Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We Await, We Believe

My daughter Livie has been carrying around a plastic nativity set in a Santa Claus gift bag. On it is printed, "BELIEVE." The irony is not lost on me, I assure you. Livie's theology is a little confused at three -- which does not trouble me. She acts out complicated action sequences with the nativity pieces, and one of the wise men is always the Bad Guy. Meanwhile, she is a firm believer in Santa. She has been to visit him twice, and written him two letters (the only part of the alphabet she can write is the O and the l, making her missives look they they are printed in binary code).

Liv is the only Santa believer left in our household. At age four, Sophia asked me from the back seat -- our car always being the place where these Socratic exchanges take place -- "Mom, is Santa Claus real?"

"I think it's fun to believe in Santa Claus," was my premeditated, honest and judicious reply. "Don't you?"

"Not if it isn't real," she said. "Why would I want to believe in something that isn't real?"

Why indeed.

We have a lot of Santa Clauses in our house: on tins, ornaments, etc, and under many of them is written the word "Believe." I notice that most of the Christmas movies we own center around the concept of belief, too. Those who find good fortune and joy in the movies are the ones that choose belief over disbelief. The difference between believing in Santa Clause in the movies, though, and believing in real life, is that in the movies, Santa always turns out to really exist. He literally has a house at the north pole filled with elves. I -- SPOILER ALERT -- however, know that he doesn't exist because I know I'm the one who stuffs our stockings, and my mom has admitted that she stuffed mine.

(I was processing this blog on the phone with a fellow mommy friend today, and at this point she interrupted me to say that perhaps Santa does exist and I am just naughty, so he doesn't come to my house. She was sitting in a blanket fort at the time, with her toddler son demanding that she fetch him a spatula for some reason. So I'm not sure she was really focused on what I was saying. )

But seriously, when I hang an ornament with Santa, or I play along with the Santa myth as I dearly love to do, I am not believing. I am make believing, pretending. And this is in stark contrast to my actual faith, my actual belief in Jesus, the reason I celebrate Christmas. Finding out that a literal man in a red suit did not really exist did not in any way harm my ability to believe in a God that I cannot see.

This is the good news of Christmas to me, that the leap I am taking to believe in that which I cannot see is still paying off. Just like the characters in the movies, I'm finding joy and goodness on this path. I find more every time I leap. The harder, the further, and the more unlikely the leap, the more joy. Like when I heard (not audibly, but close) God calling me to quit my job and stay home with my daughter despite the fact that on paper, it would not work out financially. I gave my notice, and a week later to the day, my husband got a raise that made up for my entire salary. There are many such material blessings that have come after a leap. But even more often have I experienced ethereal ones: the peace, the comfort and the sense of safety I always have after obeying God, even when obeying looks extremely dangerous.

And so far, there has been nothing that has happened to disprove God to me: no blessing I've attributed to him that I discovered another, more practical source for. Nor has a hardship finally shaken His ability to get through to and comfort me. It's not conclusive proof, I know. And I know I have readers who are not believers in the sense that I am. But I'd just like to go on record that I believe Jesus birth, death and resurrection to be literally true, and I believe his guidelines for humanity are outlined in the Bible. I continue to test them -- sometimes with more than a shadow of doubt in my heart -- and they continue to seem true to me. I believe he is a present help in time of need, as it says in the Psalms.

Sophia's question is an interesting one. Why believe in something that isn't real? I wouldn't chose to believe in something that I didn't really think was real either. Sophia actually asked me today, "Mom, if Christianity turns out to be wrong, is everybody going to laugh at us?" Well, yes, dear they are. But unlike John Lennon and my 7th grade English teacher who made us study and extract meaning from the song "Imagine," I don't believe a world in which people don't believe in heaven would be a better world. If I turn out to be wrong when I die -- what a shock that will be! -- I think my life will still have been better lived by taking these leaps of faith.

While pondering these things as I drove around in the rain today, I was listening to a CD my sister in law just gave me, Light of the Stable, by Emmylou Harris. Track 8 stopped me in my tracks. I actually listened to it about 10 times, because I had never heard it before and it seemed to perfectly distill all that I believe is joyful about the promise of Christmas: that God provides us with light, and comfort, and promises to make joy and goodness bloom in places that seem like deserts in our lives. Things I have experienced over and over again. A paraphrase of several different scriptures, I thought these lyrics were truly beautiful. Here are the words.

There's a light, there's a light in the darkness
And the black of the night cannot harm us
We can trust not to fear for our comfort is near
There's a light, there's a light in the darkness

It will rain, it will rain in the desert
In the cracks of the plain there's a treasure
Like the thirst of the seed, we await, we believe
It will rain, it will rain in the desert

We will fly, we will fly, we will let go
To this world we will die but our hearts know
We'll see more on that side when the door opens wide
We will fly, we will fly, we will fly, we will fly

I await. I believe. Not make believe. Believe. Hope you do too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Art of Flaking

I really like books written for women. I like attending events where women are speaking. I've been in MOPS, hearing speakers each Friday talk about women's issues, for seven years. I'm a junkie for woman-to-woman wisdom. (My mom would probably be shocked by this -- she thinks she can't tell me anything. Don't worry, Mom, my girls will pay me back.)

Some of the pearls passed down to me more than once have been about the art of saying "no." Women over commit themselves -- most of us anyway -- and for all kinds of different reasons. We fear being still. We want to feel productive. We don't want to disappoint anyone. We want to be all things to all people. And if we don't learn to say "no," these various wise women tell me, we will experience fatigue, burn-out, stress, sleeplessness, and miss our own lives and our children's childhoods.

The problem is, the idea that I need to say "no" more often doesn't appeal to me very much. I've decided that I would rather say, "I'm going to have to change my answer."

Let me explain.

