Sunday, December 25, 2011


1 b : to learn from what one has seen or found in writing or printing

There are lots of things I'd like to write about tonight.  Each year, the last Christmas gift I give my daughters is a gift of words: words that describe who they have been over the last year.  I'm pondering the right 7 words for K, the perfect 10 for B and 11 fitting ones for A.  But my brain has not been firing on all cylinders over the last 14 days, so that last Christmas gift - and blog post - will be delivered a bit late.

Instead, what I've managed to do over the last hour or so of calm and quiet is look back on what I've read over the last year.  For Christmas, my family gave my mother two books - one nonfiction, one fiction.  The fiction one is People of the Book, a book I chose both because it's well-written and interesting and because I thought it was appropriate that our family give it, since we are people of books.

I have been so pleased in the last few months to see my extroverted K become not just a capable reader, but a voracious one.  I had wondered whether this little bundle of energy would ever find solace, entertainment and adventure between the pages of a book.  It seems like nothing less than a gift from my Creator to have three daughters who love to read.  So if you don't read much, here are my 2011 suggestions for places to start.

I don't read a lot of nonfiction (just six books this year, with a seventh in process), but there's a clear trend in the nonfiction books I do read.  I only read them if I think they're excellent.  And I don't just mean they have excellent ideas and content.  They must be well-written.  Both I Thought it Was Just Me by Brene Brown and The Art of Family by Gina Bria fit this bill.  I would recommend the former to any woman, so strong is the culture of shame in our world.  The latter is an inspiring, rather than instructional, take on parenting.

Historical Fiction
One of the best, if not the very best, books I read this year is a small, quiet book called Between Shades of Grey.  I love historical fiction for what it teaches me about our world and this book was an eye-opening and sometimes heartbreaking look at what it was like to be Lithuanian seventy years ago.

I think everyone in my family likes to find a good series of books.  For K, this was what ultimately got her hooked on reading.  A friend talked up the Magic Tree House books to her, she read a few and she's been sold ever since.  For me, a series is easy entertainment.  I've done the work of getting to know the characters through the first book or two, so if the author can keep surprising me, I'm happy to go along for the ride.  Two series have done this for me recently: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.  I enjoy the Scott series in part because of its use of historical characters inserted into fictional plots.  The Leviathan trilogy has been my introduction to steampunk as a genre and they are fascinating alternate reality books.

Looking back at my reading trends over the last year, it's clear I like books that are otherworldly.  Sometimes the books that help you see our world best are the ones that aren't quite set in this world. A Discovery of Witches is a great book about accepting who you are and loving someone different than you.  Also worth a read was the lighter fare of The Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Just for Fun
A book that doesn't fit into my normal reading pattern is Ready Player One. This is a book about gamers competing in a virtual reality game - not standard fare for this girl who majored in art history and has never played games beyond casual Wii with the family.  But if you grew up in the 80s, this book has something to offer you.  It's entertainment, but well-written enough to not leave you feeling like you've just dined on cotton candy.

There you go.  A mere 8 books - not even 10% of what I read this year, but books I think will appeal to a wide range of people.  What have you read recently?  What do you want to read?  I'm always willing to add to my to-read list.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


2 : something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast

To my knowledge, this is the longest I've ever gone between blog posts.  There's good reason for that: I am grieving.  My Aunt Harriet, who was one of my favorite people in all of the world, passed away last week.  She was diagnosed with cancer in October and while we knew this day was coming, it is impossible to grieve beforehand.  I think your heart and mind simply refuses to let go of hope until there is absolutely no choice.  My aunt was a great encouragement and inspiration to me and I've been reeling a bit these last few days. 

Prior to my aunt's death, I had planned a cookie decorating party for Monday of this week.  I called a friend on Friday to discuss preparations for this party and she wisely advised me to cancel the party.  "Yes, you'll be back in town by then," she said, "but how will you feel?  I can't say for sure, but I think you'll be exhausted.  Grieving is tiring business."  I could not be more thankful for these words she offered with the utmost wisdom and kindness.  Thanks to her, we spent Monday watching TV, reading books and catching up on laundry.  I didn't cook a thing (unless you count frozen pizza for dinner as cooking - I don't.)

Tuesday I attempted to resume a somewhat normal schedule.  Grocery shopping simply could not be put off one day more, but as I walked the aisles with my list in hand, I was struck by how very difficult this was.  It was like I was walking through fog.  The haze in my mind would not clear, so I was careful to buy the items on my list and not much more.  Wednesday the girls and I were supposed to take Jason's car to the shop for an oil change and tune up.  When I called to schedule it, they told me to expect an hour and a half wait.  Hmmm.  An hour and a half with three daughters in a Midas waiting room?  That sounds difficult on a good day.  And I have not been having good days lately.

