Saturday, December 29, 2007

"And there were in the same country shepherds..."

"keeping watch over their flocks by night."

I snapped a few more traditional pictures at our church's Christmas pageant, but this casual snap might have been one of my favorites. The "flock" this year consisted of two sheep: my precious daughter (don't you love the ears?) and her soft, woolly stuffed sheep. This was actually taken during morning rehearsal, before the congregation had fully arrived. I love how sheep and shepherd are just sitting next to each other, enjoying everything!

Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year's Lists

I've got a plethora of new year's grading and writing deadlines, so these few days of supposed "down time" are actually some of the busiest I've had in a while! In the midst of all that, however, I'm contemplating some new year's lists.

I'm not a big new year's resolver. I don't make huge resolutions or very detailed ones. I do sometimes find this is a good time, however, to look again at my priorities and how I spend my time, and to try to set some goals and get a bit more organized. This year I seem to be in a bit of a list-making frenzy.

Here are some of the lists I'm currently making (mentally and/or soon-to-be on paper). Some of them, as you can see, lend themselves to larger organizational other words, the lists aren't just an end unto themselves!

Short-term lists:

*** My year-end list of books I've read or am in the process of reading. I usually compile that list based on my notes here and on the reviews I've written for epinions. Last year in early January I posted a list of my favorites (in various, self-appointed categories) for the year, and I hope to do that again this year. Usually that list helps me think about what kinds of reading I hope to accomplish in the new year.

*** Spring term kindergarten list. I need time to sit down and plan out (at least in broad sweeps) the next few months of school time for the sweet girl. I have a general idea of where I'm going and what books and other resources we'll be using, but I need some more time to pull all that together.

Short-to-medium-term lists:

*** First Grade book list. Lord willing, we'll be able to continue our homeschool journey in the fall (we are trusting God to continue to provide a way!). I'm already working on my book list for the coming year and thinking about ways I can find and utilize different resources (purchases, libraries, loans, downloads) in order to keep costs down. I love making this list because it excites me no end to think of the wonderful things the sweet girl and I will be studying and exploring together.

Please pray that I will not get bogged down in worries about how our continued commitment to homeschooling is actually going to happen. God continues to provide me work from home as we need it, often right when we need it, and it's no good fretting in advance even when I feel clueless about how he's going to do it the next time around. We're manna-gatherers for sure! Pray also that I can find ways to save toward some of the book and curriculum purchases we do need to make. I've been hanging onto my epi-earnings (helped immeasurably by their generous end-of-year bonus) in the hopes that I can use them for that this year, and not have to spend them on creditors, car or health insurance.

*** Money-saving ideas. With the preceding paragraph in mind, you're no doubt not surprised to see this here. Our debt burden and increasing out-of-pocket health care costs, combined with our less than lucrative (at least monetarily...we are so rich in every other way that counts!) vocational choices means that we have to get really creative this year about tightening our belts even further. I have been trying to come up with a list of ideas to save us money each week and month, in the hopes we can begin to chip more at debt and be freed up to give more as we're called. If you've got good, creative tips or web resources on saving money, generating needed income, or budgeting, pass em' on!

*** Address list. This sounds silly...after all, we live in the information age and I'm supposed to have this kind of data all handy somewhere, right? But we don't. My mad scramble to find email and/or postal addresses for a number of people this Christmas made me realize just how unorganized our personal address list is. A lot of that is due to the fact that the last time we did a full-scale organized list, it was on a computer that now sits almost unused in our bedroom (an old computer that has no way of "talking to" this computer). This is the year for me to get old stuff OFF that computer and to re-organize a contact list for what we like to call our "life community" -- people we've known and loved during so many different seasons and places.

Medium-long-term lists:

*** Genealogical information. This one is related to the above. About a decade ago, D. and I did a lot of research into our families' histories, some of which bore great fruit. We organized some of the info. in hard copies (charts, pictures, etc.) and those boxes are sitting in our closet, awaiting further organization. Some of the data made it onto a budget software program on our old computer, once again, "non-transferrable." Eventually we'd like to get a better program, but in the meantime, I'd be satisfied with just getting the information we have into accessible and easy to find formats in binders and plastic folders.

