Saturday, December 31, 2011

something new

"the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;  great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning."  ~ lamentations 3:22-23

new mercies. is there ever a day i don't need them? ever a morning i wake not desperate for a little new and a little mercy?  fresh starts.  new beginnings.  do overs. oh how thankful i am that God, in His wisdom, created them all.   i am not sure what kind of mess i'd be if i didn't have the option to begin anew. afresh.  i simply can't imagine if as mother and wife and daughter and sister and friend i just stayed on a straight, never-changing, never ending course.  i'd be burnt out, bored and, without doubt, pretty darn tired.

of course we all feel that way on certain days. come 10 o'clock and the kids still awake we ask ourselves and maybe our spouses... will this day never end?   with these past two weeks of holiday making, my children have all had ridiculously late bedtimes.  the days sometimes a little too long.  even the very smallest girl has been seen romping around at unseemly hours. we're all off schedule.   and i've noticed things about these late nights:  like, when the movie ends at 11pm or the family is up in the kitchen fixing a snack at 10:30,  i've noticed that sometimes the patience runs thin and the irritability runs high.  we are all tired and tiresome. and i'm probably the worst one of them all.  that's what it is.  i want to tell my family to go get in bed, climb into their covers, because tomorrow will come.  and we need it. we need our tomorrows.  and just like little orphan annie sang her heart out, "the sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there'll be sun..."  she was right.  she had hope. there is something about tomorrow.  there is something about a new day.  a fresh start. a blank page.  there is something wonderful about the mercy of mornings.

our bleakest thoughts and our sharpest fears fill the night. "though weeping endures for a night, joy comes in the morning."(psalm 30:5).  when i cried myself to sleep as a teenage girl with a broken heart, i thought i understood this verse well.  but with a little more life under my belt:  disappointments, failed attempts, further heartbreak, anxious times, disobedient children, rejection, a frightening diagnosis...this verse means something different. something more.  have you ever wept through a night? i have. as blessed as we are, each one of us has probably had something or someone who has caused all night weeping.  it isn't pretty, is it?  david understood that, "i am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; i drench my couch with my weeping." (psalm 6:6). even david, a man after God's own heart, spent some good nights crying his eyes out.  he understood what it meant to wait for morning, to wait for something new.  and even if everything isn't all better come sunrise, joy has a much better shot.  it is the craziest thing -- the thoughts which can torment and torture throughout the dark hours of evening, calm and quiet with the first move toward morning. it is a new day and new mercies do come.  it is called hope.  and it just seems easier to find earlier in the day.

hope springs up from something new.  it springs up from change.  we are reminded that life is not static and straight.  God created seasons and cycles.  He created day and night.  He created all of this even before He created man and woman, because He knew we'd need a break. immediately. He knew we'd have little children who must have bedtimes and He knew the mother and the father, well, they'd need sleep and fresh starts and plenty of do-overs too.  He knew we'd need summer to warm our winters and winters to replenish the heavy heat of summer.  He knew we'd need time:  hours, days, months and those crazy new years.  before He even stirred adam from the dust of the earth, God stirred the idea of new hope. He wove it into His very command of creation.  because He knew.

i suppose a new year does the same thing for us.  what didn't work out in 2011 is now a bygone.  water under the bridge.  behind us. yesterday's news.  but 2012 is coming and it is clean -- we haven't trampled over the 365 days of it yet.  we haven't sullied it with our messes or mistakes.  it is brand spanking new.  dazzling and dangling before us, like the big ball in the city sky.  and with the stroke of midnight, when that ball dramatically drops, our entire country rejoices.  we celebrate wildly together, kissing spouses and children and sometimes even strangers, all because deep inside each one of us knows, we need something new.  new year's eve has taken a pretty sharp turn from anything spiritual, but stop and think.  it is absolutely that.  when we find redemption we find renewal. we start fresh. start over.  and isn't that exactly what being the children of God is all about.  the old adam gone.  the old woman changed. a new creation. beautiful. "therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"  (2 corinthians 5:17).  and that is hope.  the only hope.

i think the prodigal son is a new year's eve boy.  after his wild and reckless living,  after his raucous and rebellious behavior,  after his turning his back on his father and family, he comes home.  he comes home limping and dirty and smelling of pig.  he comes home tired and tortured and wrong.  oh boy, was he was wrong -- big time.  he had gone and gambled with his very inheritance.  he toyed with the treasure entrusted to him and it ended in complete and total disaster.  he ended broken and bruised and sharing quarters with swine.  but when he realized the error of his ways and turned his heart toward home, toward his father, new mercies were waiting for him on the threshold.  his father didn't just open his arms, but ran to meet his wayward son walking the dusty lane.  his father killed the fatted calf and his father threw the biggest ball (i imagine better than any new year's eve celebration ever).  his lost son was found.  his rebellious son was restored. the ball didn't have to drop and the year didn't have to change, but it was time to start anew.  the son had been found.  new mercy had been found.  new life had been found.  it was time to party.

and that's exactly the picture of our Father's love for us as we head into 2012.  new mercy.  in the middle of black night or in the midst of bright morning, our Father is ready to clothe us in His new robes of righteousness.  He is ready to restore us.  ready to wipe clean our slate and make clean our countenance.  He is ready with open arms and an open door and a fatted calf.  there is no pig pen too dirty, no rebel too rebellious, no sin too ugly.  new year or not, there is always new mercy found on the threshold of our Father.

i wish you friends, in this new year... new mercies,  new hope and new life.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

when christmas must go

christmas night and we were about to sit down to dinner -- a late dinner.  the woman in charge had somehow miscalculated the cook time on the roast.  it happens to the best of us, right? "children go play another round of monopoly."  oh well, what's a mother to do?  the silver lining: perhaps it might extend our day a bit.  and that's what we all wanted anyway -- christmas a little bit longer.  while mashing the potatoes,  youngest boy wandered into the kitchen,  plopped his body on a barstool and his chin in his hand.  what's this all about? i wondered.  he had been a fireball of frenzy and excitement all day -- a flash, running from one christmas thing to another.  but now he was here in my kitchen.  still and quiet and the most sedate i'd seen him since november.   when i stopped and looked closer, he seemed downright depressed.  