I googled the location.  The nearest library was a half-mile walk.  I'd never been to this branch and the forecast called for rain showers, but this was the best plan I could manage, especially with my limited brainpower.  I had the girls pack one bag each with library books to return, reminding them that they would need to carry their own books.  Thankfully, the weather cooperated and there was no rain to be found.  Our walk was a bit brisk, but we were in no hurry and we each had dressed for warmth.

The library branch, when we arrived, was the smallest I've ever seen.  The librarian even remarked to me that it's Nashville's smallest branch library.  I can believe it.  I helped the girls locate new-to-them books from the library's limited selection and we settled down around the library's sole table.  And we all read.  And read.  And read.

At one point, I put my book down and just looked around the table at them, one by one.  11 year old A has been an avid reader for more than half her life.  B's love of reading kicked in around first grade.  Extroverted K was the one I worried about.  Would the world of books - with the different type of interaction they offered - be enough for her?  Would she ever love books the way the rest of us do?  The short answer appears to be Yes.  Because of who I am, it feels like nothing less than a gift from God to have three daughters who willingly and gladly spent more than an hour huddled around a table the week of Christmas reading.

That tiny little library was an oasis for our family yesterday.  Had I been forced to spend the two hours that it took to work on J's car in that tiny waiting room, we would all have left exhausted and frustrated.  I would have had to answer K's innumerable questions about top stories on Fox News.  I would have had to remind B again and again that she couldn't go outside - there was nowhere to play.  And A would have been frustrated by her sister's inability to sit still around so much stimuli.

Wednesday didn't really go well because of me.  All I did was look for the nearest library and hope for the best.  But it felt like an early Christmas gift to end our morning by telling each other about our books as we walked back to Midas, instead of counting the second and minutes until we could get home.

In a month when I'm feeling like I'm lost in the desert, I'm thankful for the oasis we found yesterday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


1 : to make a present of

About this time last year, I read a blog post about what was - to me, at least - a radical idea: choosing to give to others instead of my family at Christmas.  Giving to those who really need it - not to my white, middle class children, who have everything they need and most of what they want.  It was challenging to me - this idea of doing Christmas differently.  But I'll confess two things that made me interested: 1) I'm not much into Things anyway and 2) a great big part of me really wants to be a radical - deep in my heart, I'm not much of a rule-follower.

J and I talked it over.  I wanted to know what he thought.  He's the more grounded of the two of us.  I get caught up in ideas with little thought of how to actually execute on them.  Our daughters have had more than a decade of receiving gifts at Christmas - how might they react?  Our culture tells them to want, want, want - could we buck that trend?  Was I crazy to even suggest we try?

After many discussion with me trying to temper my enthusiasm and J trying to meet me halfway, we came up with an idea.  I can't remember now whether it was his idea or mine, but we decided a year ago to try something different this Christmas.  Instead of buying gifts for our daughters, we would give them money each week of Advent for them to give away.  They've had some experience with giving, thanks to J's willingness to let the girls spend the tithe of his annual bonus.  And they'll still get some gifts: they have chosen gifts for each other and will get a stocking and a gift from Santa (in addition to gifts to and from grandparents).  But the gifts from us?  That money will go elsewhere.

Advent weeks 1 and 2 ended up being lumped together for giving.  Despite my best intentions, I didn't make time to sit down with our girls the first week of Advent for their giving.  So we recently went through some catalogs and talked through their giving options.  K loved the idea of giving rabbits or chicks to someone via Heifer International, an organization my dear aunt introduced us to.  B initially said she wanted to give her money to our church.  I reminded her that we tithe there anyway, but after hearing last Sunday about a fourth quarter budget shortfall, she wants to give all of her Advent money there.  (I feel I should note how surprising it is to both J and I that B wants to give money to our church.  She complains about going nearly every Sunday - not because it's not a fabulous place, but because she would rather spend her time in other ways.  I'm encouraged that something good must be happening to her heart while there if she's choosing to give them her gift.) A is still on the fence: give money to her ballet school (which serves inner city youth) or her church?

You might be wondering what my girls' reactions were to the news they would give instead of getting this year.  I told A and B together.  A was pretty immediately agreeable to the idea.  She loves gift-giving, but I think she's a bit like me and doesn't thrill to gift-getting.  B was not happy.  She's 10.  She likes electronics.  She likes predictability and tradition - this was radically new.  She let me know exactly how she felt.  K was excited when I first explained it to her.  Then she listened more carefully and realized this was going to cut into her gifts.  Her excitement diminished considerably.  Interestingly enough, B was there when K realized what this meant and got upset.  B chose to be the peacemaker and started reminded K of the good things about doing Christmas this way.

