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.