"connor, what's wrong?" i asked,  wondering if a new toy had broken or if a sibling had been hurtful.
no response. 
"what's the matter, buddy?" i asked again.
and with a defeated (and slightly dramatic) sigh he muttered, "oh, nothing." 
i crossed the kitchen, mashed potato spoon in hand, mama on a mission.   "tell me," i said looking into his eyes.
"well mom, i just don't want christmas to be over. it's going to be bedtime soon  (yes dinner was that late) and we'll go to sleep and when we wake up, we'll have to wait another whole year before christmas comes again. like another whole 365 days. " 
of course that was it.  i should have guessed. "oh connor, i know.  i feel the same way."

at least a little i do. probably not exactly the same as the 8 year old boy who had been
riding his new ATV all day and playing games with his brother and sisters.  i had spent a good portion of my day making a christmas brunch and now this uncooperative dinner.  i spent my day making weak attempts at restoring a little order to the family room:  matching boxes with their lids and tiny pieces with their games, collecting wrapping paper and ribbons, oohing and aahing over every new kid gadget -- mother stuff.  i think it is safe to say, i'd be a little more ready for the closing of christmas.  i'd be a little more welcoming of bedtime and quiet and slumbering everything.  but still, i got it.  i knew what he was saying and i could easily remember being a child and not wanting the day to end.

but it does. and it must.  all good things do.  special wouldn't be so special and good wouldn't be so good if it was all we ever had. all we ever knew.  christmas wouldn't be christmas if it happened every day or even every month.  we'd be tired of cookies,  sick of peppermint and probably be in counseling over the pine needles woven into our carpet. not to mention we'd all be incredibly fat. at least i'd be fat.  but still...i got it.  i understood what my little man was saying.  i understood the boy on the stool with his chin in his hand and the slump in his shoulders.

but even if we only celebrate it on december 25th, christmas is meant to be lived out the entire year long.  i told connor as much and he kind of rolled his eyes at me.  "whatever mom," his expression seemed to say.  "sure, if you say so."  the boy knows his mother well, and he knew what was coming. even at 8 years of age, this boy understands how the wheels of his mother's mind work.  accidentally, he had opened the door.  he'd set himself up for one of my talks.  suddenly, boy-dejected came up with some enthusiasm and off the stool he jumped and out of the kitchen he flew. he had something important to do.  another minute more on his perch and he knew i'd be handing him paper and a pen and an assignment -- perhaps a list of ways in which we can keep christmas coming.  and he'd of been right.  i would have.  because as soon as he dashed out the door, i went back to my mashing. and i mashed me not only those potatoes, but i mashed me some thoughts standing with mixer in hand and his words in my head..  how can we keep a little christmas in the 11 other months of the year?  it was a good question.  and even though that is not exactly what connor had wandered into my kitchen to say, it is what i heard.  and it started me thinking.      

by the time the standing rib roast was ready (finally), i had decided to ask the children.  what can we do to keep a little christmas in our house year round?   kitchen work will do that to a woman.  my best ideas come at the sink when scrubbing potatoes or scouring sticky pots. recently, i wrote almost an entire piece while scraping burnt oatmeal from metal.  it's true.  stand with some steel wool in hand and hot water running full and there's just something about that moment. i lose myself in it -- my family will attest.  often they have come to the kitchen in need of a bandaid or a bagel and found me in my over the sink trance, hands in the water and eyes out the window.  there was a time when i didn't like to do dishes, but with five kids loud and large in my home, i have found a new appreciation for the sound of running water.  plus, my children are pretty smart.  they know if they come within 5 feet of me, they'll have a towel in their hands and a pile of wet pottery at their elbows.  when i do dishes, they become intensely engrossed elsewhere in something good.  if i should happen to see boredom or bickering, even the littlest bit, they are brought into the kitchen and given something to wash. and i assure you, we are never short on things to clean.

and though the party must end and our christmas things must be put away, it is not over.  christmas is not supposed to be a celebration which ends.  it is supposed to be a time to refuel and a reminder to keep going.  stronger.  brighter.  fuller.  as we enter these cold, dark winter months, the bright and light and love of christmas is to keep us warm.  to keep us hot for the heart of God. so what if the tree is down and the candles are snuffed.  so what if the garland is gone and the cookies consumed.  christmas is not over.  Christ is not over.  He is never ending.  He is the alpha and the omega.  the beginning and end. His sweet baby manger is meant for more than the cold month of december.  after racing through this twelfth month we all come to an abrupt halt on december 25th.  we pause and, if we're lucky, we even ponder.  whether we embrace Christ in Christmas or not, we all seem stop for a moment.  but it is not only to celebrate, it is to recharge our spirit.  it is a time meant to stir the embers of our hearts.  not to pack up with the ornaments and santas for another 12 months, but to stir us to a blaze of something greater. something hotter.  a heat which sustains.  right now, but also in february and in june and also in october.  this is Christ in christmas.  this is Christ with us.  december 25th is special...but it is not meant to be put on a pedestal and is not meant to be stored in a musty crate in the basement with fake reindeer and fake is to be held up before us as a light throughout the ordinary days and the mundane months of living.  it is real.  it is alive.  it is living.

by the skin of his teeth, my 8 year old boy escaped that discussion (okay, sermon).  and mashing those potatoes and scrubbing the pot, in the quiet of my christmas night kitchen...these words came, and so i share them with you.  keep Christ in christmas and keep some christmas close.  go get that paper and pen and write if you want.  make your list. put ink to your ideas.  or perhaps, this year, as you pack up the decorations,  select something to stay. something small.  something simple. but something which will remind you to find a little christmas in every ordinary day.  but whatever you do, don't pack up all of christmas.
... oh, and one last piece of advice from the woman in the kitchen... always read twice the directions on your roast.

merry christmas!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Emmanuel -- where are you finding Him?

