by Robert McCloskey. Move on to The Adventures of Reddy Fox, and then anything else by Burgess. My kids have spent hours and hours acting out their own imaginations from these books. There is so much "scope for the imagination" in them. I could go on and on with more recommendations, but those are some starters :-). Read Island Boy. Owl MoonPaddle-to-the-Sea.

Okay, fine. I really will stop with the recommendations :-). It's just so easy to go on and on!

But to sum up, try reading the books I mention above. Soak yourself and your kids in them for a few months. (To make this really work, spirit away Dr. Seuss so they're out of sight and out of mind. In the same way that to make a change in diet, you don't try to convince your kids to eat vegetables and fruit while a box of cookies is on the counter.)

After soaking in good books for a few months, go back to Dr. Seuss. Yes, really. Go back! And see if Dr. Seuss resonates with you in the same way. Is he still just as witty? Just as hilarious? Just as great? If so, please enjoy Dr. Seuss with my compliments. (And feel free to read him to my kids.) But if he seems hollow, trite, and "eh, okay," then that's okay too.

And I would be happy to smother you with more book recommendations if you need Dr. Seuss alternatives ;-).

Monday, August 04, 2014

When You Make a Rotten Shepherd. . . (and the absolutely wrong response to that reality)

(Please read through to the end, or you will totally miss the main thrust of what I'm trying to say.)

I love Shepherding a Child's Heart. Really, truly. I recommend it to any new parent, old parent, middle-aged parent. Non-parent. Wanna-be-parent. Wanna-not-be-parent. . . You get the idea. It's a great starting point.

STARTING POINT. You see, I don't know about other parents reading this, but I make a really second-rate shepherd. For reals. Now, clarification: I used to be a perfect parent. But then I had kids, and it's been a humbling experience ever since.

And also? My sheep don't get into arguments in a "shepherding a child's heart" sort of way. And one of my dear sheep does not respond to discipline in any way that resembles a "shepherding the child's heart" sort of scenario. At. all. Reading Tripp's book and parenting my dear child is like trying to consult a sewing machine manual for help on replacing the fuel valve in a car.

But back to me. You see, as much as I want to be the most perfect, patient, giving, loving example and shepherd to my kids, always turning each discipline session into a cherished discipleship moment, I don't. Sometimes, yes. I have many sweet memories (past and present) of sweet talks with my kids about their sin, my sin, and God's grace. God is gracious to give those moments (and memories) to imperfect parents. Thank you, Lord.

But sometimes life prevents a discipline session from being deeply meaningful. Multiple children certainly make it more challenging, as a parent might be dealing with a wailing baby and an unrepentant child at the same time, as just one example. But more to the point than life circumstances, sin prevents many of the discipline sessions in our house from being deeply meaningful. My sin. My desire for quickly rebuking and getting back to the previous task. A quick punishment and a "just tell your sister you're sorry already!" My short temper. Sometimes my shouting. Sometimes my anger. Mine. Mine. Mine.

I've learned in my 6 years of parenting to ask my children's forgiveness. A LOT. We talk about my sin, just as we talk about theirs. Many times we sit down and pray prayers of repentance together. We pray for God to forgive my sin, and we pray for God to forgive their sin.

I read a really great article today that drives home some great encouragement and hope for insufficient shepherds like myself. Go and read it! I love, love, love the author's conclusion:
"My point in all this? I’m going to parent my kids as best as I can, according to all the wise principles I’ve learned from the Bible itself and authors. But when it comes down to it, God absolutely must be the one who saves my kids." 
That's it. That's what parents (myself included) must cling to. We can't cling to our methods, our children's outward behavior, their seemingly moral outward appearance, or their social or psychological stability.

God saves sinners.
He save some sinners who are parents.
Despite their rotten parenting.
He saves many of those parents' children.
Despite their rotten parenting.
Because GOD saves!
We do not. Oh, I'm so glad we do not. Or we'd fail.