*** My writing files. Ah, the never ending project. I haven't organized my writing files in so long it's embarrassing. It's also embarrassing how often I can't find a story, poem or other piece I've written, or a project I started and would like to re-visit and work on again. This really needs to happen. One reason I realized that anew is because D. and I worked on a series of narrative monologue and poems several years ago, which were presented (in rough form) as an advent program at the seminary. Seven years later, this advent, we got to thinking about them again and began talking about ways we could revise them, add to them, and perhaps even think about submitting them somewhere for publication...only to discover we can't find the file anywhere. Still looking! I hope to really dive into some writing projects this year, both old and new, so this organizational goal feels important.

*** Birthday and Christmas scrapbooks for the sweet girl. I keep promising myself these will get done. I really want to work on them this year!

Well, I'm sure there are more lists I could think of...and have thought of...but these are the ones coming to mind for now.

How about you? Do you make lists and plan organizational projects for the new year?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!

Checking in briefly from my mother-in-law's laptop on this Christmas morning. We're traveling for Christmas, per usual the past several years.

The sweet girl has been so excited about Christmas. Last night, on the way to the Christmas Eve service at her great aunt's church, she suddenly shouted from the back seat, "Almost, almost, ALMOST!" "Almost what?" we asked. "ALMOST CHRISTMAS!" And she's thrilled that the day is here at last.

Our other favorite moment last night was during the lengthy but beautiful Christmas Eve service. Cindy's church is Methodist, which meant most of the service looked familiar to our little Anglican family, though there were some slight differences in liturgy. (Remember the Wesleys were Anglican!) At some point, the minister said something about turning to a certain page in the liturgy and beginning the great thanksgiving. At which point, the sweet girl, squirming a bit in the pew, looked over her shoulder at her Daddy and me and said in a loud stage whisper, "but it's not THANKSGIVING!"

Merry Christmas to all! Blessings as we celebrate our Savior's birth!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life...With Bunnies

D. and I fulfilled our favorite movie-watching obligation during the Advent/Christmas seasons the other evening...we watched It's A Wonderful Life.

I guess we're really not under any obligation to watch it, but we always want to, and it doesn't feel like Christmas if we don't. We have several favorite movies we like to see this time of year, but Frank Capra's classic is the best. There's nothing more fun than quoting our favorite lines, laughing over the funny parts, and tearing up (yes, I still do) over the most poignant scenes.

After we watched it, we went to the computer to look it up on IMDB. When I googled on the title, it came up with a website I hadn't thought of in a couple of years. That was when we first saw this terrifically funny piece of animation. It's A Wonderful Life...Re-Enacted in 30 seconds...With Bunnies.

If you're a fan of this movie, this little bit of animation is a must-see. It's a parody, yes, but so well done...obviously made by someone who knows and loves the movie inside out. Plus it's just so wonderful seeing all your favorite characters from the film in bunny form. It's even in black and white!

Friday, December 14, 2007

New Every Morning

"One of the great blessings of growing older (that is, growing older as a Christian) is a developing awareness of God's continuing mercy, a sweet apprehension that his great mercy is tireless." ~ Scott Cairns, God With Us

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tonight's Bedtime Prayers

Bedtime prayers this evening featured a very tired Daddy, a not-much-behind-him-in- exhaustion Mommy, and a fresh from the bath and somewhat giggly little girl.

So not much different than most nights.

D. was saying the bedtime prayer right before it was time to tuck the sweet girl in for the night. As always, he prayed that God would bless her sleep and help her to wake up refreshed in the morning. Amen.

It was after the Amen that her stern and somewhat strident little voice piped up. "I'm not Sarah. I'm Piglet. Why did you say Sarah in the prayer?" And before tired Daddy could respond, she added, "God knows I'm pretending to be Piglet. God knows everything."

There is deep food for theological reflection here, I'm sure. But for now I'll just say Amen again!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Maybe That Tree Is on an Island...

