Tuesday, December 30, 2008
I love to read and I love the Goodreads website because it allows me to keep track of what I've read and remember what I liked and didn't like about a book. 2008 is the second year that I've kept track of all of my books via Goodreads, so I thought I would reflect on my year in books and see which books were the best I read in 2008. Click on the titles to read my Goodreads reviews.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: This was the best book I read in all of 2008. I loved it and can't wait to read it again. I'm not sure where to start with why this is a Great Book. The unique writing format, the characters, the setting and the story are all extraordinarily well done. I read this book in June and still remember the characters with such fondness (and a touch of pain).
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini: Not as painful a read as The Kite Runner and impressive because the male author truly captures a female viewpoint (something I think few authors can do well).
Summerland by Michael Chabon: Chabon writes extremely well and this book places you in a well conceived alternate world. While this book is technically "young adult," the writing and storyline will keep adults compelled as well.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: One of those books that is written in such a unique format that you can't help but admire the author. I loved that we don't know the full story of each character in the book, leaving lots of potential for the reader to fill in the blanks.
Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game: I'm cheating a bit to list these as one entry since they are three separate books, but they are fun reads. While these are young adult books, the combination of math, art and mystery makes for a great read. Books like these are a great way to get children (and adults) to think about art outside the bounds of a museum's walls.
John Twelve Hawk's The Traveler and Dark River: Two books in a trilogy that imagine an alternate reality not so very different from our own. I'm not sure when the third book is coming out, but I will definitely read it when it's published!
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Christmas is a time of year that is steeped in tradition for many of us. While those traditions may vary widely, I’m a firm believer that tradition is what sets holidays apart in our memories. I could tell you almost exactly what I ate on Christmas Eve for the first eighteen years of my life. Two years ago we decided as a family that we weren’t going to travel on Christmas anymore. Our girls were old enough that they started asking when they were going to get to celebrate Christmas at home, so we decided it was time to honor that request. J and I have tried to meld our respective traditions and craft holiday traditions that will be meaningful and memorable for our girls. Since he’s from a Polish/German Wisconsin family and I’m from a Southern Gulf Coast family, the traditions we pass on to A, B and K will be different than the ones we remember. But this year will perhaps stand out for all of us… because it has completely lacked tradition at every turn.
There are several Christmas traditions we’ve bypassed this year:
· Birthday Party - My birthday is in December and we normally have a bi-annual birthday party for me because I love this time of year AND love parties! This would have been our third party in six years of this type, but with The Nutcracker’s opening falling on the weekend this normally would have occurred, this tradition was postponed for a year.
· Cookie Party – Since 2003, the girls and I have had a cookie party each Christmas season. This started after A was invited to a cookie party in 2002 and enjoyed it so much that we decided to hold one each year. This tradition has taken different forms each year. One year we invited family friends to join us, another year ballet friends and last year, we invited students at Rejoice to decorate cookies with us at Edgefield, where classes are held. This tradition wasn’t skipped entirely this year. Instead, we had family from Alabama and family from Wisconsin join us as we decorate sugar cookies, gingerbread and oatmeal Christmas Trees, Snowmen, Wreaths, Stars and Candy Canes.
· Christmas Eve – Christmas Eve was always the time my aunts, uncles and cousins gathered at my grandmother’s house, so it has always been the main event for me. We would go to church for communion before having gumbo, biscuits and Christmas cookies at Granny’s house. Granny passed away a few years ago, but part of the tradition J and I have crafted is to have tortilla soup and Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve after attending our church. All of this tradition was skipped this year as we left on Christmas Eve afternoon to start our trek to Disney World. Santa came to visit our family on the 23rd and we opened the remaining gifts before climbing into the van and buckling up for the ride to our Atlanta hotel. Because we were anxious to get on the road and we couldn’t find a Christmas Eve service with childcare for K, we opted instead to read Isaiah 53 and Luke 2 together as a family and sing a few Christmas Carols. While we didn’t sound as beautiful as a congregation raising its voices together, it was nice to share scriptures that are meaningful to us and talk with our children about them instead of trying to keep them still for an hour long service.
· Christmas Day – Instead of waking up to a breakfast casserole or homemade cinnamon rolls, we had a continental breakfast at the Hilton and got back into the van, still heading south. Christmas Day has traditionally been a day of relaxation for our family. After opening presents, we generally just spend the day hanging out together. I wouldn’t really describe the eight hour drive to Orlando as relaxing, but I am hopeful that seeing our daughters at Disney World will make it worth it!