This summer we had made plans for a barbecue with our siblings. A couple of hours beforehand, my brother called me and said he wasn't going to be able to make it. Some things unforeseen had happened over the weekend, and showing up for Sunday night bonfire was going to push his family over the edge. He was feeling guilty about it, but I said, wholeheartedly, "If you can't flake on your sister, who can you flake on?"

My own wisdom caught me off guard. The fact was, it wasn't poor planning or over scheduling that made my brother's family unable to show up. It was just life -- the unexpected minor crisis that make you unfit to be pleasant in a social situation. I respected the fact that he wasn't going to push himself, and felt honored that he trusted me enough to know he wouldn't be in the dog house for not showing up.

I like to say "yes" to new experiences. I like to say "yes" to social gatherings, and to coffee or dinner with friends. I like to say "yes" to my daughter's school and my church. I like to say "yes", I will bring something homemade to the potluck. I will babysit your child for you. I will pick up your kid from school or walk your dog.

But recently, I've found that that after I've already said yes to something, it's not the end of the world to say, "You know what, actually, I'm going to have to change my answer. Actually, I can't after all." When my babysitter cancels on the day when I'm supposed to help in my first grader's class, it's okay to call and cancel rather than scramble to find a new and more expensive sitter. When I've had a really long week and am coming down with a cold, it's okay to tell my best friend that we have to put off going out to dinner. If I get busier than I expect or my kids are having meltdowns on the day of the potluck, it's okay to bring something I bought at Trader Joe's. If too many important things have come up on the day of my daughter's well check, I can cancel the appointment; the receptionist will fill it up, and won't remember my name by the end of the day!

I can't tell you the freedom I feel having decided it's okay to back out of these small commitments. It's an absolutely, fantastically lightening sensation. If I'm truly close to someone, I ought to be able to tell them the truth when I've gotten overwhelmed. And if I'm not close to them, it probably isn't going to matter that much in the long run.

I'm not saying I'm going to become a Chronic Flake; I don't want to be friends with Chronic Flakes either. There are guidelines. Birthdays of Best Friends and First Birthdays of Best Friend's Children are non flake-out commitments. So are weddings, or any other kind of formal dinner parties where your name has already been printed on a place card. Baby showers of Best Friends, and graduations of any family from first cousin and closer must be attended after a positive RSVP. Also, offers to babysit on Best Friend's Wedding Anniversaries cannot be rescinded except in the case of contagious illness or bodily injury. Canceling plans for dinner or play date three times in a row might also earn you Chronic Flake status.

So I guess what I'm saying is not that I reject the Wisdom of Saying No. This Christmas I've used the line from one of our speakers, "I'd love to, and I can't" at least half a dozen times. But what I believe is that Saying No isn't enough. If I have to follow through on absolutely everything I say yes to or want to try out, I'd be afraid to do anything new. I have a relative who was terribly concerned that letting his daughter drop out of martial arts, which she truly hated, would teach her to be a quitter. But what I say is, if we can't quit things that we truly hate -- especially if they are to be recreational -- how in the world are our lives going to be tolerable? And how are we going to get our kids to say yes to things if they're not ever allowed to change their minds.

I've inspired myself while writing this. There are one or two things, both long-term and short term commitments, that I need to call audibles on. I've looked at the field from the line of scrimmage, and the original plan is not going to fly. The martial arts class is not shaping up to be what I was expecting, so to speak. I feel lighter just thinking about it. And you, my friend, if you need to say, "I'm going to have to change my answer" to me, please know you have the freedom to do so.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Stuff Dilemma

Part of the reason Target at Christmastime overwhelms me so much is because I've developed a new relationship to Stuff in the last year. I've become aware that the bulk of my time in my cozy little house is spent cleaning, redistributing and organizing stuff. We have four creatively inclined people between these walls, and so we have a lot of Supplies, from power tools, to Play-Doh accessories, to fabric and thread. We also have two American children with generous extended family, so therefor, we also have Toys. Jeff and I are vintage junkies, so we also have Collectibles. We all wear clothes and eat off dishes. Being aware of how much time and space Stuff Management takes makes me want to have less of it.

Over the past year, I've developed a peculiar attitude toward just about every object that passes through my home which makes the goal of having less more complicated. It used to be that when we weren't using something anymore -- an outgrown piece of clothing, a toy, a book I've read but won't again -- I would simply give it to one of our nieces, donate it to our church, or leave it on the porch for a local women's shelter that collects items for their thrift store.

But since last Christmas, Hubby and I have discovered that almost anything we have and don't want or need anymore can be sold on Craig's List or e-bay. This is lovely news for our budget, and it's thrilling to help make ends meet in this relatively easy way. The down side is that it makes every decision about what to do with our used things much more complicated. I also know that our church, which runs a resource center where local needy families can come and be given or purchase for a low price anything they need, actually has more stuff than they can find homes for -- random collectibles and household items that aren't meeting a need among our community's working poor.

Knowing this, I want to give where it will really help someone, and otherwise I want to sell it and help my family. Our church is very big on teaching the Biblical concept of stewardship: the idea that our blessings are not only for us to enjoy, but to manage well and use to bless others. So throwing things away is almost never an option. I don't like tossing something useful for both spiritual and environmental reasons. (Those of you who read me regularly know we actually rescue things from our trash enclosure and sell them, too.)

I'm beginning to think I've perhaps become a little obsessed with the Stuff Redistribution Dilemma, however. It's not uncommon for an item to sit at the top of my stairs (our house's version of Purgatory) for a week or more until I figure out what to do with it. Would my niece want this lavender terry cloth robe, or is there some little cold child that needs it? Would anyone buy my 1970s Crock Pot, or does that get donated as well -- or is it a fire risk? Is it possible to sell this hiking backpack that Hubby picked up for free at a garage sale (answer is probably yes on this one)? Should I donate this book I thought was kind of depressing, or would it just depress someone else?