"You can't really rock around the Christmas tree," the sweet girl said tonight. Then added thoughtfully, "Maybe it's a boat thing. You know, you can rock in a boat."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Book Give Away Just in Time For Christmas

Edited to add: The drawing was held earlier today (th 13th). I didn't win, but congratulations to the lady who did!

There's a lovely book give away in progress over at the lovely blog "A Readable Feast." Click here if you're interested in learning more and actually submitting your name for a chance to win. The books would all make wonderful gifts for little ones in your life!

Do You Miss Christmas Cards?

I really do miss sending and receiving Christmas cards. Do you find that you're receiving fewer of them than in the past? We certainly do.

This isn't really meant as a complaint. In fact, I understand some of the reasons behind the drop (or at least I think I do). We used to send out a big pile of cards every Christmas ourselves, along with our annual letter and my annual advent poem. In recent years, we've dropped back to just the letter and poem and usually send that via email in order to save postage. We still send a few cards to a handful of friends who don't have email. But with stamps at 41 cents, if we really wanted to send out cards to everyone we'd love to be in touch with (including far-flung friends we're not in touch with much at other times of year) we'd probably be spending at least $50 just in stamps, and that's not possible for us right now.

I also think that many people in our generation (and the younger generations) just don't seem to get into sending cards. Maybe they feel it's too old-fashioned, or takes too long. Believe me, I love hearing from friends via many different mediums, including electronic ones, but I miss the old-fashioned, time-consuming and time-honored exchange of actual Christmas cards. (I confess I miss old-fashioned letters too!)

This year I haven't even bothered getting out the lovely Christmas tray where I usually keep the stack of cards. A stack hasn't materialized. I still can't quite help myself, feeling the slight tingle of expectation when I go to the mailbox, but most days there's nothing there but bills and flyers from stores trying to get us to rack up more bills. Yuk.

So I'm not really dreaming of a white Christmas this year so much as I'm dreaming of a creamy envelope with a bit of gold foil on the flap. A colorful stamp. A card that when you pull it out, you catch your breath because it reminds you, for an aching moment, of the majesty of the season and all the real reasons we celebrate it. Signed by someone you love, but maybe haven't seen in a while, who took the time to send the card to you just because this time of year we do that kind of thing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

And on that Christmas Tree, A Shining...Easter Egg

We decorated our tree this weekend. Or rather, our trees.

A few years ago we started a tradition of decorating a small tree in the sweet girl's room. It's very small -- an old prop Dana had from a Christmas skit he did years ago. It's maybe a foot and a half tall, and we put it on her dresser each year with a few little ornaments.

We happened to get it out of the closet a couple of days ago, before we had opened up any of the boxes of ornaments. We weren't decorating the bigger tree until yesterday, but S. was so excited she just couldn't wait. "Can I go ahead and decorate the little tree?" she asked, and I laughed and said "sure," curious to know what she might do.

It was quite extraordinary really. She found a pale pink hair ribbon and draped it artistically over a few of the branches.

Then she arranged the soft cloth dolls and creatures from her little fabric creche (one she's had since her first Christmas). There's Mary sitting jauntily on a branch like a bright bird, and Joseph, gray of hair (in this particular version) peering from the branches like a squirrel. The camel's perched precariously near the top.

And on the very top, instead of a star, she placed half of a bright yellow plastic easter egg.

That last really struck me when I looked at the tree. What a perfect, crowning touch really. The incarnation is like the roots and branches of our faith. Without it, without God taking on human flesh, the rest of the gospel couldn't have happened. His death and resurrection are all of a piece with his coming as a small baby to take on our human nature, to assume that flesh that he would redeem.

She finished decorating her little tree yesterday, after the regular boxes of ornaments were opened. It's beautiful, and the easter egg still crowns the whole. I can't get those first, simple decorations, in all their wonderful childlike originality, out of my mind. Food for my heart this season.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hairdryers We Have Heard On High

I was thinking back the other day to this season in our lives three years ago.

