Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fish and Other Matters

I woke up last Saturday morning feeling brave enough for adventure. By that I mean brave enough to take all three kids somewhere on my own.

I love travel and taking day trips, but with three kids, and three with wildly varying interests, as well as trying to save money, we haven't really attempted much in the past year. In fact, as I thought about it, the only place I'd taken the kids was to a maple sugar house up in western Mass last March. That trip had featured a screaming newborn and me coming down with something, and really had just been attempt to prove to the world that I could, yes, hit the road independently with all of them.

But that was eons ago. I realized we hadn't gone to a museum, aquarium or zoo in well past a year. It was time. An aquarium about an hour away that wasn't too outrageously pricey or too large and overwhelming seemed like a good choice.

"Ethan, we're going to go to an aquarium today!" I announced when he came downstairs for breakfast a little later.

Pause. And then, "Awwww. I don't WANT to go there."

I knew it. I knew this was the response I was going to get. I took a deep breath and said very evenly, "But it's going to be fun."

"Do we HAVE to go there? I want to go to a waterpark."


This is the trouble with these types of plans, especially if I have to take the kids on my own if Dan is working. Anna loves every tourist attraction and will linger at each exhibit faithfully reading each sign. Ethan wants to blow through everything in five seconds unless it has a button. And Chloe just needs to be kept occupied in the stroller.

Packing a diaper bag, grabbing stuff for the kids to eat for lunches so we didn't spend our lives' savings at the aquarium café, and listening to Ethan's non-stop whining sucked away much of my enthusiasm like air slowly leaking from a balloon.

By the time we were ready to leave (of course nearly an hour behind schedule) I was starting to get mad.

"I DON'T want to go there. I don't like aquariums!" Ethan was insisting.

"And I'm tired of trying to do things for you kids and you never appreciate it!" I yelled back. I won't say there weren't a few tears involved.

In the car I sniffled and tried to think of a plan. What could I do to ensure Anna enjoyed the aquarium and got to actually see a few exhibits, and to help Ethan enjoy the experience just a little bit better? I wondered if I could give him some sort of assignment if he got antsy. Maybe he could count all the fish in a certain display or we could do some sort of "I Spy" game. Maybe I could promise a reward. That would, of course, miff Anna, who would wonder why her brother deserved extra prizes when we were already getting the treat of the aquarium. Trying to explain these things is sometimes difficult.

As we drove the amount of precision and planning it was taking just to do a family activity started to feel like a lead weight. At the same time, looking out at the sun and then Long Island Sound from the car brought back a sense of calm. A big part of me knew Ethan wasn't just being a brat, but that it was part of his make-up to have trouble focusing on an activity he didn't really care for. At the same time, I feel as if it's our duty to almost force him sometimes to do these sorts of things. How will he get along in life if he only chooses to do everything HE alone wants to do?

Our aquarium visit started with a parking garage and elevator -- two pluses for Ethan. The place was not too large and not too small, and just the right length of time away to make us feel as if we'd gone somewhere without the kids getting too antsy.

Inside there were jellyfish and touch tanks and the centerpiece, a big tank with at least 5 sharks inside. This caught Ethan's attention.

We watched the seal feeding time and looked at some other displays. Anna thankfully realized she was not going to be able to stop and read every single fact and Ethan with some needling managed to slow down (a little) and look at some of the fish. Chloe (thank you, God!) was a happy as a little clam sitting in the stroller, looking at fishies, and chomping on teething cookies.

We headed back to the big tank since a scuba diver was going to be jumping in and then taking questions from kids via a microphone hook-up. Everyone in the museum had the same idea. Soon this not-so-large space was completely jam-packed. Somehow Anna and Ethan had ended up directly against the tank but at an angle where they couldn't actually see the scuba diver. I was crunched into a corner with Chloe in the stroller and couldn't move an inch. I decided this was as good of a time as ever to attempt to feed her some yogurt. As I finagled things and handed her the spoon while the older two sat blessedly uncomplaining, watching fish in the tank, I felt for a moment like Super Mom. We were doing this! I savored the moment, because of course, these moments are always fleeting.

Then we looked at a few more displays, convinced Ethan it was NOT appropriate for him to play in the under 5 children's area (he looked like he wanted to wrestle the toddlers), and allowed Anna to do a few touch tanks on her own (Ethan's not into that) while we visited an interactive area.