My own reaction has been as varied as that of my daughters.  I really want this to work.  I have been amazed at how freeing it has been to not spend hours planning for gifts and shopping for gifts.  It's like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.  Yet I am, by nature, someone who avoids conflict.  And I fear my daughters' disappointment on Christmas morning.  Will they feel shortchanged?  Is it possible to raise children who don't feel entitled to things when the culture screams at them that they deserve to fulfill their every wish and whim?  How will I feel if they're sad?

I've also been surprised to find I feel like we're not giving enough.  We've always had fairly modest Christmases around here.  We don't spend thousands on gifts.  So the money we've designated for them to give each week isn't a huge amount.  It's left me wondering whether I could do something different to give them more to give.  But yesterday as I was checking out of the grocery store, I realized something: our Advent giving isn't the only way we're giving this season.  We hosted a party for 60 ten days ago and next week we'll host a cookie decorating party.  Those parties?  They cost money.  I've never thought of them as ministry because they bring so much joy to our family.  But a friend who attended my birthday party commented that my children weren't territorial about having two dozen extra children in their space.  They shared their rooms, their toys, their friends.  And that's giving, isn't it?

I've been thinking these last few days about wanting to see more fully.  This can be a scary thing to pray for - seen things can't been unseen.  We're stuck with knowing how far this world is from God's kingdom.  But when we really see, we also get a glimpse of the ways God is at work that we missed before.  I've never realized that hosting a party is a gift to others, but it's no coincidence that we open our home to others more at this time of year than any other time.  We've been giving of ourselves all along.

I've been hesitant to write about our plans for Christmas giving.  I don't want you to read this and think we're super-spiritual or on the fast track to heaven.  I don't think people are wrong to celebrate Christmas by giving gifts.  I just want to see whether I can foster something different, unique and radical in the hearts of my children.  I want to see whether I can remove some of the stress of Christmas by putting our focus elsewhere.  Because that would be a gift to all of us.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


2 d : disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency

Thus far, Advent has not gone exactly as I imagined.

I've been planning for this season since July.  Back then, I talked A and B into doing math a few times each week so that we could suspend our regular studies in favor of Advent studies and activities for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  No science, no history, no grammar - just baking cookies, studying the people and symbols of the season and doing things for others.  They (grudgingly) agreed and to my delight and relief we're nearly halfway through our math textbook with nearly five months still ahead of us to finish it.  We're still doing a bit of math each day, but we've cut back our textbook lessons to two per week and are doing a lesson or two on Khan Academy to keep skills fresh.  In addition to a bit of math each day, we're trying to Think, Read and Do something related to Advent.

What this means varies by day.  Yesterday, we talked about the difference between saints and Saints.  We discussed icons and looked at some examples.  We found that the saint could be framed by several different things: scenes from the saint's life were the most common, but other images show the saint surrounded by prophets or by images from sermons preached.  Then the girls were to create their own icon-inspired image.  Which they did... but not until today.  This was partly their fault - they knew the assignment and did not do it.  But it was also my fault.  I didn't follow up or follow through, so it slipped until today.

Quite frankly, this is largely because I am tired and my entire family is tired.  I opted for a long trip to the library yesterday instead of more time at the table.  This afternoon brought a trip to the Adventure Science Center instead of more school work.  These things weren't scheduled, but they were what we needed.  This week is crunch time for Nutcracker rehearsals.  Over the course of an 8 day period, A rehearses or performs for 7 of those 8 days.  The one extra evening was occupied by B's choir concert.  We're on day 5 with opening night tomorrow.  I think we're going to make it.  But only because I've left piles of laundry for a day when I can manage it.  Only because I've scrapped some of my Advent ideas in favor of reading books.  Only because I've given myself grace to let go of my grand plans for Advent and let the season unfold with a mixture of planning and mystery.

Tomorrow is a school day, but the girls in this house are taking a mental health day.  K is staying home from school.  A and B's Advent plan for the day can wait.  Instead, we'll sleep in, make pancakes for breakfast, watch Christmas movies, read Christmas books, and rest.  If Advent is about waiting and listening, then I think it's important to listen to what's going on with my children.  Tempers have been flaring and my girls are exhausted.  I can insist we push through and take advantage of all this season has to offer.  Or I can let my own grand plans slip through my fingers like sand from the beach.  That sounds a lot more like a grace-filled Advent to me.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


1 a: the act or process of making preparation to meet a need

Over the last few days, I've made double batches of three soups (Tomato Florentine, Chicken Tortilla and Chorizo Black Bean Chili).  I've baked cowboy cookies, peanut brittle, lemon whippersnappers, chocolate sweet potato cupcakes and chocolate covered pretzels.  I've de-cluttered kitchen counters, dusted, swept, mopped and vacuumed.