Not many people know this, but the year the sweet girl was two was an incredibly hard year for us. In early summer, D. and I had essentially been forced out of our jobs, work we liked and work we thought we were doing well. We thought God was calling us to relocate and spent a ton of time, energy and money traveling so D. could interview for various jobs. Doors kept closing on us, including some that initially looked very promising.

By Christmas, we were beginning to run out of resources, both inwardly and outwardly. We spent that whole year basically unemployed (except for a few temporary assignments we could get once in a while) and running on fumes. We had received an inheritance from D's grandparents, money we had hoped could pay down some debt and perhaps even provide a down payment on a house...something we've never been able to do. Instead, we were forced to live on it, grateful beyond words that we had it, but frustrated too to see it going toward daily expenses when we'd hoped to put it toward the future.

In the middle of all these things (and more) that swirled around us, our little girl was not talking. Not at all. When we thought back, we realized we had not heard her little voice in a long time. I won't go into details here, but we had a long and difficult stretch of time when we thought we might be facing a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Besides the loss of language (she had been speaking a few words for a while, then stopped completely) there were a few other "quirky" things going on in behavior that made the developmentalists wonder aloud.

I know, all children have "quirks." And all grown-ups too. I certainly had (and have) my share. But when you're trying to keep anxiety and concern at bay, some of those quirks can look hugely significant, perhaps disproportionately so. One that always concerned me, perhaps more than it should have, was the sweet girl's high sensitivity to loud, mechanized noises. The vacuum. The blender. The juicer. My hair dryer. Hand dryers in public restrooms (which could send her into such a frenzy that I dreaded ever having to take her into one). During her first three years, I essentially had to give up using any loud appliances when she was in the house. Well-meaning friends sometimes encouraged us to just keep doing those things and she'd get used to it. Or to take her along on my hip while I vacuumed, for instance. What I couldn't always explain was the gut-wrenching quality of her reactions. It was such a visceral reaction -- she would quite often literally shake in fear, and no amount of calming or soothing or shutting of doors (in our one floor apartment, hard to conceal sounds) seemed to help.

In the past two years, she's made huge strides in this as well as everything else. Once she could use words to express her feelings, she could talk about how much she didn't like the noise. Step by step, that led us to be able to help her to do other things about her own response. Now, for instance, when I use the blender to make her favorite blueberry smoothies, I just give her fair warning that I'm about to start, and she heads to her bedroom and closes the door.

I knew we'd come far when, several months ago, I suggested that she let me dry her hair...and she let me. Mind you, only on the lowest setting. And this was a special, relatively "quiet" hairdryer that my dear sister had bought for me when the sweet girl was a baby, hoping I might be able to use it. Drying her hair on bath nights quickly became an enjoyable and relaxing time we'd spend together, though for the first several weeks, she always prefaced the moment with a long string of "remember, Mommy, don't turn it on high, I don't LIKE it on high, it's too loud, please keep it on low."

Until last week. When she suddenly said, oh so casually, "Maybe next time you can dry my hair, you can put it on high. Just so I can feel it. Not this time. But next time."

"Okay," I said calmly, inwardly turning cartwheels of joy. It's such a little thing really, but it's not. It feels big for her. For all of us.

So when it came time to get the hairdryer out the next time, just the other evening, I tried to match her casual tone. "Remember you said you might want me to turn it on high the next time? Would you like me to?"

She hesitated, and then she said yes.

So I slowly moved that button down to the high position. The pitch, the volume, the hot air, all zoomed to loud life right behind her. Startled, she jumped, and for a second I braced myself for quick shouts to turn it off. But they didn't come.

She relaxed. She relaxed into the warmth. "Mmm! Mommy, it feels GOOD! It feels good on high! I like it!"

Like I said, I know it seems small. But sometimes small victories can also feel hugely significant, maybe disproportionately. Or maybe not. Right now, I am just rejoicing in this little step my sweet girl has taken, knowing there will be so many more.