So, you can see why Target's shelves upon shelves of home accessories, particularly of the seasonal variety, cause me so much angst. Knowing so much of it will end up in landfills or someone's stairwell purgatory distresses me. Worst of all, it could end up in a garage sale, and odds are, back in my house!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off Target

The highlight of my 2010 was the four-day camping trip to Big Sur I took with my husband and daughters. For those few days I felt rooted to myself in a way I don't normally feel. Even though I was still cooking, mothering and cleaning, being in that beautiful place among the redwoods made it easier to just be rather than do. It wasn't just being on vacation: it was being outside. It was walking instead of driving. It was not being anywhere near any kind of retail establishment. It was being surrounded by nature with my feet on the ground.

When we came home, we arrived into a flurry of suburban business: my daughter started school, the pantry needed stocking and our camping supplies needed replenishing before they went back up into the attic. Within two days, I found myself shopping in Target three different times, in three different Targets.

On the third visit, I had an existential experience in the main aisle. I suddenly had no idea which Target I was in. I felt like a disembodied head, a lost soul. I could have been in any Target in America. The sensation was startling in contrast to the sense of being rooted I'd had just 48 hours earlier on the bank of the Big Sur river.

Within 10 miles of my house, there are five Targets. It used to be that each one was slightly different: one had a pharmacy, another a larger grocery section. In the last two years, each one has remodeled. Now they are all the same, at least in the sense that they all have the same services, and the shelf heights have all been modified for reasons known only to someone in corporate development. But the layouts are just different enough to completely disorient me. As soon as I get inside I forget where I am. It's like being in a Vegas casino, a labyrinth made up of shiny, desirable objects that distracts me and makes me forget where the exit is.

As a stay-at-home mom, a part of me loves Target. Everything I need under one roof, for cheap. But invariably, I go in, and I leave with something I didn't plan on buying, and without something I really, really needed: like batteries for the smoke detector, or milk, or granola bars. This is partly my own fault. But it is also because of the labyrinthine layout, and illogical distribution of goods that makes me traverse the whole store to get five related items.

For example, if I go in for groceries, I can get juice, bread and Diet Coke in Marketplace, but if I want Cliff Bars, I have to find them somewhere in Health and Beauty, because apparently they are too nutritious to be with regular food. Then while I'm in Health and Beauty buying soap for myself, I can't find soap for my children; I have to go to Baby to find tear-free body wash and shampoo. I do save money on aspirin and toilet bowl cleaner, but somewhere in this journey I end up buying my daughter an outfit she doesn't need and a bag of seasonal candy I really shouldn't eat.

So in a way, though Target seems like the answer to all my problems, over this last year I see it more as a metaphor for what is demoralizing, cyclical and soulless in suburban living. It represents the errands that never get done. The constant struggling to stretch my dollar for essentials, and then the illogical practice of turning around and buying things I don't need. Target represents the myth that I can make a list, check it twice, and finally create order and a sense of completion if I just buy the right things. The pull of this myth is so strong, that my mommy group made a pact that we wouldn't go to Target at the end of our Girl's Nights Out anymore; then one of us broke the pact the next time we got together.

At Christmas time, my existential angst in Target increases. Now added to all the usual things I need and am tempted by are the Christmas version of these same things. Christmas Kleenex. Christmas door mats. Christmas toothbrush holders. Every object in my house, useful or otherwise, could be swapped out for one twelfth of the year and be replaced by something with a snowman on it that was made in China by someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas. My children's dolls can be dressed in Christmas clothes, their teddy bears put in the closet for the month and replaced by polar bears in Santa hats. Half of these things won't be purchased; they'll be 60% off on the day after Christmas. Then half of those will be bought. And then half of those that will be bought will be thrown into the landfill three years from now because lime green and red for Christmas are so 2010. (This is just based on my own estimates, no actual research. But I do a good deal of garage sale shopping and a great deal of the items for sale are seasonal, and have "Target" stamped on their porcelain bottoms.)

So, I'm off Target, boys and girls. Truly, I've got to cut back. My goal for the rest of December is no more than one trip to Target a week. Starting next week. Because though I was just there on Monday, I'm out of Kleenex. I wonder if they have it in red and lime green.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Clean Slate for Christmas

At our home, the beginning of the yuletide season is marked by exhaustion and dehydration. This painful tradition, usually occurring the day after Thanksgiving, started six years ago, our first year as parents in our own home. Jeff -- on a mission to be our neighborhood's Clark W. Griswold -- went wild with the Christmas decorations in the backyard to the tune of 28 light strands and a dozen light-up characters.

The first year it took him 8 eight hours to install. He was a wreck by the time he came inside. Having blown several fuses, he had to redirect multiple strands so as not to overload any one circuit. He assured me, however, that the next year would go much smoother, and held up in his work-worn hand an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper. On it, he'd drawn a detailed schematic of our back yard in black ink, with colored marker lines representing each strand and a letter "C" for each connection. Each cord in our yard was then tagged with colored tape. Hubby's diagram had notes on it that read things like "flashers at upper eave w/ icicles w/ flashing lights around windows" and "3 lines connect santa & reindeer w/ ext. cord." There are also marks resembling cave paintings that represent the pattern the lights will form on all sides of our fence. (Do I need to mention here that Hubby is an architect?)

For years, this system has stood, and it has indeed expedited things. It takes more like six hours to do lights now, even with the addition of an 11-piece light-up nativity scene that wasn't on the original plan. Even so, I always partially dread Decorating Day, because I know it will mean me in the living room with a dozen boxes of retro holiday finery and two needy kids, and Jeff outside, a man alone with his staple gun and his dream. That evening usually finds us both near catatonic, drinking sports drinks with our feet up on empty plastic ornament totes.

So this year, I was feeling inspired to embrace our mad decorating as part of our family's culture, but I was also looking to let go of the things that aren't working. First of all, the concept of "decorating as a family" does not happen with a three and six year old. So, we sent the kids to Grammy and Grampy's for the day (which turned into overnight and to which we say to my in-laws, "thankyouthankyouthankyou"). We decided we'd decorate as a team by day, and actually go on a date that night.