All of this lack of tradition has served its own type of purpose. We’ve made it through as a family and still managed to celebrate Christ’s birth, albeit in a different way than we have in years past. One of the reasons our traditions have changed is we have been blessed to have family join us from hours away to see A dance in The Nutcracker. It was affirming to A and encouraging to J and me to see family members happily drive 6-10 hours to see our little black lamb on stage. It was also good for me to sacrifice my love of Christmas traditions for the sanity of our family. Ultimately, I could have chosen to maintain these traditions, even if we were all exhausted from months of Nutcracker rehearsals, preparing for family, hosting guests and packing to depart for Disney World. Instead, I tried to go with the flow and enjoy this Christmas for what it was. When tradition becomes the master and I become a slave to it, that’s no longer celebration. I will confess that it was difficult at times to forgo traditions that mean a lot to me, but I hope that memories of The Nutcracker and Disney World will be held in our hearts in the place marked Christmas 2008.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
A family friend sent our girls some sea glass from Newfoundland. It's not only beautiful to look at, it's lovely to touch and feel because it is so smooth. As I ran it between my fingers, I thought about how this same glass would have cut my fingers had I encountered it years before the sea and sand did its work. It made me think about my heart and how I want smooth edges, but there's still work to be done. I wonder if others who come into contact with my heart are cut by my rough edges, instead of finding an encounter with me pleasing.
I want a heart that's smooth, not rough and whose surface is pleasing. Like sea glass, it will take years for my heart to change into what I want it to become. And, like the sea glass, I can't change it on my own. I'll have to trust the Holy Spirit to smooth out my rough edges and make them smooth, soft and a blessing to others.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Sometimes I am in awe of my children. Today K & I made chocolate covered pretzels for J to take to a potluck at work tomorrow. It didn't start well: about 10 minutes in, she dumped a bowl of miniature stars all over the kitchen floor. Her immediate reaction was to say, "Awww! I am SO disappointed." Her clear frustration with herself and her cute way of expressing it completely diffused my own frustration. By the end of our decorating session, I was in awe of her ability to thoroughly enjoy this task with such abandon. K is four and the baby of our family. Sometimes she is difficult for me to parent because we are SO different. I'm in awe that I can have a daughter so different from me, love her so deeply and find a task like cooking that we can both enjoy!
I also took A to see The Nutcracker tonight. She wasn't dancing in tonight's performance, so this was a chance for me to sit beside her and hear her thoughts on the costumes, the set, the dances and anything else that popped into her mind. I told her before the performance started that I am so impressed with what she is doing by dancing in this production. Every time she performs, she dances in front of approximately 3,000 people. I have never done anything in front of 3,000 people. A doesn't think this is a big deal. She pointed out that it's just like a rehearsal because the lights keep you from seeing even one row of the audience. I told her that, even so, I would not want to be on a stage that size and I think the reason she's able to do this with no fear is because she is using her God given talents. If this weren't a passion for her, I'm not sure she could do it. But she clearly is loving every minute of it and I'm in awe of her courage, her talent and her perseverance.
Just to round out this post and spread the love to all of my girls, B had a wonderful moment today in the van. A friend of A's was with us and said something that was somewhat derogatory about K. The comment wasn't mean enough that it hurt K's feelings, but it wasn't especially kind, either. B said to her, "Let's not make fun of K. She's young and she's trying. She is doing the best she can." I'm in awe of the empathy that prompted her comment, the boldness to say it to a friend of her sister's and the way she delivered this advice without injuring the other little girl.
I guess even more than I am in awe of my children, I am in awe of the God who made them. They challenge me, bless me, test me and push me to be a better person than I am. If I were given a box full of potential strengths, gifts, talents and personality traits, I do not believe I could have crafted three girls as uniquely wonderful as the three who sleep under my roof every night. They merit a bit of awe every now and again.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I truly love Christmas. It's always been my favorite time of year. My birthday falls in December as well, so perhaps it's just that I love the celebratory feel of the whole month. No matter why I love Christmas, I struggle sometimes to hang on to my joy for the season when I am mired in busy-ness. Today I need some perspective. I need a greater "capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance."