I'm also wondering how many times I am rigid and frozen in my own fears and insecurities, while a loving God sits behind me (and before me and round about me) ready to move the button to a higher, louder, more passionate setting, knowing I am ready for it long before I know that about myself. Like my little girl, I hope I will have the courage to relax into whatever he has in store for me.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

My Thankful Post

I promised my own thankful post would be forthcoming. So before we get too far into the advent season, I thought I'd reflect (as I did last year) on our thanksgiving trip and all the blessings we encountered during it.

First was simply the blessing of being able to go. Given how little we have been able to travel in recent years, that was no small thing. Being able to afford the trip and to get the time off from various jobs (D's heavy workload in two places makes this especially tricky) was a blessing all by itself. Because we work part-time and via self-employment, we've had no "paid vacation" in years. Any days off, we really feel like we have to earn, usually by finessing schedules and working more hours before and after to be able to do it. Everything coming together the way it did was a gift.

We left later than we intended on the day we headed down to Virginia. I'm thankful we were able to simply relax about that and not "stress" that we couldn't get there faster. In fact, we relaxed a bit more than usual, stopping several times...once at our favorite rest stop (where there are lots of trees and hills and a place for the sweet girl to run around). It was heading toward twilight by the time we got there, and I got a lovely shot of the moon right on the cusp of evening, looking so beautiful with the darkening sky and the bare almost-winter branches next to it.

Our time in Virginia was precious. I missed all of my siblings something fierce this year, but it was also wonderful for the sweet girl to get so much grandparent time. At my parents' (where we spent thanksgiving day - Saturday morning) she had a lot of fun making pumpkin bread with Grandma Eva. Watching them measure the spices and stir up the batter was a delight and brought back some wonderful kitchen memories with my Mom. And speaking of the kitchen, my parents have been re-doing their kitchen, completely on their own. I wanted to post a photo, but for some reason blogger is not allowing me a second one in this post. Hmm.

Anyway, the leaves in Richmond were beautiful, colorful and around their peak. My Dad apologized because a strong wind the day before had brought down scads of yellow maple leaves all over the yard, but we loved it. I especially loved it because those are "my maples" -- the trees I spent hours of my childhood climbing.

Thanksgiving dinner was delicious, with Mom out-doing herself as usual. She was scandalized by my Dad's suggestion that since there were so few of us this year (just the five of us) that she not make sweet potatoes, since mashed potatoes would suffice. I'm relieved she didn't give into the one-potato pressure. :-) I love Mom's sweet potato casserole made with pineapple!

The sweet girl ate fairly well at thanksgiving dinner. When it was all over, we asked her what her favorite food had been. "The pickles," she said promptly. A girl after my own heart.

Time at Grandma Ona's from Saturday-Monday morning was also good. We had planned to spend as much as Sunday as we could, following church, in Washington D.C., so that necessitated our finding a slightly earlier church service. We visited the Falls Church for the first time ever and were blessed to hear Bishop Martyn Minns preach and celebrate. It's a huge building (and we were in only one of their sancutaries, the "main" one, not the "historic" one) and we arrived about four minutes late. The friendly ushers put us on the second row which had me in a slight tizzy for the first half hour, as I waited for the sweet girl to squirm, fuss or otherwise disobey in front of this large and strange congregation. I knew she wasn't feeling entirely comfortable (nor was I) given how much larger and "grander" looking the place was than our tiny basement sanctuary. But I think the beauty of the place and the majesty of the organ overwhelmed her into almost-silence. It was also her first time using a kneeler to pray during a church service, and I was amazed at how quickly she caught on (with no coaching from either of us). When we got back from the communion rail, she actually dropped to her knees again without any prompting (and most people in the congregation weren't even doing that). I felt very tender watching that little curved back and bowed head.

We had perfect fall weather, crisp, clear and colorful, for our day-long trek into D.C. It was S' first trip on the Metro and she loved it, holding her doll Jane up to the window so she could look out. D's Aunt Cindy came with us and was a trooper to traipse all over creation and back (well okay, just to the Lincoln Monument and back, but it was a LOT of walking). Besides the Lincoln, we spent time at the WWII Memorial (a first for us, and very meaningful since Cindy's Dad/Dana's Granddad fought with Patton). We also got time at the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery.