But then,we opened one of the insanely heavy boxes labeled "exterior lights," and found Jeff's detailed schematic in a tragic state. The black pen delineating our yard's perimeter and patio cover remained, but the marker representing each strand had apparently gotten wet, and had blurred into an attractive but completely useless aura of Crayola color.

Okay, clean slate it is. We separated into our usual duties for the first two hours, I with my nutcrackers and Christmas Spode, and Jeff with his staple gun. More blown fuses; more rehanging of blown out circuits. Then we came together to set out our 20 -- yes, you read that right -- vintage ceramic trees in every room of the house. And I'm proud to say, we left the backyard undone and went out for happy hour and the latest Harry Potter.

So we both broke from and maintained tradition at the same time this year. No dehydration on the day after Thanksgiving, and Hubby scaled down his backyard illumination (it's bright enough to read 10-point font out there, though). But still, we ended up with a day of divided labors after all, as I watched the kids on Saturday and Jeff continued his stapling.

Added to our extensive collection of treasured Christmas memorobilia this year: that watermarked schematic, the embodiment of my husband's Christmas spirit and technical know-how, and a reminder that to have joy in our world, we sometimes have to let go of our best-laid plans.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hurry Up and Say Thank You

I can feel Christmas breathing down my neck. Tomorrow, I will host Thanksgiving dinner for my parents, grandfather and brother. For the last hour I have been cubing white bread and drying it in the oven. But what I'm thinking about today is that Christmas is coming.

Jeff and I do Christmas on a crazy scale. In our attic we have at least 12 18-gallon totes of Christmas decorations, and that's not including the two dozen plastic light up characters that won't fit in the totes. It takes us so long to decorate that we do it as early as possible. Last year, we got things down before Thanksgiving, but since we're hosting this year, the totes come down on Friday.

I've considered scaling back, but the way we decorate in December has become a core part of our culture as a family. Our kids love it. Our neighbors come to check it out every year and take pictures; one neighbor we've never met even brought us candy and a thank-you note. Our homeowners association board even put us at the top of the cue to have our fences replaced so they'd be done in time for our decorations to go up.

I've written about deadlines before. Today I'm staring down a big one. I feel like my house has to be prepped, a blank canvas on which Christmas can descend. I've been cleaning out closets and getting rid of old toys, dusting, vacuuming, packing up pink and yellow pottery in my kitchen cabinet to make room for my Christmas Spode. I've washed sheets and blankets, shaken out rugs, scrubbed walls. When Christmas comes down, we will barely be able to walk in a couple of rooms until all is unpacked, so I know I won't be able to do my usual chores. I'm fending off chaos by getting things clean underneath.

It's just a little bit of a bummer, because I love Thanksgiving; everything about it except indigestion. The food, the aromas, the fall leaves, but mostly the whole premise that we are saying thank you for our blessings, our families, our lives. I also love the idea that people of all faiths and even no faith do this together. And the problem is that culturally Christmas makes us feel the opposite of thankful. It can become all about wanting more, doing more. You must have more fun! You must have prettier clothes! You must update your makeup for holiday parties! You must have a wish list! You must buy things from others' wish lists! And because I am of the creative and compulsive bent, I must sew, craft and paint more than is possibly possible!

So I better hurry up and say "thank you!" Our pastor gives the same message every year the week before Thanksgiving about grounding our hearts in thankfulness before the Christmas season starts. I missed it last week, but I almost know it by heart after 11 years at the same church. I think he would be quite proud of me for paying attention. Here's my "grounding" list of thankfulness, incomplete because I can't possibly list everything.

I'm thankful for:

*my health: for clarity of mind and soundness of body; for the way my body does what I tell it to do and gets me to where I need to go every day.

*my husband, who is my playmate, my rock, my provider, my confidant, my friend, my fix-it guy, my hottie and the best roommate I ever had.

*my kids, who are healthy, beautiful, smart, exasperating and teach me every day how far I have yet to go as a person, but also -- grace upon grace! -- how far I have come in the last six years. Not having sisters myself, I'm also so grateful to have little girls and that they have each other.

*my parents, still married after 39 years, who adore our little family and support us in absolutely every way possible, giving us both space and community, comfort and freedom, a sense of security

*my husband's parents, also still married after 39 years, who instilled in him the values I cherish that make him such a trustworthy husband; they also love us and dote on our children, always making time to spend with us and play with our daughters

*our brothers and sisters, all men and women of fun and integrity who love God and strive for excellence in their lives

* all our extended family from grandparents to uncles and aunts that give us a sense of history and belonging in this big world

*our three beautiful nieces and our nephew on the way. They make us laugh! My daughters cherish them! I love watching the relationships my kids are forming with their cousins.

*my dear, dear friends who are the sisters that weren't born to my family. I am surrounded by incredibly strong, loving, truthful women, and their children and husbands are our extended family.

*my ministry in MOPS, where I get to give back and help create community with other women, who are often so lonely and isolated in our culture. I'm also grateful for all the mild and major struggles I have as a mom that equip me for this job.

* our church, my daughter's school, and our government. We are free to worship, we live in peace, our kids will be well-educated, and we have opportunities to use our gifts and make our way in the world.

And then, my more material list:
*my home
*my garden
*the trees outside my door
*my Kitchen-Aide mixer and front load washer
*my sewing machine
*my camel suede boots
*my white coat Jeff bought me last winter
*my laptop
*my turquoise cellular phone
* and lastly, those 12 totes of Christmas totes that are coming down in two days. I will see them as an opportunity to bless my kids and build memories, instead of a stressful chore to cope with.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. I'm thankful for you!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Thanksgiving Tree

When Jeff and I got married 11 years ago, we each picked a Bible passage to be read during our ceremony. The passage Jeff chose was 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Rejoice always. Pray continuously. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

I found out later that Jeff's mom had taught him to say this verse by heart by the time he was three years old. He wasn't even aware of this when he chose it as our wedding verse; it was just embedded in his heart from childhood. This is not only so encouraging to me as a mother -- that I can influence my children's hearts and minds by what I teach them in these early years -- but it also blesses me as his wife, because Jeff is the most contented person that I know.