"the virgin will be with child 
and will give birth to a son,
 and they will call him 
Emmanuel -- which means, 
"God with us."
  ~ matthew 1:23

can't you just hear joseph?  "well, he's with us alright. yes, indeed, he's right here with us."  perhaps he felt that way at one of those 3am feedings or when he wanted a romantic dinner with mary. alone.  and yet there was this baby...right there with them.  always with them -- right in the middle. as parents, there's not a one of us who hasn't felt that way about a child or two (or five) at times. we all are.  all together. all these children with us. always with us.  just last night, as rick and i set out our gifts for the kids at midnight...we stopped at one point and looked at each other with the same thought:  where did all this come from?  how did all this happen? who are these five children sleeping a floor above -- squished into one bedroom on christmas eve night -- restless and wild and waiting for morning?  five kids and christmas and all of it always, always with us.  

but poor joseph.  he didn't know. when you really stop and think about it, don't you kind of feel bad for him?  he was an ordinary guy.  a simple carpenter, and in the blink of an angel he had in his rough hands a betrothed woman heavy with child and then soon after, the very Son of God.  how must he have felt? honestly, i would love to know the inside scoop. i would love to get my hands on joseph's journal during that season of miracles and mayhem and new marriage. his words must have been wild.  his mind must have been wondering.  newborn babies are hard enough for men to grapple with, but add a heavenly host of angels, some wise men traveling from afar and no room in the inn and oh my! i bet his head was just spinning! and just when he thought he maybe had a handle on it, mary goes ahead and lets it be known she is "pondering things in her heart."  (i happen to know from experience that's downright scary for any man to hear). geesh...this guy couldn't get a break.  and all of it with him. always with him.

sitting near that manger, he had no idea just how much he would need this unforeseen babe.  even if he'd been told, there's no way he could have fully comprehended that this little lad in swaddling clothes was Lord of Life, Prince of Peace, Savior, Redeemer, Emmanuel.  i'm sure he held small baby boy and wondered if this tiny thing would ever be able to hold up his own head, let alone hold the whole world in His hands.  amazing to think of from the perspective of a papa, isn't it?  i remember those early days of first newborn.  nothing, not even a surprising visit from an unexpected angel, can prepare you.  there's not a one of us who is fully ready for the mighty cry of wee baby in those wee hours of morning.  how could joseph have known how his son, this boy, this Emmanuel, had come to save the world.  we all imagine greatness for our children....we dream big...we push and we prod and we prepare...but, honestly, we really don't know. 

"o come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive israel."  ...i have sung these words for years.  i sang them before i even knew who this Emmanuel was or what this Emmanuel did or why in the world we were asking him to come.   there's probably not a christmas i haven't stood somewhere in someplace and sung the name Emmanuel.  and because i was a rather dramatic child (good thing i outgrew that!), i was drawn to this song's haunting melody.  it wasn't sweet and simple like away in the manger and it wasn't jolly and boisterous like jingle bells.  but there is a melancholy to this medieval song which pricks our hearts toward something serious.  when words like ransom and captive and exile are thrown in, there's no denying the gravity. 

i suppose i was just a young girl when i discovered this name of Jesus,  Emmaunel, means "God with us."  of course i was glad to learn it as a child.  how nice it was to have a reminder that God is with us. as a little one,  i found great comfort in the thought.  but, to be honest, as a somewhat rebellious teen, the idea of God always with us became a little disconcerting.  at times, i wasn't exactly sure i wanted to be reminded that God was always with me.  i mean i wanted Him with me when i was in the middle of a hard chemistry test or walking home on a dark night from a friend's house. sure i wanted Emmanuel right with me right then.  but i was also making enough poor choices which i had preferred to hide from my parents and of course from God too.  i wanted to choose the time and place of my Emmanuel.  but that isn't God, that's a genie in a bottle.  and it doesn't work that way.  God isn't waiting for us to rub the lamp and be beckoned.  God is with us. always. Emmanuel.

this year, again, i have found myself intensely drawn to the poignant melody of "o come Emmanuel."  and this year, i can assure you, it means something more than ever before.  because it has been this year, this 2011, in which i have learned just how close God can be. i have grasped just how "with me" this little babe in a manger really is.  it took cancer, and it's close friend fear, to show me more clearly the comfort of Emmanuel.  waking in the middle of the night, paralyzed with disasterous thoughts running hard in my head, i found my need for Emmanuel and i found my peace in Emmanuel.

i would lay in bed those weeks after diagnosis reciting scripture.  clinging to His word.    "even though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death, i will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff,  they comfort me."  (psalm 23:4).   i'm not sure i ever realized it before, but joseph's son,  baby Jesus, Emmanuel is in that psalm.  Jesus, my shepherd, "for you are with me."  Emmanuel. and i would calm in the midst of the that valley of the shadow.  God was with me.

going into surgery at the end of may, i felt His hand on me.  as scary as that whole thing was, the physical peace of "God with me" was supernatural.  "be strong and courageous.  do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you;  He will never leave you nor forsake you." (deuteronomy 31:6).   sweet baby Jesus, Emmanuel, is in those strong words as well.  this year, i met Emmanuel and this christmas, i rejoice in His coming. how about you? this christmas, where are you finding Emmanuel?  where have you been held captive?  where have you mourned?  been lonely?  felt exiled? tasted fear?  o loved ones, keep singing.  invite Him to come.  and rejoice!
 "rejoice!  rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you...."