Take heart that God used rotten parents like Adam and Eve, David, Aaron, Eli - the list could go on. Sometimes God had to bring condemnation on their children, but sometimes He raised up a godly generation after these parents, despite their shortcomings. God works with broken people and broken families.

But. . .

Please, my encouragement today to other parents: don't "give up on perfection." For yourself or your children.  That is where our culture totally misses the point of reality. So often, I see my generation disenchanted with the legalism and outward conformity that has been so popular in fundamentalist Christianity in the last decades. We see the Phariseeism, and we want nothing to do with it.

But our response?

"I've given up on perfection."
"Jesus loves me, flaws and all."
"I'm never going to be Super Mom, so I'm embracing who I am."
"I'd rather have scruffy children who love God, than little Pharisees."
"All the moms I know yell at their kids. It's just something everyone does. We don't have to repent of that."

Well, wow. None of that comes from scripture. And surely there is a middle road between banshee-children-who-are-never-disciplined and little Pharisees!

God meets us where we are, but He never encourages us to stay there. He never says, "There, there. I love you just like you are, so why search higher?" God does love us where we're at. But He commands (not just suggests) that we grow, that we painfully learn, that we stretch ourselves and our hopes and desires. (Actually, that we burn those and grasp Him.)

He commands, Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
He commands that daily, we die to self.
We are to run the race set before us. (not jog the race lazily, or sit down and nap, or give up).
We are to present ourselves to God as living sacrifices.
We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. And one of the things that comes with that growth and knowledge? A knowledge of our sin. But a desire to love the Lord our God by bending our will to His. Not to earn salvation, but because we are saved.

Any great musician will admit that perfect performances are either extremely rare or non-existent. But does a great musician aim for mediocrity or "pretty good"? No! A great musician AIMS for perfection. He practices and critiques his own work and learns from mistakes and continues to mold his talents and search out his flaws. He aims for perfection. And that is the only way he will ever give a great performance. By aiming for perfection.

No matter how hard we try, we will never be perfect parents in this life. I certainly won't be. We can despair and give up, or we can run to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We can cry "Abba, Father," to the only perfect Father that ever was. We can repent of our daily failures as parents, but look to our Heavenly Father for wisdom, as we continually run the race that is set before us.

We can strive for what is ahead.

We can delight in the sweet tastes of tuneful melodies we are graciously able to witness in our lives and the lives of our children. And we can pray and look forward to the lush, majestic and PERFECT symphonies that we will have in the world to come.

God makes all things beautiful, in His time. Even my parenting. Isn't grace amazing?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

School Year 2014-2015

Psychologically, it sounds like a lot more responsibility to have a 1st grader than a kindergartner. Seriously! How do I have a 6 year old?????? Yikes!

So this year we have Hans in 1st grade (he turned 6 in June), Gretchen is 3 1/2 and still firmly a preschooler (read: she gets to play and join in when she wants), and Martin is 1. Martin is the designated recess coordinator. He suggests, signals, and sometimes demands when we pause school for his benefit ;-). Haha. No, but seriously. . . he is a good reminder to take a break frequently :-). My kids like frequent breaks. I  like frequent breaks. We all do better.

We actually "officially" started our school year in late June. Because Daddy was teaching a summer class and because for various life reasons, we got very little school done in the spring. (No, folks, not for that reason. Stop starting rumors.) And Hans had been BEGGING me to start back up school. Plus this means if we need to take off time during the year (for sanity or life), we have that flexibility. Houston is kind of a rotten place to be outside in the summer, anyway. Can anyone say "extra outdoor time during more pleasant months"?

So what are we doing this year? Here's a run-down:

Language Arts:

Starting the day with some basic penmanship. Fine-motor skills have always been a challenge for Hans and he's fought other handwriting tooth-and-nail before, so we're keeping basic, no official curriculum for now. And life is easier. Right now our penmanship looks like a chosen letter/number for the day (working our way back through the alphabet), and Hans doing six repetitions of the capital AND lowercase of that letter on primary-ruled paper, then circling his "best" for each group. Gretchen traces three of the same letter (capital and lowercase), and then if she wants (she always does, so far) she can freehand some as well.