Second to my husband as the most contented man is my father, and if I had to name the Bible passage he most often quoted to me it would be this:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-8.

When I look at these two passages, and these two men, together, the common thread I see is offering thanksgiving. More specifically, I see the discipline of seeking out what there is to be thankful for in any circumstance, and then taking the actual step of offering thanks. Though I always admired this in my father growing up, there have been times, usually periods in which I was besieged by anxiety, that I believed this practice of his was overly simple-minded optimism, a way of pretending that bad things weren't happening, that danger didn't exist in the world. And intellectually, I have had trouble at times offering thanksgiving to God, giving him credit for all the good in the world, but not holding him accountable for the bad.

I'm 33 now, and I am a changed woman. Because in my late twenties, I followed my more complicated, and what I thought was more intellectual theology right into a pit. I'm talking a psychological pit that rendered me incapable, unmoored, broken, and scared. I went to a place where I doubted God's very existence, though I had experienced his love and care very personally from childhood. I got help. I got medicine. I got self aware. I got educated. But ultimately, what got me out was thanksgiving.

In front of my house there grows a tree. It nearly touches my bedroom window. In the spring and summer, it is full and leafy, and covered with green berries. In the fall, the berries turn bright red, and then the leaves turn golden. My whole room turns golden in the afternoon from those leaves. And then they shower down on my doorstep, and the bare branches still cling to the bright red berries. I really love that tree. And for some reason, from the bottom of my pit, I looked up at that tree and realized I had to say "thank you" for it. It was a sort of pagan spiritual experience, discovering a higher power purely through looking at my tree.

Once I started saying thank you for the tree, I started needing to say thank you for lots of other things. My children, who were beautiful and healthy and miraculous and over whose being I had no power. I couldn't take credit for them, but someone had to. I needed to say thank you for the existence of friendship, and the community at my church.

Over the last few years, I've learned a lot about how the brain works, and one of the things I've learned is a concept called neuroplasticity. I'm no scientist, so I'm going to butcher it and I hope there aren't any psychologists reading this. But essentially, our habitual thoughts form actual physical patterns and pathways in our brains. And once those paths are formed, when we take in stimuli, situations, or stress, our thoughts follow those paths like a marble being dropped down a groove. These thought paths become what we believe are true, no matter how out of whack they might be. And it's very, very hard to change them. But it's not impossible.

I love Scripture, because it confirms this science. God designed our brains. And I believe his repeated call in the Bible to offer thanks is one of his many good rules that protect us from ourselves. Habitual thanksgiving protects our mental health. It keeps us out of psychological pits. And it helps us see the goodness of our eternal God. Giving thanks in all circumstances doesn't mean we believe all circumstances are good; this world is fraught with pain, sorrow, trouble, and Scripture is very clear to warn us of that. But we believe good can come from all experiences in the form of character, perseverance, community, and bonding with God.

I need to get back to the idea of giving God credit for the good and no blame for the bad. I don't have an answer for the second part. Of course I don't! Philosophers and theologians have been wondering about the origin of evil for thousands of years. And I also don't understand what it means when we say that God is sovereign; the mystery of how he moves in history and people's hearts while preserving our free will is just that -- an unfathomable mystery. It used to make it hard for me to say thank you for some reason. But it doesn't anymore. Here's why:

In James1 it says: "17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

To me, this means that everything good I have comes from God because God is the author of all good things. All the most significant goodness are his inventions: love, marriage, parenthood, the terrifying and awesome act of childbirth, beauty, nature, friendship, community, sex, creativity, food, our intricate bodies, our five senses. There is no good convention of human beings of which God has not been the origin or enabler.

So I meditate on these good things. I am still not even in the top 10 of the most contented people I know and I still struggle with anxiety; that marble run in my brain was pretty deep. But I am now free to thank God for all the goodness in my life, and doing so is what keeps me sane.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Today's Proper Work

During my childhood, there were two major influences on what I believed it meant to be a homemaker. The first was, obviously, my mother. The second was children's literature, specifically, the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Little Women, and the Anne of Green Gables novels.

For the purposes of this blog, I would just like to discuss these influences on me as a housekeeper. I lived in a very clean house as a child. It was regularly dusted. The beds were made every morning (my best friend called my comforter the "oh-so-fluffy-blanket" because we weren't allowed to sit on it and smash it down). The dishes were done immediately after each meal: hand washed with soap, and then loaded into the dishwasher. The throw pillows on the couch were at right angles. My mom vacuumed uniform rows into the wall-to-wall carpeting, and before guests came, we weren't allowed to walk on it so it wouldn't bear the telltale footprints that showed people actually lived in the house.

Still, I wouldn't say Mom was a neat-freak. She was just disciplined, and our house was both orderly and pretty to look at pretty much all the time. (Now, her mother was a neat freak. Love you, Grandma, but one of my most vivid memories is tiptoeing the perimeter of the guest bedroom cork floors, so as not to muss your hand-raked area rugs.) So, neat and pretty is what makes me comfortable. However, the gene that made my mom enjoy housework (she does, truly! It gives her deep satisfaction!), I am apparently missing. I really hate cleaning. And when I first became a stay-at-home mom, I felt I was cleaning all the time. I never sat down because there was always something that could be cleaned. It was extremely anxiety provoking.

Cue the influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder. One day, my brain pulled up this passage out of it's childhood files from Little House in the Big Woods:

"[after making the beds] Ma began the work that belonged to that day. Each day had its own proper work. Ma used to say:

Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

Laura liked the churning and the baking days best of all the week."

