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
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.