After about three hours, we were done. Outside the sun was bright and it was gloriously warm for December. The kids hung out on a little playground and we walked to the shore of the Saugatuck River that was just outside the aquarium entrance. There -- joy of joys! -- we realized there was an actual swing bridge just to our right, and as we were looking it turned to let a barge through. Bonus for Ethan!

Heading home, I felt simultaneously tired but satisfied. The trip hadn't been perfect but what trip is? Chloe had been a dream. Anna wasn't disappointed. Ethan had expanded his world a bit.

I thought about the teenager we'd seen on the playground. I'd known as soon as I'd seen him. He was obviously autistic and most likely non-verbal.

I'd heard the parents chatting. "This would be a nice place to come back to sometime on our own," and "There were a lot of things we blew right by to get out here." I'd seen them inside, too. I'd seen the dad navigating the son around people and saw the way he didn't really look at the exhibits but wandered past them, possibly taking note of things others never saw. (I remembered Ethan at the Bronx Zoo gorilla exhibit a few year ago, commenting excitedly about the Exit signs.)

I wished I could have said something to these parents, but the situation hadn't been right. So I had watched and thought...thought about how I'm sure they didn't want pity, but how they had my empathy. I thought about how I needed to be thankful for all that Ethan COULD do...but that it was okay to be worn down sometimes by his quirks. I thought about how we HAD to keep doing these things. We had to expand his world, to let him know he had to try new things. We had to ensure Anna got to enjoy things she liked while sometimes accommodating her brother. And Chloe? Well, Chloe was going to be an expert at going with the flow.

Then we went home and Ethan asked me about 23 times if he could have screen time, and eventually disappeared into the world of Nintendo DS. And we realized later we'd left his coat at the aquarium.



Such is life.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Snow can wait, I forgot my mittens.
Wipe my nose -- get my new boots on.
I get a little warm in my heart
when I think of winter...  - Tori Amos, "Winter"
Ethan's class had a project recently in which they all had to pick a holiday to learn and write about. He picked New Year's. I'm pretty sure it's because last New Year's Eve he was at his grandparents house and they let him sleep in a tent in the living room, play on the Kindle in there, AND stay up until midnight for the first time ever.
His talk about New Year's brought back memories so vivid I could almost smell and touch them.
I read an article recently about how (for whatever reason), the more resilient kids seem to be the ones who have stories passed down to them from their parents and family members. I'm not sure if that means the sort of random visceral memories I tend to have about childhood happenings or the big stories about overcoming and adversity and coping with change. Neverthless, I tell my stories, and my kids for the most part bear with me and only half listen. So I write them here and feel a little better.
Ethan mentioned New Year's, and suddenly I remembered countless New Year's Eves, pretending to sleep, waiting for my dad to come home. He played drums in a polka and later a 50s/60s band and always was out playing for something that night. Well past midnight he would come quietly into the house and lay "goodies" on the foot of our beds. They were party hats and noisemakers from whatever event he'd been playing for, and I waited for them every year.

I remembered those nights when the heavy snow was flying, of lying almost asleep while being serenaded by the comforting hum of snow plows headed up and down our little street. On a school night the sound was assurance we'd probably have a snow day the next day. On those nights when I was tired of winter, I'd lie there with my eyes closed and fix my mind for a few moments on summer. If I was very still and concentrated, I could imagine the sound was not a snow plow but the hum of motor boats on Flying Pond up in Maine.

I remembered snow days at the end of our dead-end street where a bunch of the neighborhood kids went to go sliding (not sledding, mind you, in central Mass. it was always "sliding"). We lived on a dead end street that ended at a small hill heading up to the town's ball field. The plows would push great piles of snow to the foot of the hill. We had two paths leading down that would conclude in a fantastic jump in our sleds over the snow piles and into the driveway of the four-family row house where my grandmother lived.

The picture window in her living room looked out onto the hill and to all of us. How many times did I race down, fly through the air, come to a landing, and see her standing there, watching us with delight and just a little hint of worry that someone would get hurt?

Then when our noses were running and our fingers and toes were getting numb, we'd pile into her house and strip off our wet things, which she'd throw in the dryer. We'd dribble snow all over her kitchen as she made us hot chocolate and presented us with cookies. A half-hour later, we'd be out there again in our warmed up snowsuits and mittens and hats, ready for more.