This system sounded so simple, housewifely and efficient that I decided to make my own chart of "proper work." Then, when I finished whatever work was for that day, I could actually feel finished. I left out Ironing, Mending, Churning, and Baking. My list looked like this:

Monday: Laundry
Tuesday: Dust and vacuum, clean out fridge
Wednesday: Clean bathrooms, grocery shop
Thursday: Clean kitchen cabinets and stove
Friday: Clean out car, vacuum again

This all worked really well for a while. I felt that there was structure to my new life at home. But as it turns out, I would have made a lousy pioneer. Because my list is twice as varied as Ma's, and still, I get so bored with the repetition. I often feel extremely isolated despite having tons of neighbors I like and girlfriends I talk to. Spending the day churning and resting in a house miles from any other neighbor would have made me completely insane. Also, even with tools Ma didn't have, like washing machines, vacuums, Scrubbing Bubbles, Oxyclean, and stores that sell butter, there are weeks that I am not getting even these most basic of housewife chores done. My mother recently noted that my housekeeping sure isn't what hers was (this sounds terrible written down, but she said it with love, I swear). But in my defense, here are some thing I do that neither Ma nor my mom did:

upload photos to costco.com
post things to facebook
lead a moms group at church
make homemade baby gifts
talk on the telephone
go to Target
mail things my husband sells on e-bay

I'm actually proud of all I do accomplish, I'm happy to be connected socially to other women, and be in touch with my creative side. But daily, I am also distressed by the lack of order in my house -- particularly in comparison with my childhood home. I'm almost 7 years in to this job of Homemaker, and I still wake up many mornings and think, "What the heck am I going to do today?" or "What the heck am I going to do first?"

It's at these moments that I'm grateful to Ma's list. When in doubt, at least try to get the days' "own proper work" done. And, thanks to Mom's influence, most days I do make the beds, and I do get my throw pillows at right angles.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Smells Like Mommy

My three year old Livie has a disgusting little scrap of a blanket that she carries around with her -- thankfully less than she used to. It's name is Night-Night, and it is often mistaken as a dish towel, a dust rag, or someone's used handkerchief. Recently someone asked her what it was and she said, "Dis is my Night-Night, but my mommy calls it my Stinky Rag."

It is indeed stinky, like her big sister's attachment object a a few years ago. I wisely had multiples of these fetish properties of my girls, but they both always wanted to hold, nuzzle and suck their thumbs with whichever one was dirtiest.

Trying to get the bottom of this bizarre preference for the grossest blanket, I asked Livie a few weeks ago, "What does your blanket smell like?"

With love in her eyes, she responded, "It smells like you!"

I hope you won't think me strange when I say that I was flattered by this. I know that I don't really smell like a chewed-on scrap of fabric. But what I understood by this declaration of my daughter's is that she likes this transition object with some kind of human stink on it, and the human she most wants it to be like is me.

I'm an extremely popular person in my house right now. We've had almost three weeks of illness here, and so there is rampant neediness. And though this is a two-parent household, there is only one Dr. Mom. My husband is a gentle, present, fun and sensitive father, but Mommy he ain't. So if someone needs patting, cuddling, coddling, Benadryl, warm tea, or someone to grind their little hard head and feet into (Livie has a penchant for head butting and grabbing people with her toes), I'm the one they seek out.

Sometimes this can be enormously frustrating. I could be juggling flaming knives, talking on the phone and going to the bathroom at the same time, and my daughters would walk past their unoccupied father to ask me to get them a drink. Honestly, their constant neediness and myopic desire for Mom can drive me absolutely batty. But the last couple of weeks, I feel God pressing something into my heart: "Amanda, you are a caretaker. That is your primary job." I'm ashamed to say that I forget this, even though it is what I do all day. Care taking gets disguised by housework sometimes (which I truly loathe, more on this later this week), but even dish washing is a form of care to my kids. Sometimes I want to hurry up and meet their needs, so I can get on with what I'm doing, and then I remember, "Oh crud, meeting their needs is what I'm doing."

Two more touching anecdotes to share: This weekend Liv needed a nap and Daddy offered to put her down, but she was not having it. So I took out of his arms with a slightly sarcastic, "I know Mommy is everybody's favorite person," not really expecting Liv to pay attention. But she looked right at me with a twinkle and said, "Yeah, and Daddy goes to work every time!"

Just by function of being here for Quantity Time, I am the favorite. Which is fascinating, because Jeff is much better at Quality Time. He plays more board games, builds more Tinker Toys, and does more park play than me. He's also less cranky. But he goes to work all day, and I stay home to be Mom.

Mom is a great thing to be. I sat down on Sunday about two feet from Liv on the couch, where she was watching TV. Suddenly, she looks up and sees me, a light goes on in her eyes, and she scoots her little bottom over to me and thunks her head against my chest with a sigh. This was all as if to say, "Yeah! It's Mommy! Right here on the couch! Quick, get close to her." What other job in the world can you light up someone's face just by sitting down in a heap on your sofa? Bring it on, girls. Your smelly little mom is here. Let the Quantity time begin.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Yesterday, as I carried a bag of kitchen trash out to my dumpster, I saw a vulture circling overhead and wondered if maybe he could smell that someone in my house was about to go down. That someone was me.

Last week was a rough one, not in any extraordinary way, but just wrong enough to beat a mommy down. The whole family got sick, and, being cooped up in the house, the kids were fractious with each other, clingy, and extra needy. My first grader stayed home from school for a couple of days, feeling well enough to run around the house and fight with her sister, but not well enough to pick up after herself or come up with anything fun or productive to do on her own. My normally sweet three year old has hit a new irrational tantrum phase, and can now tenaciously insists that we meet impossible needs. She's also developed a new habit of jumping up and down on my toes.

I write this blog from my own personal fish bowl. Yesterday a crew of workmen tore down my back fence, and so far have replaced only the posts at each corner. I have no curtains on my kitchen windows, so here I sit in my mismatched pajamas for all my neighborhood to see. The crew will soon be back with their power tools and their hip hop music, to stand in my back yard all day and observe my every move.