English grammar. Using Shurley English was practically in our prenuptial agreement, along with classically educating. I jest slightly. But we're excited to start Shurley English! We're a few weeks in and Hans is loving it. Gretchen is loving singing along to the jingles. I gotta say, the noun jingle is cute, but the next two really could have been better-written :-P. Maybe I'm just picky. But the kids totally soaked it up and can rattle off the definition of noun, verb, and the basic rules for a sentence. Lame jingles and all. Hans has been enthusiastic about English so far, which relieves me. We'll see how the year progresses, but I do think English will be the most "stretching" subject for him. Hans was super-proud of his first classified sentence:

Spelling. We're not QUITE ready to start this, I feel like. As I read through the spelling curriculum I purchased (Logos School's "Grammar of Spelling" - very basic, no frills, organized according to spelling rules, etc.), I really think working with Hans to get used to writing even more will really help spelling go more smoothly. He's ready mentally for the spelling, but not ready for the writing required. He has come a LONG way in the past month, writing more and more everyday, and complaining less and less. He's starting to realize that writing is a part of life :-). But I'll probably wait until later in the year, maybe late fall, maybe at the semester/Christmas break to introduce it, as the program is very heavily writing, and I do think writing is a good way to learn spelling, so I don't want to "skimp" on that aspect.

So moving on from language arts to. . .

Social Studies:

Geography. We're loving several resources. GeoPuzzles are a huge hit. I love that most of the pieces are the shape of countries!

As we're studying Egypt/Middle East in history, we're focusing on those areas of the world in geography, but not exclusively. We are also utilizing a globe, wall maps for the world and U.S., and we recently purchased an atlas. I basically just want to give them plenty of opportunity to explore geography. I found some $1 laminated placemats at Wal-mart that had world maps, and they've been using these as "charts" to sail the seas on their good ship Couch ;-).

Another resource we are loving is the geography trivium tables from Classical Conversations. We are not part of a CC community, but we still love and use some of their resources. This link has a short video explaining how to use them. There are 5ish new locations to learn every week, plus Hans sometimes likes to trace additional areas, like below:

We are also using the "continental blob" concept that Leigh Bortin talks about in her book "The Core," and using this free pack to aid in that. I also found this awesome site (free!), that allows me to customize state, country, and world maps to include (or exclude) features like longitude/latitude, cities, rivers, borders, names, etc. It is an awesome resource! I've printed up some of the maps from the site and placed in sheet protectors to trace with dry erase markers.

For history we're using Veritas, starting with Old Testament and Ancient Egypt. Someday I might do a whole post on history, explaining why we chose Veritas, etc., because I spent a few *months* researching different history curricula a few years ago, before landing on Veritas. It's not perfect (and there are other great options out there!), but it has a lot of great aspects to it. Here's a video that explains how the Veritas program works. We are only doing the history program, not the additional and separate Bible program, but a lot of the cards from this year are straight Bible events, like the Exodus, Solomon's reign, etc.

The kids have really enjoyed the history program so far. Each week has a different timeline card (there are 32 cards for the year), and we memorize that event in order with the previous events, and try to come up with hand motions to help us remember (and to make it fun!). As the weeks progress and we've memorized more events, I'll do stuff like shuffle the cards and ask them to put them in order. The CD-ROM teacher's CD has many options for each week for additional activities like worksheets, crafts, other activities, and a test (we're going low-key and not doing the tests, except informally and verbally). Also a timeline song with all 32 events, and a Ten Commandments song. The timeline card for each week has a picture on the front (often a famous work of art, but not always) that corresponds with the event, and a short synopsis on the back, plus a list of additional reading suggestions (from other history books) to do throughout the week. I've found that most of the additional reading resources can be found on Amazon for really good prices used (often $4 including shipping), which quite frankly is a lot more convenient than trying to find them at the library, as our library is not conveniently located, and we have only one vehicle.