And I remembered the ball field, white with snow. I remembered sometimes climbing to the top of the hill with my sled but taking a moment to pause. I'd chew on a piece of snow. Sometimes I'd lay back as if preparing to make a snow angel and just look and listen. I'd watch the gray sky spread out above me and the snowflakes flying. I'd listen to the hush that seems to fall on the world around you when it's snowing and hear the wind as it swayed the trees around me. I'd feel a peace that rarely I felt at any other time.

And then I'd be off down the hill again, swerving to miss the trees and cresting over the snow pile, heart pounding, then hitting the slushy pavement, the plastic underbelly of my sled making a long scraping sound that gave me a nails on the chalkboard type feeling.

These were just regular days. There is nothing monumental or profound here. Except, maybe there is. Maybe any memory that envelops you with warmth -- even those of the most bitterly cold days -- is something extraordinary. Maybe any recollection that brings to mind feelings of fun, of feeling safe and daring and secure and brave, of feeling loved, is something worth treasuring and grasping with all of your heart.

I hope my children are collecting many of these.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

For the Love of Geeks

I love geeks.

I love nerdy types; guys in glasses with scruffy haircuts who look down at their shoes when talking to you; band geeks and computer guys and people who get really excited over things like model airplanes and ham radios and facts and books.

So is it any surprise that I am kind of secretly really happy that my oldest seems to be discovering her "inner geek?"

I try not to write about Anna here, but this time I can't resist, because I don't think she'd mind too much, and because it's such a positive.

Here's the thing: she's 10. And 10 these days is when things start to get rough.

Do you remember? Do you even want to remember? Do you remember those years of trying to figure out who you really were, to test the waters and see if it was okay to just be you, even if you wasn't exactly like everyone else?

When I was Anna's age, like her, I was full of contradictions. I stunk at sports but my first obsession (read: crush) was the Boston Red Sox. Particularly Roger Clemens. I played with dolls but got dreamy about a boy in my class. I liked to read and write but felt bad about liking reading and writing because it seemed so "nerdy."

My daughter is not me, of course. She is less sensitive, already has better hair/fashion sense, is more crafty, less musical (but a great singer) and would never willingly watch a Red Sox game. But like all tweens, she's trying to find her place.

First, a few years ago, all the girls wanted to practice singing and performing during recess, and she just wanted to read books. Then last year, she followed the lead of a few others and started to get into hair and lip gloss and watching You Tube video "shows" with American Girl dolls acting like bratty teenagers and I thought, "It's way too early for this."

To complicate matters, she attends a very small school where there aren't a lot of options for friendships. Meaning, if you aren't fitting in with one group, you can't just up and try to work your way into another.

Until this year. That's when two new students, a boy and a girl, arrived. And they're true, bonafide geeks. I mean this in the nicest possible way. One is obsessed with all things Pokémon and confesses to sneaking and playing video games in the middle of the night. The other is a matter-of-fact, face full of braces, confident girl gamer who has no need for peering in the mirror every three minutes (as Anna was getting into the habit of doing).

And suddenly, Anna has found her "gang." It helps that her dad is a tried and true geek. The kids love their time playing on the WiiU with him and watching obscure shows he's pulled from the dark recesses of the internet (i.e. "Mysterious Cities of Gold," a highly regarded cartoon from the eighties the average kid today has absolutely never heard of). Anna loves to read; she loves to spout off facts; she's passionate about science. That doesn't mean she still doesn't like to attempt new hairstyles or wear (a little bit) dangly earrings. It just means it's okay to be her, with all of her incongruities.

The school Christmas play last week -- we got to attend and watch our "shy with grownups" girl act her heart out on stage. Afterwards, she hung with her two best buddies. They talked about Pokémon characters. I told them about the days when Anna's dad was so obsessed with computers he was locked out of the computer room by his parents -- until he took the door off its hinges when they weren't home. The best thing was how happy they seemed. Especially my girl.

I don't know if Anna feels the same way, but I know why I always liked geeks. It's because from early on I realized they were sweet, and they were safe. The shy guys weren't going to act like the jocks (I called them "backwards hat guys") and belittle me. They were more sensitive. Somehow they were likeable even when they were being obnoxious.

When I think of geeks, the first thing that comes to mind is high school band. A table full of guys sat right next to my group of friends (who were just one step off from full-blown geekdom, mind you). They were ridiculous and hormonal. They used to sit there and say all together in monotone voices, repeating the lyrics from a song back then:

We don't have to take our clothes off. To have a good time. Oh no. But it helps.