But this is the least way in which I feel overexposed this week. My mommy friends know me as someone who is not afraid to "be real" and share my struggles openly (hence, the blogging). I have no problem letting people in on my imperfections. But I like to do it on my own terms, after I've come to terms with my weaknesses myself, and recount them in a wise, witty, and self-deprecating way. I can be real, but I like to do it with a little spin.

In the past few days, I've been real in ways I do not enjoy, at times when I was not in control.

Like the time when Livie threw a ten-minute tantrum in front of Marshall's because I wouldn't drive home to get her milk sippy cup.

On Saturday, Liv attached herself to my ankle while I was carrying $50 worth of groceries, because I couldn't (she thought wouldn't) pick her up. Finally, Jeff had to hold her down while I ran for it.

Yesterday morning while dropping Sophia off at school, Liv, with her rain-soaked, grass covered shoes, again decided to jump up and down on my shoes (my new gold ballet flats!), and shrieked when I wouldn't let her.

By the time I made it to a MOPS meeting yesterday morning, I was fried, having coped with lots of other small, normal, and infuriating mother tasks on the way there. My dear friend immediately took me outside for a good cry on the playground, a hug, and a prayer.

The other women around me had picked up on my thinly veiled distress, too. When I came to pick Sophia up from school that afternoon, a mother I don't even know well came and put her arm around me and said she and another mom were going to take my kids on Wednesday afternoon because I obviously needed a break.

This morning I can feel grateful for all the moms that reached out to me yesterday. But at the moment, I just felt ashamed of myself. Like I said, no great catastrophe had befallen me, just a build up of small and large irritants, a virus, poor sleep, and a little chaos. I wish I were stronger. I wish I didn't need help. But I do, friends, I do.

There's a quotation by Anton Chekov that I love: "Any idiot can handle a crisis. It's the day to day things that get you down." Too true. There's a lesson in these last 10 days somewhere. Here's what I think it is: When God tells us in the Bible that his mercies are new every morning, and that we are to ask for our daily bread, it's because we need mercy and sustenance daily, just to handle the stuff of life. I need a daily word from God. I need sleep. I need good food (did I mention that last week we were are also overly sugared from Halloween candy?). I need fresh air. I need a chat with a good girlfriend. I need 10 minutes alone. And I need help.

So, I'm not vowing to be better, stronger, more put together. I'm going to send the kids off with those mommies from my school. I'm going to take a nap. And I'll take any prayers that are offered for me. Because the vultures are circling, and I don't want to go down.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Failure Can Be Fun

"There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by instinct. And you have to be brave." --Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt

There is a creature who resides in my three year old Livie's room. My husband believes he is some incarnation of the Loch Ness Monster. My friend calls him the Turducken. Only I know what he really is, and still see him that way. He's a deformed turtle.

Nessy, as he is now called in our family, is not the offspring of a Turkey and a Duck (thank you very much, friend). His mother is Creativity and his father, Bravado.

You see, Livie's older sister had a big pillow shaped like a sea turtle in her room, made for her by a Hawaiian cousin. Liv was always stealing it, so I thought I would make her one. Can't be that hard, I thought. Big round pillow, add turtle head and flippers. I had the other one to work with as a pattern. And I truly thought mine would be even better because I would use wonderful vintage chenille and batik fabrics. Well, you can see the results: a kind of turkey head and duck tail, and no discernable shell shape. Livie loves him, however, and the colors are nice. So though I don't choose to bring Nessy to boutiques as an example of my fine work, she's a success of sorts.

This is a common tale in our home. I see something homemade by someone else or produced by a factory in China, and I almost always think, "Hey, I could do that!" I'm often wrong. Another fine example is the scarecrow I made with the kids last fall. I was tired of seeing all the cookie cutter scarecrows at craft stores, and thought, Well, farmers used to make theirs, why not me? Well. Mine is probably more authentic looking that the mass-produced one, but it's not really very cute. I used an old floral onesie and some fabric scraps, a handful of hay and some felt. Her hay arms are always falling off. So are her legs. She's rather barrel chested. And the dye of her felt hat ran so she has dye streaks down her face from the rain. My daughters like her, however. So she stays, albeit behind in a back corner next to a broken birdhouse and an old gnome torso that we call No-Leg Gnomen.

There are quilters and crafters who like to do things exactly by the rules, follow the patterns, and buy all the exact materials they see on the sample in the store. I never do that. I like to draw my own things with the help of clip art from google images search. I like to pick out fabrics from all different lines. And I like to move things around and change the sizes. But I throw a lot of stuff out, or at least hide a lot of stuff from my more skilled quilting friends. Gosh, I have fun though.

You have to be brave when you want to be creative. Because inevitably you will fail some of the time. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity, because it presupposes a "correct" outcome, and that's not actually truly creative, or at least not in the liberating, joyful way that I experience it. It's not that I'm totally pleased when something comes out screwy, when I birth a Turducken when what I wanted was a turtle. But this is how mythical creatures get born! This is how discoveries are made. Great chefs produce a lot of inedible dishes, I'm sure. But sometimes they come up with something grand, like California fusion cuisine, or Reese's peanut butter cups.

I consider this blog as Part II from yesterday, my calling to Halloween creativity. I know that not all people need to create to clear their heads the way that I do; just like some people thrive on running while some people's bodies (mine) are just not made to do that. But a little creativity is good for everyone. I believe it's one of the ways in which we were created in God's image. We invent; we experiment; we create beauty out of the mundane; whimsy out of the scraps of life.

So carve a pumpkin. Pick up a brush. Grow a flower. Decorate a cupcake. Failure can be fun. Failure, in fact, can be its own kind of success.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Happy Halloween

I am a danger to myself and others at this time of year. I walk into Michael's craft store, Target, Dollar Tree, or past the racks of magazines at the grocery store, and I feel myself beginning to get worked into a frenzy. It's craft season! It's Halloween! Preheat the oven! Find my scissors! Where's the construction paper? I'm more excited about the $6 bottle of sprinkles I bought this week than the new purple sweater I got on sale. Yippee!