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the gift of giving

"it is more blessed to give than to receive."  ~ luke 20:35

it is the hours before christmas and i think this just might be my favorite part -- the wild
beat of anticipation.   oh how i love it.  and how i love watching it billow up and blow
warm through my children.  in these hours of waiting i hear them toss around phrases like, "i can't wait until we build the gingerbread houses" and "i can't wait to light the christmas eve candles and sing silent night." and i get questions like, "mama, did you remember our christmas eve pajamas?"  never a year has been missed, but yet they ask, even the very oldest,  because they are still children and they want to be sure and, even more, they want to be reminded of the good things which will soon come.  they want to anticipate, to long for the lovely. and it tickles my mother-heart because i know it is evidence of some kind of sweet remembering nestled deep in this growing up brood of mine.

one part of these days before christmas which i especially treasure, is watching the pile of presents grow under our tree.  the children fill its space with the things they bring.  you might think that a  rather shallow and strange statement.  and you might even ask why in the world i would admit this, let alone, write it.  but let me explain:  it is not about the presents and it is not about what is inside those oddly shaped gifts, but about watching my children GIVE. it is about watching them stop clasping what is theirs and start opening their hands to each other.  hearts soften and unlatch in the act of giving -- in the art of gifting.  i watch them parade through my kitchen with small boxes and big bags and an assortment of presents pieced together with too much tape and remnants of cast off wrapping. they head for the tree, carefully bringing their carefully selected treasures.  and as the mother standing by, i love this christmastime coming and going. i observe them doing something which doesn't come naturally -- they are giving.  and what's more, they are enthusiastic in their giving.  in the few days before christmas, they all scurry around trying to buy that certain something special for sisters and brothers and mom and dad. it is almost a rite of passage,  heading off to target or the mall with their allowance clutched tight in hand or jingling loose in pocket.   and when they return, triumphant, i can hear them up in their rooms sharing tape and scissors across the cluttered hallway.  shouting at each other,"don't come in here.  don't you dare look!  go away...i'm wrapping!" there is an energy in the house which, at least for a little while, doesn't have anything to do with what's in it for me? nothis is about pouring themselves into something which will be placed under an evergreen and then given away.  

these are no gifts of the magi.  some years, the presents set under the branches are wrapped in leftover paper from birthdays or baby showers. bows are always optional.  sometimes the children forget to add tags, and come christmas morning, we have to play guess that gift.  my middle girl, sarah, loves to wrap and she'll hunt for extra bits and pieces to attach to her gifts -- a small ornament, a piece of pine, some jingle bells, a cinnamon stick.  she puts great amounts of time into preparing these presents.  and i love this about her.  but again, it is not about what hides least not what hides inside the gift wrap. but it is about what hides inside the hearts of my children. it is about the glimmer in their eye and that hint in their heart unravelling and unwrapping as they bring their gifts. and like the wise men, sometimes they must travel from afar to bring things.  bringing gifts isn't always easy.  in a world which promotes everything ME, it is downright difficult for our kids (who am i kidding), it is downright difficult for all of us to consider others first.  but oh what can happen when we do!  there is the joy-- the christmas joy.  the real joy.

years ago, we began the tradition of encouraging our children to think of each other on christmas.  they were just tiny, tiny things when all this began, barely able to see over the counters. we would take them to the dollar store and let them pick items out for our family.  we never questioned their purchases.  never questioned the animal figurines or the plastic flowers.  needless to say, we've all gotten some rather strange things over the years.  but oh the delight in the giving.  that's what we want to grow in them.   not the need for the perfect and most practical present, but the joy of stopping to think of another and the thrill of giving from the heart.   as the kids have gotten older, we've tried to suggest things homemade.  i am always telling them those things mean the most. of course they raise their bewildered eyebrows in disapproval.  no mom, i disagree. a homemade blah-blah-blah is absolutely not better than this marshmallow-shooting-thing-a-ma-gig-cool-one-of-a-kind-contraption. i try to tell them there's no need to go spend allowance money, but be creative:  build, paint, mold, sketch, glue, carve, capture something...what a wonderful opportunity.  clearly, i am a mother. and they go and gather the dollar bills they've squirreled away and head to the closest shopping mall.

my sister, just this week, sent us homemade sugar cookies in a tin all the way from oregon.  when we unwrapped them i got kind of teary-eyed.  i realize they were only sugar cookies, but my youngest sister's hands created these cookies in the warmth of her kitchen, probably with her own three little ones perched on stools nearby.  mixing. rolling.  helping. giving. my sister who lives over 2500 miles away.  my sister who i hardly ever see and won't see this christmas.  and perhaps it is a sign of me getting old, but i loved getting homemade cookies this week from her.  i didn't even realize how much i miss my family, until opening that tin.  with us staying put this christmas and no extended family coming, i needed that touch of my sister -- that gift of her giving. it may have been a small tin, but it largely unwrapped some warmth in my heart.

someday my children will bring christmas gifts not from their bedrooms, but from their own homes.  maybe with small ones of their own hanging from elbows and attached at their knees.  i am full aware my five will someday scatter -- i hope not too far.  but we'll want them to go -- to get on with what God has designed them to do.  if it is down the street or two towns over, we'll be thrilled.  and if it is across the country or on the other side of the world, we'll have to accept that as well. (big sigh).  but now, this morning, this year, this christmas, i have them all in my home.  they sleep upstairs as i write, tired from these christmas days.  my always prayer, that while in our home, they are learning to give from the heart...and when they leave some day, they'll take with them the act of giving, art of gifting, the sweet blessing unwrapping.

(one of my favorite stories about giving....)