I love to cook. I love to entertain others in our home. I love it when family come in to town to visit, as many family members are doing this very week to see A perform in The Nutcracker. Yet I am feeling a tad overwhelmed. It feels necessary to focus only on the thing immediately in front of me in order to avoid feeling intimidated by what the next three weeks hold in store for us. Here are the highlights: 4 family members arrive from WI on Thursday, 3 family members arrive from AL on Friday & Saturday, A performs Friday and Sunday, all family members leave to return home by Monday, our family of 5 leaves on Christmas Day to drive to Disney World, Vanderbilt plays in its first bowl game in 26 years on New Year's Eve and A turns 9 on January 5. Are you tired just reading it?
The last time we had family in town, I felt a bit left out because other family in town have a larger, newer, nicer home for entertaining. This meant we gathered at their house for meals and I not only didn't get to host, I didn't get to cook. This made me sad, so I was quick to make sure we would get to host some things this weekend. We are - dinner on Thursday and a cookie party on Saturday - and now I'm questioning my sanity a bit.
I need to get some perspective and remember that everyone coming here loves me and loves my family. While I do love and serve people through food, they are not driving 6-10 hours to eat my homemade chicken & dumplings (they are good, but not that good). They are coming to see us, to share our lives and to share this joyful time of year. I am thankful they are coming and praying for strength to get everything done, wisdom to do it all in the right order and perspective to let it roll off my back when something, inevitably, goes awry.
Monday, December 15, 2008
2: reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission
In this final passage of the book of Ruth, Ruth herself is only mentioned by name once. There is a lot of attention paid to Naomi and God redeeming her circumstances through Ruth's child. As a part of recounting this redemption, Ruth is referred to as being "better than seven sons," but the focus of the passage is definitely not on her. It made me wonder what we would each name the book of Ruth if we were to read it with no title. I'm not sure she's the character that would stand out the most to me if I were reading an untitled accounting of her story.
This is because Ruth does a great job of making her story about other people. Her decision to come to Bethlehem is about Naomi. Her faithfulness in gleaning wheat and barley is about providing for Naomi. Even her approach to Boaz about marriage is directed by Naomi and when the citizens of Bethlehem praise the birth of her child by saying, "Naomi has a son," it is not recorded that Ruth objected in the least.
Given that Ruth isn't the boldest character in the book, why is the book called Ruth? I think it's because God wanted us to look more closely at her and if the book were named for something or someone else, we might miss her. This struck me as a profoundly important point: Am I content to let my story be about other people? Am I living my life to serve others and provide for others? Am I looking so hard and so closely at Christ that those around me can see him reflected in my eyes?
Ruth doesn't call attention to herself. She makes godly choices, is faithful, kind and obedient. I'm fairly certain I would not be described in the same way by those who know (and even love) me. It's a high bar that is set in this story. True humility is not easy, even though humble people often make it look so. I think humility is so antithetical to our human nature that one must pursue it continually in order to approach it.
I've been thinking about what my take away for Ruth will be. How will I remember what I've learned from this book? Ruth didn't follow convention, she worked diligently, she walked a path that seemed doubtful and she did it all with humility. Like Ruth, I know the epilogue to my story. Ruth is remembered as the grandmother of David and is named in the lineage of Christ. I'm in that lineage too, as a daughter of God. Who knows what the prologue to Ruth's story was? She almost certainly grew up in a pagan home and she certainly sinned in some way not recounted in this book. I can take comfort in the fact that the prologue to my story doesn't make the epilogue any less true.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Around 8:00 tonight, I'll have known my husband for sixteen years. We met on my twentieth birthday, so each year my birthday marks not just another year for me, but another year for us. As you might imagine, we've both changed a lot in sixteen years. Physically, we're both a bit rounder around the edges. Intellectually, we're interested in far different things than we were back then. Emotionally, we're both more stable, thanks largely to each other and our faith.
While geographically we aren't far from where we started sixteen years ago in the library at VU, we've walked through dating, engagement, marriage, three children and many other events, both large and small. I am thankful that these shared experiences have drawn us closer together instead of pulling us apart. We still like each other in addition to loving each other. We haven't always evolved symmetrically: J is still the preppy boy he was when I met him, even if he does now own shirts that are not blue, while I have found my own style and it's not what I wore in college!
I liked J from the moment I met him because he was kind, unassuming and funny. We were studying for an art history final: he needed to pass the exam to pass the class and I was an art history major, working to keep an A. We both accomplished what we needed to on the exam the next day. Not long ago, I was on a field trip with A to The Parthenon and I showed her a coffered ceiling, one of the things I clearly remember telling J would probably be on the exam. It was, and he told me after the exam that he'd only known it thanks to studying with me. I love that I have clear memories of the first time I met J.