Do you know how many hours I have spent in the last month on marthastewart.com? Neither does Hubby, so don't tell him. I just can't get enough of Halloween cupcakes, fall wreaths, jack-o-lanterns, and more. Last year, as I was busily turning pine cones into owl ornaments (Martha used pine-coned shaped boxes, but I use real pinecones from my yard, thank you very much), Sophia asked, "Mom, why do you have to make everything you see?" Oh, if she only knew how many things I want to make and don't.

Halloween is a great time for even the non-crafty to enjoy being creative, because it's almost all about making things for kids, and the kids aren't picky. Jeff and I have actually made it our mission to get our craft-wary friends' hands dirty every year by hosting a pumpkin carving party. And here, reaching the dozens of people who may or may not read this, I hope to inspire you to do one homemade thing this year. Here's a list of options:

1. Host a pumpkin carving party! Put out newspaper, grab some spoons and some old knives and invite your neighbors. Everyone will feel insecure, laugh, and get into it. Give prizes in silly categories like "Most abstract" and "best pumpkin with three eyes." If you want to get the men excited, bring out a power drill and watch the pumpkin pulp fly. Don't cover your backyard with straw, however. We tried it one year and I think there still might be some straw out there somewhere.

2. Let the kids design their own jack-o-lantern. We give Sophia a Sharpie marker and let her go to town. Then Hubby does his best to carve whatever shapes she's drawn. It looked awesome, if slightly abstract, and she was so proud.

3. Make, don't buy, a Halloween costume. The best ones are always silly conglomerations from the dress up box, if you ask me. I hate all the made-in-China superhero stuff. One year, Sophia was a cowgirl wearing my brother's suede vest from the 1970s, a pair of hand-me-down boots, and a Knott's Berry Farm hat. Livie wore a peasant blouse my friend sent me from Ukraine and a pair of outgrown jeans I cut the bottoms off of, and a pirate hat. She was hilarious.

4. Be flexible. I like to buy a big, hot costume for the kids, take their picture in it, and then take it back to Old Navy, because, seriously, the kids always refuse to wear it on Halloween when it's usually 90 degrees here in Southern California. I always have a back up option in the dress up box for those occasions. Last year, Livie wore her Babystyle peacock costume for the whole month of October, and wouldn't put it on on the 31st. Since Sophia was Tinkerbell, I pulled out a pink leotard and wings, and Livie was a pink fairy. It was one of my favorite years.

5. Make caramel apples. They are the easiest thing in the world to do, but possibly the most delicious. The hardest part is unwrapping the caramels, but make the kids help you. They make great teacher gifts for your school Halloween party. There are recipes on-line, and on the caramel package.

6. Make tissue paper ghosts. Ball up a paper towel, wrap it in a Kleenex, tie a string around it, draw on eyes and hang it from the ceiling. Don't hang it from a ceiling fan and try to make it fly though. Trust me.

7. Dress up! One year I was a 1950s housewife with red lipstick, a pink apron and pearls. I've also been a cowgirl and a cat. I went to a Girl Scout Party on Monday as a witch (I was the only mommy dressed up, which was embarrassing, and I got some cat calls from passing cars, but so what?). This year, I have a blond wig and I think I'm going to be Martha Stewart. My wig is pretty ratty so Hubby says I'll look like a Martha who's just been on a weekend bender. With all that gal accomplishes, I wouldn't be surprised if that really is what she does when the season's over.

If you're not interested in creativity, we can still be friends. But if you're just a little intimidated by it, read on tomorrow for why failure can be fun.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Garage Sale Widow

It’s 7:45 on Saturday morning. Do you know where your husband is?

I know where mine is. He’s at a 20-family garage sale. I can picture him. Right now he’s either trolling down some residential cul-de-sac at 5 miles an hour, peering through the windows of our SUV and trying to decide if he sees anything worth stopping for. Or, he’s got his baseball-capped head submerged in a box of records; or he’s sifting through a pile of clothes marked “$1 per item” (lucky me, it’s almost Christmas.)

There are a lot of benefits to having a junk-a-holic for a spouse. I have some beautiful vintage pins, a new stainless steel crock pot, a set of Bauer nesting mixing bowls, a vintage metal woodpecker that picks up toothpicks, and an oil painting of a blue robin's egg with a string of pearls. Our home decor is totally Anthropoligie vintage, only it's the real thing, not made in India and about one twelfth the price. I have some wonderful furniture that was incredibly inexpensive and that you won't find in any one else's house because it really is unique. My kids have My Little Pony, Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake dollhouses galore -- for cheap -- which is wonderful because they are the kind of bulky toys that get played with for six months and then take up way too much closet space.

The downsides: well, I'm home alone with the kids this morning, and Hubby left without his cell phone. I don't know when he'll be back. But what I do know is he'll be back with boxes full of stuff, which he'll spend lots of time today cleaning, sorting, gloating over. Our house is not big, but it houses lots of vintage treasures: under the bed, under the dresser, in the laundry room, and often on the kitchen floor. It's annoying, I'll be honest with you. Possibly most annoying, I'm usually allowed to keep his findings mainly when they are not valuable: like the chipped pottery too flawed for the true collector.

But Hubby truly is a champion garage-saler. He has an eye for the things that are actually valuable and turns it into profit on e-bay, Craig's list and at flea markets. Even items he's never heard of -- like the Lawnware plastic pots he bought that turned out to be a cult -item among the RV set -- he somehow can pluck from among the detritus of suburban clutter and see the potential. His endurance is unparalleled; sometimes it's only siren-level whining by both kids and myself that can make him stop.

And, bizzarley, it brings him a lot of joy. So, I support this passion. Look, Lance Armstrong's bride has to put up with a lot to be married to excellence and so do I.