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

"I've been thinking," he said, "I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone."  
 ~ the wise woman's stone  -- author unknown

Thursday, December 22, 2011

silver sandals at christmas

since visiting the shelter again yesterday, i haven’t been able to stop thinking about a young woman i passed there in the hallway. heavy with child and, if possible, even heavier with hard life. it didn't take more than a minute standing near this girl for my heart to begin breaking. 

i didn’t know her story and i didn’t know her name, but i knew she was living in a women's shelter on the wednesday before christmas and that told me enough. and looking into her eyes for just a brief moment told me more than i really wanted to know. she was worn out, worn through, worn thin. i tried to smile at her and say hi, but her grim set of her shoulders and distant eyes caused me to feel embarrassment -- i’m not exactly sure why. 

instead i looked away and i looked down and that's when i saw them -- her sparkly silver sandals. she wore these thin, flimsy sandals with socks and they were not one bit appropriate for the december rain pounding hard outside. her socks dirty and her feet too large for the sandal size. i recognized them as something old navy sold last summer. there's a pair squirreled away somewhere deep in the closet of my own teenage girl. my daughter who wouldn't wear them with socks and wouldn't wear them in december, because she owns boots and too many pairs of other shoes from which to choose.  

somehow seeing these summer sandals on this fragile young woman’s feet in december pierced something deep in me. and the image has played over and over again in my mind since yesterday afternoon.
that image keeps playing over in my mind, while the thought presses deep in my heart: christmas comes hard for so many.  

how do those who are hurting deal with their pain, heartache and loneliness when it seems everyone they pass by is merry and bright? it is the most wonderful time of the year, and yet, i imagine, the most painful for so many. 

i have friends who have lost mothers and fathers this year.  friends with sick children. friends with broken marriages, broken families and broken bank accounts. just broken. i know some who have lost jobs and health and, pretty much, all hope. and i am sure this month, more than any other, can be a very hard thing. for many of us, it is easy to forget, deny or choose to completely ignore that reality. 

a few friends and our kids were at the women's shelter yesterday to deliver the coats we had recently collected. we were all excited for this big drop off. we drove through torrential rain, determined to let nothing dampen our christmas spirit, and we sang carols and chatted and giggled all the way downtown. we were buoyed by the thought of helping people in need. we were taking almost 300 coats to almost 300 women and children and it felt so good to be a part of something like this. and it is good. 

but then i stood in a dirty hallway, with stained carpeting and dim lighting and i watched weary woman after weary woman walk by. and i asked myself, how does this happen? the truth hit me: this could be me, or my sister, or even  my own daughter.  

at one point, my 11 year old sarah whispered to me, “mom, why are so many of them pregnant?”  there really was no way for me to answer that question in a quick sentence, so i whispered back, “we’ll talk later."  

and it wasn’t long after her question when i noticed this one girl with her thin silver sandals standing nearby. there is so much about christmas that is silver and shiny and bright. i wore a pair of silver heels for a holiday party just a couple of weeks ago, probably spending too much money on them. for many of us, our christmas days have at least a little something glittery and golden: pretty gifts wrapped under our trees, twinkling white lights, sugar cookies on crystal, glass ornaments shining, candles bright on our tables ... maybe even a cocktail dress and matching silver shoes. seasonal shimmer, sparkle and glitter galore. 
it is so easy to get caught up in the excess of it all. so easy to be blinded by the holiday bling and not see the sad eyes of the woman on the street or the forlorn face of the man at the mall. i am so guilty of passing people every day and failing to see. failing to really see. and i’ll admit, there are even times when i don’t want to look. times when i turn away. it is too hard and it is too hopeless -- or at least it feels like that. 

i want to gather my family around my dinner table and talk about the beauty of the season. i want to sit in church and sing familiar hymns full of comfort and joy. i want to bake cookies and make tea and read stories fireside -- but then i happen upon a young girl with dirty socks and summer sandals on her slender feet and i am just unable to ignore what is hard. and at the back of my mind, i have to think this could be my sister or me. this place to which we have gone twice this week is called "my sister's house." and it very well could be. it is.                                     
it is easy to feel overwhelmed when we see need. and often the need is that overwhelming. but really it is just about looking and listening. isn't it? and when we do, we realize it really doesn’t take too much. we fear it might, but when we take the chance, we often find, it doesn't. 

sometimes it is just about being willing to look. willing to listen.

just this week, the young man bagging my groceries began to chat with me. i was only being polite and making small talk as we walked to my car with my overloaded cart, but before i knew it, john was telling me his story. he shared how he and his mother were fighting and how he was thinking he should move out, but it was christmas and he didn’t know what to do. he told me how sad his mom has been since his dad died and the rest of his siblings have moved away and ignored her. “i’m all she has left, but it is driving me crazy. i want to go to college or the military or something. i am not sure how to get on with my own life.”  as he placed my bags in the car i could tell he was pretty close to tears. i uttered a few lame words of encouragement and before walking away john smiled back and said, "thanks for listening." 

i had only gone to the store for dinner items and i drove away with something more -- something i never expected. someone's story.  
if everyday life is hard--and it is for most everyone in some way--then holiday life can be harder. i am sure the lonely and the broken want only to wake up and have the whole blessed event be over. these women in the shelter who cannot provide roofs and meals and beds for their children, must feel buried in the expectation of providing presents and peace. impossibilities. i honestly cannot imagine. i feel overwhelmed sometimes as a mother trying to pull it all together in my nice, comfortable life. and then i have a day like yesterday, and i cringe at my comforts.  
as i type this afternoon, three days before christmas, i’m honestly not sure what to do with the weight of it all. i don't even quite know why i am writing. i fear i've been too preachy in these past few posts. it is not my intention. i am only sharing my heart. i need to go upstairs and wrap a few presents and organize our christmas meal and attend to some last minute holiday details, but i am still thinking about that young woman and her silver sandals. 

i think also of the unborn baby she carries and the cold december rain and the hard set of her shoulders. i’m glad we went yesterday. i’m thankful my kids and my friends and i touched the arms and hands of these women -- these women who, in turn, touched our hearts. 

i want us to be people who can help those who hurt, not just be women who wear our own silver heels to cocktail parties. 

my prayer is for my eyes to be open and for courage to really see.  my prayer is to not pass by, but to look and to listen and to, when possible, touch those hurting and heartbroken--especially in this shimmering kind of a season.  it could easily be any of our feet walking in silver, summer sandals just a few days before christmas.