For math, we're continuing to use Singapore. I like the focus on word problems. It's not perfect, and it's definitely not strong on drill, but it doesn't drive me as batty as many elementary math books out there ;-). It's a great spine for us, and we're doing lots of supplementation. We're using different ways to work on basic math facts. While Hans has done some basic multiplication (and a wee bit of division), we're not drilling those yet, but sticking with addition/subtraction for now. We've used ideas from this great site in the past, and now we're mainly using some simple math games my sister-in-law created. Most math games have way too much visual stimulation for Hans' attention issues, so these ones are perfect, especially the first one. One single problem on the board at a time. I tried to have him play a game from my childhood, Number Eaters, but it was WAY too much for him to take in visually at once, even with the "practice" option that was not timed and had no monsters. So we'll reserve that for a future point :-).

For science, we are loving our Apologia Botany book. We are over halfway through, as we started it in January (one of the few school things we did do through the spring! - albeit very sporadically). The elementary Apologia science books have a gentle exploratory approach with journaling - very Charlotte Mason-esque. Hans has loved it and learned so much. We'll probably start Zoology 1 around Christmastime. (They are not graded, so you can do them in whatever order you want, though they do have some rough suggestions.)

Below, we were doing a leaf classification activity. I like that the book is adaptable to focus more on the exploratory and tactile aspect, which is great for early ages, but also has great textual info that can be expanded to use for upper elementary. Hans loves to be read to, so we have soaked up most of the text, but it would be adaptable to pick and choose, for someone who needed more activity and less text. For some of the more "dense" pages like the leaf classification, we just turned it into a nature walk and classification activity, without focusing on trying to remember all the names, outside of casual reference to them. No testing!

For art, I always have the best of intentions, but I'm never sure how much it will happen ;-). hehe. I'm hoping to use Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, and we've done the first 2 sessions, which went well. I've also purchased some mini art postcards that make exploring famous art fun for the kids. We'll see how the year unfolds :-). There are lots of history projects in Veritas' program that definitely count as arts/crafts also!

Finally, but not least. . . we found an AMAZING free resource for flash cards online, called Anki. You can either create your own decks or download ones people post online. The brilliance of Anki is that it allows you to choose how often you see the cards, based on how easy it was for you to remember each one. So if you are reviewing a card and had a hard time remembering, you can request to see it again during that session (randomly reintroduced). But if it was way easy, you can choose not to see it for several days.

It has greatly simplified reviewing/learning catechism and memory verses with the kids. We've been using it for several weeks now, and it has worked really well. Sometimes I'll have the kids jump on the mini trampoline while reciting answers, to get the wiggles out :-). They take turns answering. We've also been using it for Spanish (informally using Salsa again, with "Aunt Hannah videos"), basic botany definitions, and skip counting. I highly recommend you check out Anki! It also has capabilities to upload pictures or videos to flash cards.

So if you managed to make it to the end of this post, now you get to tell me what you're doing for school this year. Or if you or your kids aren't in school, tell me your favorite kind of chocolate. Go!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

More on EO companies (specific recommendations)

Okay, I'm back for more of all this fun. Last time I light-heartedly shared some concerns I have with many practices being suggested for essential oil use, and also mentioned some brands/companies that seem to spread those unsafe usage suggestions. But I didn't really mention which brands I DO like, since it's obvious from my last post that I'm not a huge fan of Young Living or doTERRA. (I'm not a supporter of their companies and practices; I made no insult to the quality of their oils. I have not tried doTERRA, but I have been very impressed with the quality of Young Living oils I have used.)

So. . . I've spent way too much time online the past 6 months, researching different essential oil companies, reading about several and also testing out a number of different brands. Trust me. Lots of time. I had no idea there were so many out there. And I've only really looked into a fraction and had to brush past so many others. I was going to make this a ridiculously long post detailing every single company I've investigated, but really, I'm more interested in focusing on the good ones I found than the bad ones :-). And believe me, I have found several I wouldn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole, for safety reasons. But instead I'm going to make this a ridiculously long post that focuses on the companies I have liked :-D.