But you knew they were just talking, because none of them had girlfriends. And you knew if you tripped in the hallway and left papers trailing everywhere, they'd be the first to help you pick them up.

On the last day of his senior year, I asked one of those guys to sign my yearbook. He was a fellow clarinet player who badly needed a haircut, was about 50 pounds overweight, and was always asking with his friends, "Hey Debby, how's Dallas?" (apparently after some series of porno movies back then). He handed my yearbook back to me and disappeared before I could read it. I'm pretty sure I never talked to him again, after that moment. When I flipped to the page, my jaw fell to the floor:

You're great, wonderful, kind, considerate, intelligent, beautiful, hardworking, and a superior clarinet player. I think that if you stopped worrying everyone would see these qualities more clearly and love you for who you are. Good luck and I'll see you around.

This is why I love geeks.

Go for it, Anna. Hang with the people who may not dazzle everyone outwardly, but who may just be hidden gems inside.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Snippets from Autismville

I don't have anything big and profound to write about. We're just plugging away at life here; trying to make it through to the holidays all in one piece (I almost wrote "peace;" that must be a Freudian slip).

In the moments when the house is quiet and the kids aren't home or Chloe's sleeping, I can think over the days and smile instead of huff and puff about things. This especially applies to Ethan. When I'm removed from his quirks and his energy, I have a much bigger sense of humor. Since right now I'm staring at the tree and my house is only a half-disaster, sitting here and taking a moment to actually breathe, and I'm thinking...

...I'm thinking about the math word problems that have come home with Ethan in the last week or so. He's supposed to write a subtraction or addition "story." In typical Ethan-fashion, once he picks a theme, he sticks with it until he's beaten it completely dead. And so, for a number of days now, I've read:

Once upon a time there were 20 lions. They lived in Maine. One went away. How many were left?


Once upon a time there were 17 elephants. They lived in San Francisco. Two more came. How many are there now?


Once upon a time there were 11 owls. They lived in Seattle. Five flew away. How many are left?

I'm pretty sure all of the cities he's used come from NFL team cities.

...I'm thinking about Ethan's complete abhorrence for the microwave being left with any seconds remaining. I tend to heat up my coffee and stop it too soon. Without fail I will always hear, "Mama? Can you please press 'clear' on the microwave?"

...I'm thinking about how Ethan's ideal world is when breakfast is served to him exactly this way: bowl of oatmeal, plate with banana, slice of cheese, and a vitamin, cup of juice or milk, napkin. If I forget the napkin, he makes sure I know. If we are out of an item, the next thing I hear is, "When are you going to Big Y to get more?" If I put too much milk in the oatmeal, he is not pleased. If I give him something else for breakfast, he's not thrilled, either, but I feel I have to sometimes, or he's going to get just too darned rigid.

...I'm thinking about being nagged in the car by the worst backseat driver, EVER. I have been accused of going too fast, going too slow, leaving my blinker on, being in the wrong lane, and running red lights. Of course, he's usually right, but to say after a while this gets rather tiresome would be an understatement.

...I'm thinking about the door to Ethan's room, which is covered with signs. One says "Closed." One gives the "hours" for his room. One is complete gibberish. And then he's taped a "book" up there that he decided to write last week. Its title? "Top Seconds." What is "Top Seconds?" Ethan had me tape a bunch of papers together (yeah, we can't find the stapler right now). And then he took a toy top we'd found at the bottom of the toy box, started spinning it, and began documenting each time how many seconds it took the top to stop. And so, his book contains pages and pages and pages of, essentially, numbers and nothing more. He was quite proud of this accomplishment.

...And I'm thinking of this bundle of energy who is such a great big brother. He's come a long way from the day he found out he was going to have a sister, not a brother, and ran out of the house crying. He calls Chloe "my baby" and wants to play with her the minute he gets up in the morning. In the afternoons we stand at the door and wait for him to get off the bus, and Chloe starts shrieking and bobbing up and down with excitement when she sees him walking up the driveway. Now, if only he would stop considering his little sister an appropriate wrestling partner, we'd be golden.