“may God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” ~ mother teresa

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

more christmas, or less?

i didn't see it, but my oldest, emily, informed me that tonight bella kissed the christmas tree. it was bedtime and littlest one had been told to go upstairs and get on her pajamas. but before doing so, emily watched as her tiny sister went over to the tree, put her arms around it (as best she could), whispered "goodnight christmas tree," and then leaned in to kiss it.

a couple of weeks ago bella tuned in big time to christmas.  last year it was exciting with it being her first christmas and all, but this year she really, really gets it.  i think the fact that she was asked to "play" mary in her preschool christmas pageant sealed the deal.  after her big performance, she was all in -- both feet firmly planted in the most wonderful time of the year.  and let's just be honest here, it is pretty special to watch the wonder.  i mean who doesn't love a chinese mary?  who doesn't love a 3 year old girl with tiny white lights twinkling in her bright eyes and some jingle bells in her every step?   christmas has become a magical word in our house.  all we need to say is "it's for christmas bella," and she's right there with us.  christmas.  christmas.  christmas. i love how the word rolls off her newly english speaking tongue.  she is pure delight in this season of celebration.  

a few weeks ago, when our neighbors began to hang lights from their eaves and wreaths on their doors, bella began to take note.  we live far back in our neighborhood and she believes every trip in and every trip out is a time to leisurely enjoy the festive house happenings.   we'll begin driving, and immediately i hear from my back seat, "i wanna see christmas mommy."  and so we drive slowly (well... as slowly as i possibly can since i seem to usually be running late).  and we drive carefully.  and we drive looking at and remarking on every wreath, bow, bough, swag and holiday display.  we look at the lights and we take in the trees and it seems to my little girl, brand new each and every time.  and i wish i could just bottle what she's selling me from the backseat, because the wonder of it all is that good.  it is that sweet.  it is that christmas.  wouldn't life be kinder if everyone had the enthusiasm of a 3 year old come christmas time.

but even her sweet exuberance can sometimes cross the line.  "more christmas, mommy!" she'll demand if we hit a stretch of humbug houses.  "i want more christmas mommy!" she's much too short to stomp her foot from her car seat perch, but she would if she could it was cute at first,  but when she is in need of a nap, or i am in need of a nap, or it is the 12th trip in or out of the neighborhood (no exaggeration here), she becomes a little querulous and i become a little irritated.   the sweetness is gone and the selfishness steps in. and i get it.  because i can be kind of like that too.  "give me more! more. more. more."

more christmas.  it seems to me the very holiday has exploded in recent years--everything from the shopping to the showcasing.  all of it bigger and brighter each year.  i have to wonder where we're headed with it all.  don't get me wrong, i LOVE christmas. in fact, i ADORE christmas.  but it has gotten a little, umm...complicated, in some ways.  do you know what i mean?  maybe it is just that my kids are getting older.  maybe it is that they are getting more expensive.  maybe it is just that life in general is a little more complicated then when they were all in footed pajamas with a bedtime of 8pm.   i guess being a family of seven, spanning from preschool to high school, has something to do with it.  but it just seems to me that christmas shouldn't be like that.  it shouldn't be complicated, but simple and easy.

it is almost impossible to ignore the way our culture seems to scream, "i want more christmas!"  i guess the truth is, it screams "give me more!" in general, doesn't it?   like if a little is good, then a lot is better, right?  but no.  that's not always true. i disagree.  sometimes less is more.  but this is hard to explain to children. just like bella demanding  "more"  from my backseat, i have to also hold off my others kids.  connor, age 8, is kind of like a life size elf.  i am not sure i've ever met a kid more excited about christmas. he truly talks about it all year long.  a few years back we dubbed him "captain christmas."  i mean he really is into the entire experience.   i constantly hear from him, "mom, are you going to ___?   mom, are we going to _____?"   (get the tree, see the lights, bake the cookies, make the candy, paint the ornaments, read the story, build the gingerbread houses, wrap the presents, hang the stockings, mail the cards). seriously, the boy keeps me on my toes. and now he has this other little elf in training trailing behind him with two fingers in her mouth -- captain christmas and his chief elf, bella.   connor is one of those who whole heartedly believes more is better.  i think he'll outgrow this - at least i am hopeful.  but right now, i have to literally hide all the decorations i'd rather not use.  if i leave anything, i mean anything, in the storage room, that boy is down there and dragging it out and around the house trying to find a spot for the reindeer with a broken antler or the hot pink santa candle.   he is determined to use every last bell, ball and jingle-jangle.  he gets this appalled look when i tell him, "no honey, i am not going to pull out the collection of 42 snowmen this year."  "WHAT?  but why, mom?" this makes no sense to my son.

rick and i have been married for 21 years and we have collected a good amount of christmas stuff.  stuff which cannot possibly all be used.  plus, the truth is, it shouldn't be.  simple is good.  at least in my book, simple is beautiful.  every year i am tempted to put nothing more on my christmas tree than tiny white lights.  i think it is absolutely lovely that way. some fresh greenery and candles and a little bit of ribbon and our house is all set.  but that's absolutely no fun with the under 10 crowd.