I also love that each year on my birthday, I get to remember that my best birthday gift ever arrived on my 20th birthday. I can't imagine any gift I'll ever receive that will stack up to J as my friend, partner in life and husband. It's nice timing that this occurs in December, since I try to spend the month remembering that Christmas is not about this year's gifts, but about celebrating the greatest gift of Christ's birth. How sweet of God to send me not only the gifts of J and His son, but reminders of them.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
9: mental and emotional steadiness
I think every mother (and probably every parent) struggles at some point with balance. Am I working too much? Am I not working enough? Am I too hard on my children or too lenient with them? Am I alternately selfish and selfless and therefore never able to feel good about my choices?
While there are many areas of my life that demand that I balance competing needs, overall my life right now is fairly balanced. I enjoy my work and find it fulfilling. I believe God led me to this job and I can see that I am helping the ministry (not always in the ways I imagined helping, but in the way God wants me to help). I work part-time three days each week, leaving me four days for my family. While I can't always accomplish everything in three work days or four home days, it feels like a good balance for our family right now.
I stayed home full time for about three years. At that point, it was necessary for the sanity of our family. J was working a job with crazy hours and lots of travel and A & B were both young. There were things I liked about being at home with them, but mainly I remember a longing to have an outlet for myself. I love my daughters very much, but I think I have gifts God means for me to use and being at home full-time didn't allow me to use these gifts in a satisfying way.
When the opportunity to work again arose, it felt like the right timing and the right job. And when I left that particular part-time job for the one I have now at Rejoice, that felt right, too. I was never at-home in the for-profit world. I was well-compensated during my time in the workforce (startlingly so, when I come across old paychecks), but it never fulfilled me like my non-profit work does. I'm not much of a gardener when it comes to flowers or vegetables, but I see the seeds I am planting at Rejoice, not only in the ministry itself, but in the dancers and their families. Many of these seeds won't bear fruit any time soon and, like any farmer, I have to rely on God to water and feed the seeds. But seeing those seeds go into the ground is satisfying and it gives me hope that I can do another, much harder, job well... being a mother.
I hope that my work outside the home plants seeds in my daughters just like my time with them does. I hope that they see me use my gifts and talents to serve others and that they confidently take advantage of opportunities they are given to use their own gifts and talents. We've talked in our family about the gifts God gives you being used up for him. I've told A & B that when they get to heaven, God doesn't want the box with their gifts in it to still be full. He wants them to open up the box and pour those gifts out on those around them. Because when we do that, the box really doesn't ever completely empty. The beauty of using a gift you've been given for others is that is doesn't deplete the gift.
There are days when I feel stretched thin and wonder if there are any gifts left in my box, but mostly I feel like my life is pleasantly integrated, harmonious and balanced.
Friday, December 5, 2008
2: freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
I wrote a few weeks ago about the financial challenges facing Rejoice Ministries, where I work. I talked then about the need to put my trust in God to provide for us when we couldn't see how He would do it. While the first few weeks after that were challenging for me and filled with self-doubt, self-recriminations and some anxiety, in the intervening weeks God has given me an amazing peace about my work at Rejoice.
A few weeks ago, our pastor referenced the verse in Philippians that says that God will give us a peace that passes understanding. I whispered to my husband that God had truly done that for me with Rejoice and he replied, "Yes, you are calmer about it than I am." When I say peace, I don't mean "a state of tranquility or quiet," the first definition for peace in Merriam Webster. Tranquility and quiet are hard to come by in a home with three children ages 8, 7 and 4. Even when we have moments of quiet while they are all reading or playing, I am rarely what I would describe as tranquil because there is always something that needs to be done.
What God has given me during this time of walking in faith is "freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions." I continue to work diligently for Rejoice. I continue to believe in what we do to plant God's seeds in the lives of the children who dance here. But I don't berate mentally myself for each grant rejection letter we receive. I don't question my very worth when I hear a grant was not awarded to us.
As I wrote a few days ago, one of my take-aways from Ruth this week is that we, like Boaz, should be living to lift of the name of the deceased. I could not be peaceful about my work were it not for the sacrifice Christ made to be cut off from the land of the living. Without His work on the cross, my worth would be found in my work, my home, my children. Instead, my worth is found in Him and nothing I encounter on this earth can change that.