Before I give my top picks, let me mention some things I was looking for in an essential oil company. Some of these are "must-haves," but some were "preferred to haves":

- Someone on staff who has a lot of experience with oils. Not a casual 2-year interest via Pinterest and the occasional reference book, but a really long-standing experience in the industry or a certified aromatherapist, etc. Someone who has a really good feel for what a quality oil should look like, feel like, smell like. Not just for the basic oils, but for a whole array of oils. Someone who has a lot of training, either formal or not, with some of the experienced folks in the aromatherapy industry.

- Wild-crafted oils and/or oils that are grown in their native location (lavender from France or Bulgaria would be a great example, or Sandalwood from India or Australia, or peppermint from the US or UK). Wild-crafted oils are often more potent for a variety of reasons. Plants (wild or cultivated) that are growing in their native habitat on native soil with native air and environment are going to be a different plant than something transplanted to a different continent. U.S. lavender is simply different than French lavender, even if it is the same species. Not bad, but distinctly different. And French lavender is more highly-valued in aromatherapy, in general. Also a wild plant that is not intensively farmed is usually going to have higher therapeutic properties.

- Along with the above, a company that clearly states if the plant was cultivated or wild, the country of origin, and if it was grown organically. A serious aromatherapist is going to care about these details for the very reason that all of these play a role in the end product. I don't purchase organic essential oils exclusively, but I do prefer that option and at least want to know if an oil is organic! As a secondary option I will purchase an oil certified to be tested free of pesticides and fertilizers. Actually, wild-crafted is my favorite option.

- A company that takes testing of oils seriously. As I've investigated companies and read a lot about adulteration of oils, etc., I've realized that a lot of the adulteration and additives that happen in the oil industry happen at the distillery with the supplier, NOT with the company actually selling the oil to the consumer. That's a mistake I made in the past. I thought that a company with integrity would be selling oils that were solid, but the oils are only as good as the supplier. Does the company test every batch to insure quality, or do they do an initial test from the supplier and hope/assume that future batches will be as good? For a fabulous resource, please check out this link on 3rd party testing results for a number of essential oils companies. Some of the results may surprise you. And some of the responses of the companies (when contacted post-testing) may surprise you as well. The proof is in the pudding.

- A company that doesn't use clever marketing terms with little-to-no meaning. Essential oils are not like eggs. There are no standards to grade them. If a company is using the term "therapeutic grade," it has little-to-no meaning. Some companies simply mean they are potent and pure oils that work well. But many companies try to swing "therapeutic grade" as some sort of standard that some oils achieve and others do not. THERE IS NO STANDARD. Every essential oil in the local grocery store could put that on their label. It means nothing. Same thing with "safe for internal use." All that means is that the company is willing to carry a higher liability.

- A company that cares about Latin names! Some of the companies I have purchased from in the past and many whose websites I have browsed in recent months either make it very difficult to find the species on their website, or they simply don't list it. Latin names are important! Species that may have common SOUNDING names (lemon eucalyptus and eucalyptus globulus, for example) can have very different properties and constituents and also very different safety considerations. If they're not taking the Latin names seriously, then the company isn't taking the difference in species seriously either.

- A company that cares about safety. This piggy-backs off my previous post. If it's not the heartbeat of their company and advertising, it's a more minor issue to me, but I still want a company that takes the power of their oils seriously and can be a good resource to me for using their oils appropriately and well. Additionally, a company that has great educational material (articles, blogs, Facebook pages/groups) is invaluable.

- A few miscellaneous bonuses: a company with free shipping, a company whose prices are not "too good to be true" but also are reasonable, a company who offers their oils in multiple sizes (5ml, 15ml, 30ml, for example). A company with great customer service. A company who supplies testing data sheets on request or on their website.

So which companies made the cut? Which would I recommend? (As an amateur, obviously. Please do your own research. I can always be wrong and as I use more oils from more companies, I will continue to refine my recommendations.)