connor is always trying to get me to do more -- he has a host of ideas. i always tell him, "honey, i can't wait to see what you do someday with your own house.  i promise to visit at christmas time."  (i am thinking along the lines of clark griswold in christmas vacation here). only last week, we were in wal-mart picking up supplies and hot chocolate for a party we were hosting, when he came sprinting toward me -- breathless and wild-eyed.  "look mom, look!  it's that antler and rudolph nose set that easily attaches to the car that i've been telling you about and look mom, it is only $9.97, only nine-dollars-and-ninety-seven-cents!  (big breath)... can we get it, can we? can we? can we get it mom?"  i wasn't sure what to say.  i was still trying to calculate how much hot chocolate was needed for the party.  i was lost in my own "more"...and had little mental room for his.  honestly, i just sort of stood there for a minute and stared at my cart full of party supplies.  he was like something unleashed and unmedicated and before it was all done, bella was also jumping up and down chanting, "can we? can we? can we?"  i am certain she had no idea what she was even asking for, but it was right along the lines of "mommy i want more christmas!" and so on board she came.  captain christmas and the littlest elf and their mama frozen for a long, kind of crazy, moment in wal-mart.  classic.  i told him to give me a minute to think about it.  i almost said pray, and i probably should have prayed.  but instead i just paused,  closed my eyes, clutched the cart and focused on breathing deeply.  what would it hurt? clearly my son's christmas would be now be perfect if we attached a large red nose and two flimsy looking antlers to my black yukon.  we could drive proudly around johns creek georgia, the envy of everyone.  we would be a true christmas-loving, joy-bringing, o-come-all-ye-faithful-family.  maybe then we could reclaim the christmas spirit and recapture the holiday hoopla and all for only $9.97.  "okay, we'll get it." i agreed. it was a christmas steal, we almost had to.  everything, even christmas,  depended on this purchase--or so it seemed while standing in the mind-numbing hum of wal-mart.  connor looked downright shocked at my answer. this wasn't like me.  he hadn't expected it. but then the biggest grin caught up with his face and it spread and it spread.   i watched him bend down to bella, "she said yes!" he whispered triumphantly, and we headed to the check out.

now i have to tell you, the looks on my older three children's faces when i picked them all up in afternoon carpool were the best part of that $9.97.   i know they were thinking, what in the world has mom done.  this isn't like her.  she's throwing a party this weekend and she's already beginning to crack.  each one of them came to the car and peered inside, unsure of what they'd find.  i joked about donning santa hats and rolling down the windows with christmas tunes playing full blast...the older ones all laughed rather nervously ... connor and bella said, "sure!"  but i also have to tell you, we enjoyed our decked out car for about 4 hours before we lost one of those reindeer antlers.  that evening, while rick was running some errands with the kids in my yukon, littlest elf girl decided to play with her automatic window and somewhere while flying down old milton parkway in the chaos of five kids and christmas carols blaring, an antler flew off the car,  probably to join the other lone antlers roadside from families just like ours trying to get "more christmas!"
and so they come home and tell me the story and all i can think is, of course it did.  because the things which we add, just do that.  antlers fly off cars and ceramic santas get broken.  christmas trees crash over and cookies sometimes burn.  presents aren't perfect and loved ones disappoint us.  and more is just never enough.   if anyone should ever have been allowed to demand more, it should have been Jesus.  Jesus, King of creation.  Jesus, Prince of Peace.  Jesus born in a simple stable, to a simple girl.  Jesus the son of a simple carpenter.  Jesus wrapped in simple, swaddling clothes.  Jesus laid in a simple manger.  and there's no mistake in this manger...but there is a message. and it's simple.

"...she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger..."   ~ luke 2: 7

“I come that you may have life, 
and have it MORE abundantly.” ~  john 10:10

Friday, December 16, 2011


the morning began like any other day when all seven of us have to be out the door early and somewhere on time -- utter craziness.  it was the last day of school before christmas break which meant there were extra things to remember like cookies and christmas pencils and teacher gifts.  bella spilled her ensure drink, connor didn't like his christmas sweater at the last minute, and tyler forgot to make himself a lunch.  high school girl stood there tapping her foot, watching her crazy family and waiting for her ride.  finally, all seven of us ran out of the house leaving lights on and cabinet doors open.  i ran back inside to put the milk away and to look for my keys.  and then, again,  one more time,  to  grab bella's bag for the babysitter. off we all rushed--7 people, 2 cars and a whole lot of christmas chaos billowing out behind us.  i drove away from the house asking myself, "why does getting out the door have to be such a struggle?"

rick was signed up to go christmas caroling with the 3rd graders and i was heading downtown with the 8th grade to a women and children's shelter.  my 6th grader was taking christmas gifts and care packages to the workers at DFCS. our school is like that.  instead of big, hectic holiday parties, the school schedules service projects for the children on this final day before break.  instead of sitting in their classrooms and playing christmas bingo and eating peppermint bark bites, the kids pack up christmas and take it to someone else. and i'm so glad.  every time i get to be a part of a day like this, i drive home thinking someone sure did get it right.  long ago, someone at perimeter school decided our students could forego the cupcakes and coloring sheets and instead do something for someone else.  not that i'm against parties, mind you. anyone who knows me, knows i plan a fair share of them and happen to like the party thing very much -- but when it comes to these kinds of days, i am just so thankful we are encouraged to turn from our own wishes and see someone else's want.

except that as i raced from the babysitter to the school building, i was feeling kind of frazzled and rather selfish. i mean, i knew from experience this day would be as good for me as it would be for the students, but my to do list was too long.  i could easily think of 87 other things i could be doing with my last free morning.  starting tomorrow, the kids would be right in the middle of my stuff still to do.  and as much as i like having them home, a lot less gets accomplished when they are all underfoot.  so there i was driving wildly, and somewhat reluctantly,  to the school, all the while praying for a changed attitude.  i glanced guiltily at the big box of christmas cards i had thrown in the front seat (just in case i had some down time).