At a busy time of the year, I am eternally grateful to be experiencing God's peace in a meaningful and lasting way. I took this job because I thought it would stretch me, both in my skills and my faith. That has been more true than I ever imagined and I can't wait to see God slowly reveal more of His plans for me and for Rejoice.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
2) not subject to control by others : self-governing
3) not requiring or relying on others
Independence is a quality J & I have always wanted our daughters to have. Even at a young age, we encouraged them to do things for themselves, even if it ultimately meant a little more work for us or a lot more mess. While it sounds like a good thing to encourage independence, it can be challenging to follow through on that encouragement.
Right now, K is putting peanut butter on her toast. It will probably take her nearly as long to complete this process as it will take me to write this blog post, leaving her toast cold and the peanut butter clumpy. Needless to say, I could butter her toast much more efficiently, quickly and neatly than she will. But she wants to do it herself. She told me to leave the kitchen because "I can butter my toast all by myself."
Frankly, it's easier to just leave the kitchen instead of watching her dip the knife in and out of the peanut butter, thinly spread the peanut butter and get PB all over herself and the counter. She's happier without me watching over her should and I can just clean up when she's all finished.
In allowing my 4 year old to butter her own toast, will it make it easier for me to let my daughters make their own mistakes in middle and high school? I'm not sure, but I hope so. I think God designs parents, and especially mothers, to be fiercely protective of our children. I want to keep them from emotional, mental and physical harm. I know logically that this will not always be possible, but it's still the desire of my heart. But I also want them to be fully functional, well-adjusted adults some day. J & I value independence in them because we want them to eventually be "self-governing" and not "rely on others."
The hard part is that if I always protect them, they won't become they women they are meant to be.
A may have her heart broken by the wrong boy to recognize the right man when he comes along. B may misplace her trust in a friend in order to learn discernment. K may lose an audition to learn to always work her hardest. I'm sure parenting them through each of these imagined circumstances would be hard for me. But it would be much worse for me to parent them around the circumstances and see them grow into shadows of the strong, gifted women God has made them to be.
So the next time I wipe up a spill, sweep up broken shards or soothe hurt feelings, I'll try to remember that we all come through life with a few scars. Without the scars, we wouldn't be who we are.
Monday, December 1, 2008
2: a place in public esteem or regard : good name (trying to protect his reputation)
Throughout the book of Ruth, Boaz is set up as a character who foreshadows Christ for the reader. After all, he redeems Ruth, as Christ redeems us. Yet as I read my passage in Ruth for this week, I am struck by a completely different angle. This week's passage leaves me believing that we should be more like Boaz. Instead of foreshadowing Christ's sacrifice for us, Boaz shows us how we should honor that sacrifice.
Chapter 4 of Ruth is the final one, so the story is drawing to a close. Ruth has come from a foreign land against her mother-in-law's urging, worked diligently in Boaz's fields and asked Boaz to marry her. We see Boaz act on Ruth's invitation to marriage in this passage and the reason that he gives for marrying her is, in part, to protect the name and reputation of her dead husband. This is remarkable on several levels.
First of all, this is a man Ruth presumably loved. Boaz is not jealous of this previous love of Ruth's, but honors it instead. This shows not only his confidence in her feelings for him, but a compassion for all that Ruth has been through. She loved Mahlon enough to leave her homeland and journey with his mother to Bethlehem. Boaz sees this and gives respect instead of condemnation. Where am I lacking the confidence to respect the choices and sacriothers have made?
Secondly, Boaz is not concerned with his own name or reputation, but with preserving another's. He marries Ruth so that Mahlon's name will live on. Isaiah 53 says that Christ was "cut off from the land of the living" and Boaz says he is marrying Ruth so that "the name of the deceased will not be cut off." Christ was willing to be cut off from the land of the living so that we could have an eternal inheritance. If Boaz is willing to raise up a dead relative's name and reputation, how much more should I be willing to raise up Christ's name?
Finally, Boaz does all of this in the presence of witnesses. It's interesting to note in the above definitions for reputation that every definition involves the judgement or regard of others. Boaz doesn't raise up the name of Mahlon privately with Ruth. He does so publicly, in front of the elders of the town. If he did it privately, it wouldn't have the same impact. Similarly, if we as Christians only raise up Christ's name in private, how does that further His reputation? Don't we need to acknowledge publicly all that he did and does for us?
How am I putting my own reputation before that of Christ? How can I be more focused on living and acting to preserve His good name and not my own?