We love the National Gallery. Once upon a time, when we lived closer to D.C. and visited it more often, we knew it well. We were slightly disoriented this time both because it had been so long since we'd been there, and because they are undergoing some major renovations and had moved part of the collection. Thankfully, we found D's favorite Thomas Cole paintings! I loved watching him hold S. right up to each one and talk to her about the pictures as they progressed through all four. And I loved the way his face lit up when her own little face, piqued with interest, lit up too, and she asked "Can we go back and look at the first one?"

S. loved spending time with Grandma Ona, of course. The two of them did a little dancing and a lot of chatting and hugging. I think S. is already counting the days till Christmas when we hope, Lord willing, to be going back.

This feels like a whirlwind version, but at least it gives you a glimpse of all we had to be thankful for. Safe travels, beautiful weather, loving times with parents/grandparents. Another thanksgiving I will treasure long in my memory!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Reminder to Self: Next Year Get the Advent Candles Early

This morning the sweet girl trotted into the kitchen first thing. She changed the magnets on the refrigerator to reflect today's date. And then she added "A 2." "Look at what I did, Mommy! A is for Advent, and 2 means it's the second day." Amen. Happy A 2!


As if one needed any more proof that mainstream culture orders its time and its look differently than the church, here's my two cents on the second day of advent: it's really, really hard to find candles in the correct liturgical colors in regular stores this time of year.

In 2006 I was smart. I bought blue and pink candles on sale at a drugstore in the spring. Just as a side note, we sometimes use medium blue candles rather than purple ones, although purple is the more traditional color for Advent candles. I think that's because our first Episcopal parish, a number of years ago, had switched for a while to the more "modern" liturgical blue. But I digress...

I bought one box of blue and one box of pink last year. And we used some, not all of them. This past weekend I was proud that I was able to find the partially used boxes in the closet. Great! We were all set! Or so I thought.

We still had plenty of pink left (since typically you only place one pink or rose colored candle on the wreath, along with three purple or blue ones) but we only had two blue left. No problem, I thought. We'll just pick up more blue candles, and if we can't find one that matches closely, we'll pick up a set of purple.

But apparently stores don't like to stock those colors this time of year. We had to go to Wal-Mart yesterday (we don't usually shop on a Sunday evening, but D. had been out of town on a youth retreat all weekend, and I'd been sick with a virus). The sweet girl was very excited because we were going to find the rest of the advent candles we needed. Or so we thought.

This was one of those ridiculously large Wal-Marts (is there any other kind?). As in huge. As in they had an entire aisle devoted to nothing but candles. But all of them, I kid you not, were autumnal colors. Browns, creams, oranges, reds, in every imaginable shape and size. "This can't be all the candles they have," I declared, and found a sales associate to ask.

Turns out I was right. They had a whole other aisle full of candles. This was in one of the "Christmas aisles." Confident that somewhere along the line we'd stumble into various colored candles, or perhaps even find a box marked "advent candles" specifically, we sallied forth. I stood for a while facing the shelves, unwilling to believe it. White candles, a few green, a few red. Silver taper candles. Very pretty, those. But not a single candle that looked remotely close to an advent color.

The colors of the advent candles are supposed to remind us...of the solemnity of the season (purple is a penitential color, also a royal one) and the joy and brightness of the season (the rose or pink colored one). Why can't we find those colors in our regular stores and not just small church supply shops and bookstores? Who dictates the color schemes of the seasons, I wonder, or decides what the season is "all about"?

Well, enough whining. We came home candle-less. We gathered around our beautiful wreath, still the one D. and I made together early n in our marriage, and we carefully placed two blue and two pink candles. Not liturgically correct, no, and my sense of stubbornness will probably ensure I keep looking for a while. But at least we were close, and we had a wonderful devotional time of prayer and music together.

Next year, I will go shopping for advent candles in the spring again.