See, this is good. Now I'm smiling, despite the fact that I woke up at 4:40, Chloe woke up not long after screaming with yet another clogged nose (but she went back to sleep after a while!), and I'm still not ready for Christmas. It's amazing what a cup of coffee mixed with hot chocolate and a perfectly silent house will provide for a least, for Ethan's mom. I think it's called perspective.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Don't Go At It Alone

Eons ago at another church I attended, this immensely talented woman used to write entire musicals, and in one I had a solo that involved dressing up like a cowgirl. It'd be too difficult to explain this play, but let's just say picture the Island of Misfit Toys from the Rudolph Christmas special, and you'll have a bit of an idea. In this play I was a cowgirl, and I had to get up on the stage alone and sing forlornly a song that went something like:

All alone on the saddle I ride
'Cross the desert underneath the sky
No one near me to hold me down
I ride the saddle alone
...and so on and so forth. When the part got assigned, I remember being slightly miffed, because my character seemed so pathetic -- and because she'd captured my own personality, spot-on.
Yeah, I'm an introvert. I live in my head. I don't mind a day spent alone or eating a meal by myself in a restaurant (with a good book, of course). In a car full of bantering people I might just be gazing out the window, thinking. I think, then speak, and prefer small groups or to chat with one person during a noisy party.
Over time, though, I've realized that introverts still need people. And others out their need introverts and what we have to offer.
This past weekend, I was again reminded.
Friday night. I'd heard about a free event held at a local bounce place for kids on the spectrum. We'd attended in the past and had a lot of fun, but in more recent years I've felt almost guilty for going. My thought was that if my child is not profoundly affected by autism, why take up a slot from people who most benefit from these types of events? My child can go to Bounce Town anytime if he wants with minimal issues. It just felt weird; almost like stealing.
But we went. The place was packed. As always, those attending ran the gamut...from children who had trouble dealing with the noise and crowds and sat hunched in a corner, hands over their ears, to many others like Ethan who you'd have trouble identifying at a quick glance as being on the spectrum.
As I stood while Chloe crawled at my feet, watching Ethan bounce and slide, I found myself in several conversations with complete strangers. I'd forgotten this. I'd forgotten that special needs parents, especially at events like this, tend to jump past the small talk and get down to business. We're all usually so grateful to be with others who understand; who know the lingo and who aren't going to judge anyone's behavior; who are walking out similar stories.
I'd forgotten that events like these are unquestionably not just for the kids. They're for the parents as well. They're opportunities to make connections. And while our stories may not be the same, and I may not have similar struggles as those dealing with more intense issues, I can still relate better than the average parent off the street. Not only that, but I have my brother's history. I have another story I can share, another way to let others' know that I am listening and that I understand.
When did I begin to believe that I didn't need this?
The next day, the kids were with the grandparents and I knew I had to attempt another shopping trip for some dress clothes after a nightmarish experience a few days prior. I had planned to spend the afternoon in solitude, willing myself to buckle down and focus, but at the last minute changed my mind. I texted a friend to see if she wanted to go out to lunch. We met up and it turned out she needed to go shopping, too, so after lunch we braved the traffic and headed back to Kohl's.

Normally I shop like a man: in, grab something, and get the heck out of there. But sometimes that doesn't work. Not when you're having trouble finding something to wear that looks halfway decent and isn't crazy-expensive.

Christine and I ended up spending two hours in the darned store. We found clothes, tried them on, looked in the mirror, and started over again. We helped each other find items and sought each other's opinions. I made the oh-so-vital discovery that I don't need to stay shackled to the confines of the Petite department but can look for possibilities elsewhere.

I still loathe clothes shopping. But I've been reminded that shopping with someone else can make a dreaded experience a lot more fun.

This is not news, some of you may be thinking. I guess I'm talking to the introverts out there. Or maybe those who have convinced themselves that relationships are just, well, hard. I know, I've been there. But really: It's okay to need people sometimes. We don't have to be the cowgirl, always soldiering on, trying to hold the world on our shoulders, convinced that we're just fine, thank you, on our own.

Maybe we are. Maybe we do love solitude and introspection. But maybe there are times we need to crack our world open just a bit and let others in. And in the process, we allow them to see everything we've been holding inside, and all that we have to offer. And what a truly awesome exchange that can turn out to be. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mindful Christmas

So far, so good.

This holiday season I've found myself at about a 4 on the Stress-o-Meter rather than the usual 9.8. I've been trying to figure out why in order to make this a habit rather than an aberration.

It's certainly not because of anything I'm doing. My shopping's not done. Christmas cards have yet to be sent. Christmas cookie decorating? Not yet. The tree is up -- just don't look in the back, where we didn't bother to hang ornaments.