My current top pick is Florihana. This is a French company that distills oils themselves. They own some farm land themselves, as well as utilizing some wild habitats for many wild-crafted oils. Most of their cultivated plants are certified organic.  They have a huge selection on their main site and you can order from them directly, if you don't mind paying exorbitant costs in shipping from France :-P. But for a better option, Tropical Traditions (a US-based company) also sells many of Florihana's oils, so you can order from them :-). To sweeten the deal, Tropical Traditions offers free shipping about once a month, so keep a look-out! One note is that Tropical Traditions, while offering a wide selection of Florihana's oils, does not offer their full line yet. They seem to be adding new oils at a steady rate, though, so this is encouraging.

A few things I love about Florihana: they post a lot of info on their site (and on Tropical Traditions, under each oil listing)! you can look at the chromatography sheets as well as a lot of other paperwork and info on the oils. They also label each bottle with a distill date and a suggested "use by" date. And let's be honest. . . I also think the tins that come with the bottles are super-cute. I have been very impressed with the full-bodied aromas of the Florihana oils I have. Very potent!

A good second option for me is Plant Therapy. Plant Therapy is an up-and-coming company in transition. They currently have 2 certified aromatherapists on staff, which is a plus. They had a "wake-up call" when they were tested for tea tree oil in third-party testing and failed the test. You can read the link and note that companies who failed responded a variety of ways, most simply ignoring or excusing the results. Plant Therapy responded by dumping an entire (expensive!) batch of their oil, sourcing from a new distiller, and asking the third-party testing group to retest them at Plant Therapy's expense. Well, that's pretty cool. But I wondered if that was a one-time response, so I've e-mailed back and forth with Plant Therapy with a number of questions and been very satisfied with their answers. Here are a few excerpts from those conversations, shared with permission. Here is Plant Therapy's owner Chris:
Those test results were a turning point for us. We have always been extremely concerned with product quality but we maybe trusted our suppliers a little too much. Shortly after that we hired one of the top essential oil experts in the world to be our direct consultant. We immediately flew him in to look over our operation and assess our oils. There were a few that we felt needed to be addressed. We have continually sourced new oils since then and have met with growers and visited distilleries. We now send all oils to France to be tested through an independent GC/MS facility. We have made great strides and continue to work with the consultant on a weekly basis. We have rejected many many batches of oils that didn't meet our new, even stricter, standards. This is going to be lifelong process of continually sourcing better and better oils. 
I also asked about the comparative low-cost of their oils compared with some other companies, below are answers:
To address your price concerns, that is easy. We don't have huge profit margins and we aren't an MLM company. So we don't have to pay multiple commissions from every oil sold. We work on selling a large volume of products and continually refine our efficiency process to be able to provide the best possible prices possible.
(Note: basic math comes into play also. When you browse Plant Therapy oils, notice that their "standard" size is 10 ml, unlike the 15 ml that most companies sell. So that is part of why their prices look so much less! I personally love the 10 ml size, as for a lot of oils, it is less likely to oxidize before I get through the bottle.)

I also asked about how their stock rotation worked, since they purchase oils in such large batches. Essential oils don't go rancid, but they do oxidize and degrade in therapeutic benefits, so I don't want to be purchasing old oils! Plant Therapy's aromatherapist Retha addressed this:
First, none of our oils are in our warehouse for more than 6 months, most batches last about 2 months. So even though we buy in bulk, we sell enough oils that we rotate through batches pretty quickly. The second thing that we do is add Nitrogen to the batches when they start to become low. This is absolutely necessary to make sure the oils do not start to oxidize and is something that I would hope most essential oil companies do to ensure the quality of their oils. 
Retha also clarified to me that although only a small selection of their oils are certified organic, they do test every oil for pesticide residues, and furthermore, many of their sources do grow organically, just not certified.

So all in all, I will definitely be purchasing more oils from Plant Therapy. I do give Florihana a preference, because they have been in "solid" business for longer and do have more wild-crafted and organic oils. But Plant Therapy is a company that really has a lot of potential and has great policies in place. I'm excited to see where they go, and have been impressed with the oils I've purchased so far. Finally, Retha recently told me that they are in the process of loading GC/MS test results for their oils batches on their website, so soon a purchaser can view the exact constituent levels for an oil. This is fabulous, and is one of the features I already really like about Florihana :-). I've also really enjoyed interacting with Retha and the other aromatherapist for Plant Therapy, on their FB group "Safe Essential Oil Recipes." Lots of great info on there.