My birthday is next Saturday, but tonight we hosted a party.  A lot of people came.  I've always loved having parties.  Even back in high school, I can remember hosting friends for a game night or a football game.  What I didn't realize (or think much about) until recently was my motivation for hosting parties.  As an Enneagram 9, I love filling my home with people from all of the different parts of my life.  I love school friends mixing with homeschool friends mixing with church friends.  It makes my heart happy and content to cook for them, host them and see them all together.

But this year felt a bit different to me.  For the past six years, we've done a roughly bi-annual birthday party for me.  There was no birthday bash last year, but we did host an open house the day after Christmas.  I was on the fence about whether to have a party this year because A is in the Nutcracker, which makes for a very busy December.  As I was still pondering what I wanted to do, K took matters into her own hands.  Before a date was even set, she started inviting people.  I took that (strong) hint and decided to go for it.  Deciding not to be bound by tradition, I picked a date exactly one week before my birthday - the Saturday before Nutcracker starts.

We set the date for the party and invited people several weeks ago.  And then the week of the party arrived and I struggled.  My extended family is going through some very difficult times and my body's response to processing all of these emotions is exhaustion.  This is not a great stress reaction to have when you're about to host several dozen people for a party.  I have a friend who can be found scrubbing her floors while processing emotions.  That's a stress reaction I could have used.  Alas, it wasn't to be.

On Saturday morning, I lay in bed with J and told him that all I really wanted to do was curl up into a ball and be alone.  He said he could tell that's how I felt, but that I'd love it once the party arrived.  I just had to finish the cooking and the preparations.  It would all be worth it.

Even on the day of a party, regular life doesn't stop.  A and K had ballet in the morning.  B had basketball.  Then A and B had a youth group party to attend in the afternoon.  (Mercifully, a friend was driving them to and from this party.  They would otherwise not have been able to go.)  About 30 minutes before K was due to get home from ballet, a friend called.  "Do you have a minute?" she asked.  "Sure," I replied, "I'm just heading out to buy brown sugar because of course I've run out of it six hours before a party."  My friend was calling to see if K could come over and play after ballet.  What a gift this was - a few more hours alone in the kitchen to finish the last batch of cookies.

Earlier that day another friend had called.  "I'm in Goodwill. They have tons of Christmas mugs on sale.  Did you say you needed a few more for tonight's party?"  She bought me ten, washed them and brought them to the party, thereby ensuring every adult had a Christmas mug to hold their soup.

At about 4 yesterday afternoon, I headed upstairs for a quick bath before the party.  I took a few minutes to read the daily office in Celtic Daily Prayer and realized as I prayed that the timing of this party was God's provision.  Had I not seen K's desire for a party and responded, I likely would have spent the day curled into a metaphorical ball.  I would have read a book, taken a nap and tried to numb the pain.  Instead, I cooked, cleaned and prepared my house for guests.

A friend at the party surveyed all of the food and said to me, "So for your birthday you cooked all of this and invited us all over?"  When I replied affirmatively he said, "That's funny.  I much prefer letting someone else do all of that on my birthday."  But even as I've had a difficult week and had a hard time getting motivated to be ready for this party, I've know and realized that hosting parties is one way I love others.  Let me not give the impression that my house was spotless for this event, nor that the food was entirely homemade.  Publix and Trader Joe's provided most of the appetizers so that I could concentrate on soups and desserts.  But everything I cooked was made with gratitude for friends who were willing to spend a Saturday night with us.

As I chatted with a friend at the party, I told her how I thought God knew even better than I did what I needed on this day.  And he provided it in a big way: through friends who helped with children and party supplies and through a party that I wasn't sure I could muster the energy to host.  The energy arrived when I needed it - and not a moment before.  And the party provided a reminder that sadness has its place, but that I should not forget all of the people in my life who love me.

Looking back on this party, I'm amazed at how well it went.  I'm amazed at how many people came.  When I host a party, I am terrible at limiting the guest list.  Since part of my motivation for having a party is to bring together all of the parts of my life, I want to invite everyone.  I can't stand the idea of someone feeling left out.  So I tend to over invite and trust that it will work out.  Perhaps I over invited this time.  By my best count, there were sixty-one people here last night.  But it definitely all worked out.  There was enough food, a lovely and mild December evening for the children to run around in the backyard and God's spectacular early birthday gift of giving me eyes to see his provision for me.