I guess it's all about a state of mind. Has anyone else noticed that sometimes the entire holiday season seemed to fly by and we never even thought about it? I mean, we did stuff and we raced around and got things and went to parties and did traditions and never really stopped and breathed in a single moment?

It reminds me of the time I achieved a lifelong dream and attended the parade in Boston after the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. At one moment I sat there juggling a video camera and regular camera, switching back and forth, and a voice screamed in my head, "You're missing the moment because you're too busy trying to capture the moment!"

What's sad is that we have to be so intentional, so mindful about being mindful, about staying in the moment. This should be a way of life and yet seems so contrary to how most of our lives are structured.

After ruminating I've begun to see why a few choices we've made are helping make things a little calmer this year. I thought I'd share...not to give someone another list to check off, or to concoct a formula for a perfect holiday, but to perhaps help someone else out there just a little...and maybe to serve as a reminder for me next time around when I will inevitably fight the usual holiday/high expectations/ultra-stress demons.

So, here goes:

- Fewer gifts
This year, we're doing the three gifts per child a la the Three Wise Men (plus a stocking) thing. This is certainly due to financial considerations, but also because they just have too much stuff. And our house is too small to collect much more. Hey, if it's good enough for Jesus, I tell them, it's good enough for them.

- Scaling back traditions
I LOVE decorating cookies with the kids (and unfortunately love eating them as well). But for years we've used a lot of our baking time to make cookie plates for the neighbors. This means that I stress about how they're making or decorating them since someone outside immediate family might actually eat them. This year we're decorating cookies -- for us. They can make as big of a mess as they want and who cares if they smear too much frosting on their snowman or we overcook the gingerbread men? We're the ones stuck with the final results. I may bake quick breads for the neighbors, which leads me to...

- Do the things you love to do
I enjoy baking. I don't enjoy shopping or crafting. So it makes sense that I'd bake things for people rather than try my hands at yet another Pinterest craft. Anna loves to craft. She spent a good deal of time recently with my mom making ornaments and gingerbread houses because my mom has the materials, the patience, and the know-how. I created about three (not-so-great-looking) ornaments and was done. I refuse to feel guilty about this any longer. I also love sending and receiving Christmas cards. So while fewer and fewer people do this, I'm still going to, not because I have to, but because I like to.

- Do the things you don't LIKE to do, but HAVE to do, cheerfully
When you allow time for the things you enjoy doing, those times you're stuck doing something you don't care for during the holidays, it's easier to have some self-control and at least try to be happy about it. I used to abhor going to Dan's work holiday party. There's nothing I hate more than schmoozing and fake small talk. I realized I felt a lot better when I just sucked it up and tried to have the best time I could rather than sulking. These days I no longer have that party to attend, but I have already had to deal with shopping on a Saturday at the nightmare that is the Buckland Hills Mall/Evergreen Walk area this time of year. As a person who already hates to shop, I've found the only way to get through this is with a sense of humor.

- Find ONE meaningful spiritual tradition to adopt
This is tough. I know so many people out there who do so many cool things to get their family involved in "the true meaning of Christmas" or to help their kids better understand the "real Christmas story," and some of it ends up being pretty elaborate. I can't even seem to follow our pastor's suggested tradition about hiding the Baby Jesus from your nativity set until Christmas morning. I keep losing him!

On the flip side, attending Christmas services or having your kids sing in the church choir or act in a play to me isn't a family tradition. It's just, honestly, more busyness. For a few years now we've checked out a living nativity held at a park in a nearby town on a Saturday evening before Christmas. Similar to going to look at Christmas lights, that night we go to look at Jesus. If we can maybe have one meaningful faith conversation that comes out of that night, I'll feel blessed. Although actually, these conversations rarely end up being planned. They usually come up when you're least expecting them.

- As Elsa sings, just "Let it Go"
I guess this is the biggest one of all: letting go of expectations. There is nothing that has caused me to be less in the moment during the holidays than that voice whispering about what I should be doing rather than leaving me focused on what is.

Maybe my child won't want to play with his new presents but will prefer his old standby toys.

Maybe I'll stumble over the words during the Christmas solo.

Maybe the cookies will burn and my tree will lose its needles before Christmas even arrives.

Maybe I won't hear from that relative I'd been hoping to connect with or will run into that same person who makes those same hurtful comments.