There are other great companies out there, but these are the two I plan on purchasing most from, based on my list of qualities I was looking for in a company. Some others that I really only consider secondary due to higher prices (and or shipping costs) would be: Eden Botanicals (distinct from Eden's Garden), Aromatics International, Stillpoint Aromatics, Nature's Gift, and Wingsets. Feel free to Google them. Some of those have more specialty selections you might want to browse if you're looking for something a bit more unique or hard-to-find. They all are run by well-respected aromatherapists in the field, not up-starts.

To pre-empt the question I know I will get asked otherwise :-D. . . let me explain why Rocky Mountain Oils aka Native American Nutritionals is not in my "top 2 picks" for companies. It's not at the bottom, by any means. I've purchased a handful of oils from them and been impressed with quality. They just don't impress me quite as much as Florihana and Plant Therapy. Let me give some background and what I do like about them, as well as why they don't quite rate with the other two, in my book:

So a bit of background: Rocky Mountain Oils and Native American Nutritionals are two formerly-separate companies that merged a few years ago. Apparently they like confusing people by keeping both company names and websites ;-). But anyway, I have been impressed with the oils I have purchased form this company. I like that they source their oils from locations where the plant naturally grows. The owner is very knowledgeable, and has worked in the essential oil business for many years, starting working for a major company for a while before establishing his own business. His family background (and his) is in Native American medicine. This actually results in a lot of spiritual suggestions for the oils uses, which I find disturbing as a Christian (because of how it's suggested). That's a preference, and I realize a lot of people using their oils are using them strictly medicinally. I enjoyed listening to this podcast of the owner, to get a feel for his passion and his breadth and depth of knowledge in essential oils.

Overall, RMO/NAN seems to be a decent company with quality oils. The owner isn't an up-start, and knows his stuff. It doesn't have a frequent free shipping option (unlike Tropical Traditions/Florihana and Plant Therapy), so it does tend to be a bit more expensive for me to order, so I've tended to choose the other two. But more to the point of why I prefer the other two a little. RMO/NAN is a bit "looser" in usage suggestions then the aromatherapy world in general, though still much more reasonable than the big MLM's :-). It's not part of their marketing strategy or the "heartbeat" of their company, so not a major deal to me. I use their site Essential Health as a reference for oil usage, and while I cross-reference with other info, it still has some good ideas.

But in general, I find I have to be more careful with RMO's info. They use neat and internal usage in a more cavalier manner than the international aromatherapy world in general because "it works." And they are a bit sloppy in some of their labeling. Niaouli is labeled "Melaleuca," for example. Melaleuca quinquinervera is commonly known as niaouli, and melaleuca alternifolia is commonly known as tea tree oil. So technically niaouli IS a form of melaleuca, by latin name. But as standard terminology, if an oil is referred to as melaleuca, it is referring to tea tree oil (more common than niaouli), NOT niaouli. It means their labels have to be read more carefully, and it could easily mis-lead someone to purchase the wrong product by mistake. (I know of at least one person who did so.) So that's just a word of caution :-). When asked to change that labeling to be less confusing, they wouldn't agree, which is too bad and doesn't reflect well on them, in my opinion. Also, they refuse to divulge the % dilutions they use for their "pre-diluted" options, which to me doesn't encourage customers to have all the info they need to use the proper amount of product, especially for children.

So anyway, that's a ridiculously-long look at some of my favorite oil companies. Bottomline: Florihana and Plant Therapy are both great options! Look for Tropical Traditions free shipping deals (approximately monthly) to snag Florihana, or take advantage of Plant Therapy's all-the-time free shipping for the lower 48. Nice!

So what essential oil companies do you purchase from? Why? What companies do you refuse to patronize? Which have you heard of and hope to try?