Maybe yes to all of these things. But maybe I can find those moments to just listen to that favorite Christmas look out the window at the stark beauty of bare find joy in my children's laughter rather than in finding them the perfect gift. Maybe I can stop working to digest the totality of the Bible's Christmas story or to find some new revelation or take on things that I hadn't thought of before or try so hard to make sure I'm not forgetting Jesus that I do indeed, forget. Maybe I could just sit with one thought, like Emmanuel. God with us. Wow.

Maybe, just maybe.

And if you celebrate Christmas and you have had similar struggles, I hope this for you, too.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


It's that time of year again (not that I need to tell anyone else that). The non-stop Christmas station "Holly" is back up on XM radio. Our pastor (love you, Pastor Dave!) has given his annual talk on Christmas traditions that includes discussion of orange danish, epiphany, cheesecake, and the true spirit of the season. We're slated to light the advent candle next Sunday, which, if you heard about last year, you'll know why I'm throwing my hands up in the air and asking for another large dose of grace.

Pinterest is near meltdown mode. I've sworn off attempting any more craft creations because -- it's time to face reality once and for all here -- I'm not crafty. People are posting shining happy photos on Facebook of chopping down Christmas trees and cutting cookie dough. Someone's packing Christmas boxes with their kiddos for the poor and someone else is creating a Advent Calendar complete with little treats for the children to open each day that directly link to the Christmas story.

I wonder and wonder: How to instill a tradition that means something? How do get us through the holiday with a little less "Where's the rest of my presents?" (that was Ethan at his birthday, literally) and a little more, "What can I give?" How to stop the kids early from getting on the treadmill of going through the motions and doing, doing, doing but rather to stop and reflect and understand what Christmas is and what it is not.

This is not as easy as it sounds. My kids are not saints, they are typical kids. In addition, Ethan doesn't like dealing with abstract concepts, and it's very hard to just sit him down and have a serious talk. Every time I've attempted sitting around and talking about the Bible's Christmas story, or flipping through catalogs to see where we might donate and help others, using in part some of their money earned raking leaves, he's up and gone. He wants nothing to do with it. My children are not sweet and wide-eyed, full of earnest desire to unselfishly give to others.

They're kind of like me.

I think: What can I give them? I think: Am I giving them what matters, what will matter when they need it most?

I remember a video we watched in our MOPS group not long ago. It was about helping your kids to be brave. They talked about letting them try and fail...letting loose some of the cords we hold onto way too long...urging them to do the hard thing, to not give up.

All week, in the midst of Christmas and expectations coming on like a winter blast, I think of the video, and I think of Sunday, at church.

There is a boy, a young teenager, whose body has been ravaged by cancer. Part of one leg has been amputated. There are nodules on his lungs. He just had a mass the size of a hand removed from his brain. And yet - he holds on to no resentment. A few months ago, God came into his life. Today, somehow, he is not swayed by everything happening to him. "It doesn't matter," he says, "because Jesus is my friend."

There is a woman, middle-aged, who had not just a marriage but a love story. She came to our MOPS group several times to share. I'd rarely met someone who seemed so passionately, madly in love after years and years of marriage. She and her husband used to hold a Valentine's Dance at our church and dress up and ballroom dance. This smiling joy of a man developed a malignant brain tumor last year and died earlier this week. Through a surely broken heart and unspeakable pain, she is shining through with an unshakeable peace and a steadfast faith. She's immersed herself in worship; in spending time with God. She mourns, yet rejoices. She hangs on to the hope that lies far beyond this present world and this simple, drab shadow of a life compared to all that is to come.

This Christmas my kids are going to fight and ask for too many presents. They'll snitch dough and the too-thin reindeer legs will break off the sugar cookies. Chloe will most likely devour a few tree needles before I can catch her. We may send off our donations at the last-minute, and Ethan may or may not care.

I can't wave the wand and make them "good little Christians." And maybe that's not what God even wants. Maybe He just wants an earnestness of heart and a trust that holds on even as it falters. Maybe he just wants a mom who still fiercely loves her children before they've arrived at spiritual maturity. Maybe He needs us to just take our baby steps and He'll meet us there.

I think I have to remember: Some things aren't taught as much as they are lived. And some seeds will only sprout when the test inevitably comes.

Maybe I need a new prayer. Maybe I need to pray that my kids will be not good, but brave. Brave enough to hold on. Brave enough to trust. Brave enough to rest. Brave enough to know they are always loved, in the midst of every storm. Brave enough to not grow up and put aside their faith as one would a childhood myth. Brave enough to believe. Like the boy and the woman who have lost so much, in different ways, yet know that they are found.