we weren't in the women and children's shelter 10 minutes before i met trinity and christian.  trinity, age one, was blond and blue eyed and a big old mess:  runny nose, sick eyes and fussy, fussy, fussy.  she didn't want to leave the arms of the care giver, but finally settled down on my lap and then it was clear all she really wanted was to snuggle.  i wanted to eat her right on up.   even sick, she was incredibly cute.  but there was this little boy with his eye on her.  i noticed immediately he was watching us.  he'd read a book or play a game with one of the 8th graders, but then he'd stop and look around until his eyes found us.  trinity was his little sister and christian had been taking care of her for most of her life.  christian was six years old.   later in the morning the director told us how christian cares for his sister. "he doesn't eat until she eats.  he doesn't sleep until she sleeps.  he feeds her her bottle, rocks her to sleep...he is always aware of where she is."  christian and trinity's mom is a drug addict.  she is homeless and hurting,  and as the director explained to me, "completely oblivious to the needs of her kids."  they've been in the shelter a few weeks, but christian is still struggling with how to let others help care for his sister.  did i mention he is six?

standing at the playground later that day, the director, latonya, said to me, "our kids don't know church or God.  they don't know christmas.  heck, they don't even know what it means to be children.  all they know is struggle.  that's it...just struggle." there was that word, "struggle."  my eyes began to well up.  shame crept hot across my cheeks.  i had just used that word a few hours earlier to describe our morning exit from the house.  struggle.  what did i know about struggle?  nothing, that's what.  six year old christian who has been caring for his baby sister while his mom shoots up drugs and drags them from place to place because they are homeless...christian knows struggle.  and his baby sister will know it soon enough.

while taking a short tour of the mission, i met up with some more struggle.  as the students and i walked through the shelter's sleeping quarters i saw struggle, plain as day.  bunk beds lined up with toddler shoes below.  black garbage bags holding belongings and tired suitcases held together with rope.  bed after bed after bed.  a few meager items...a ragged stuffed animal, a child's sweater, a coloring page taped to the wall.  i held back from the group for a few minutes, sure it would embarrass my teenage son to have his mom begin sobbing in front of his classmates.  it was all i could do to hold it together and continue walking.  tonight as i type, i sit in my freshly painted bedroom, a cozy fire blazing nearby and a hot cup of tea within arm's reach. my children sleep softly down the hall in warm beds with matching comforters and clean sheets.  and i just want to weep for it all.   what would it feel like to be a woman with a few children and no place to go but the bleak barracks of this shelter.  how does this happen?  why can't we stop it?  what can we possibly do?

i learned in conversation, this shelter cares for over 300 women and children.  it turns no woman or child away.  not ever.  latonya explained one of the hardest things is the teens.  one of the greatest needs they have right now is providing christmas for the teens living in their housing.  "no one thinks of the teens," she said.  these kids just want to be normal.  to fit in.  she described how embarrassed they were about their situation.  what teen wants to admit his family is homeless?  teens don't want to admit they have families, let alone they have a homeless family.  i had honestly never thought about that before.  i mean we all know homelessness is a terrible thing, a tragedy, but i hadn't ever thought about it from the perspective of the child or teen.  the teen who continues to attend school but laughs at the thought of homework.  "what a joke," he must think.  "what home?"  i have a couple of my own teens and even these two well adjusted kids just want to fit blend.   the program which houses these families is called "my sister's house."  the director named it that years ago in order to save these hurting kids from further embarrassment.  when asked where they lived, they could simply and safely answer, "my sister's house."

the truth is, i could write on and on and on about our hours at the atlanta mission and my sister's house.  i could write more about what i learned.  what i saw.  what it touched deep inside me.  i am overwhelmed tonight as i pound out my day and my thoughts on this keyboard.  i've been around enough of these projects and in enough of these situations to know this is how life is lived for some. but i'll never be numb to it. i pray i'll never be numb to it.  their struggle, not mine, but theirs.

so what can we do?  well, God certainly does work in funny ways.  so, the women in my bible study having been planning a party - yes, a party - for this sunday night.  we have called it "cookies, cocoa and coats" and have been busy inviting as many people as we can.  we are asking families to stop over at our house sunday night for christmas cookies and cocoa and we've suggested they bring a new or used coat to donate to someone in need.  in the past week or so, my friend, kelly and i have been talking about where in the world we were going to take these (hopefully) 200+ coats (gloves, hats and scarves too!) we hadn't settled completely on a plan --  until today.  i had never even connected the dots about going to the mission today and having the coat collection on sunday -- but it is perfect,  because that is the kind of God we serve.  standing in the sunshine this afternoon, i mentioned it to latonya and asked if she could use 200 coats.  i wish you could have seen her expression.  "oh yes, oh, yes. yes. yes!" she said, "bring em on...we could more than use them, girl!" she exclaimed.

it's not much. well actually until sunday night, i am not sure what it is.  but even if we get 200 coats or 2000 coats, christian and trinity's mom will still be a drug addict and people will still fall asleep in the barracks worn out and exhausted from hard living.  struggle will still be evident in the eyes of these women and in the need of their children.  we can't fix it all over night.  i applaud those who work each day trying.  i am inspired by those who do what they can.  roosevelt said, "do what you can, with what you have, where you are."  what if we really lived like that?  what if we really did? what if?  so many times we see problems -- like homelessness and orphans and poverty -- which are so big we become paralyzed and do nothing.  but what if we all just did something small.  just something.  what if?

"if you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one."  ~ mother teresa

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

grandma's christmas cookie cutters

sometime between dinner, homework and goodnight kisses 3 dozen cookies needed to be baked.  "it's a school project, mom." she said.  and who was i to argue with school or with a project.  "we need to have a recipe which we can halve or double, for Real World Math," she continued.  "what? no slice and bake?" i asked, trying to conceal my disappointment. "we have to really make dough and really bake cookies...real ones? the whole nine yards? tonight?"  i glanced at the clock and then did my best to mask the sigh  taking shape in my tired body.  rick was out of town and the oldest daughter was upstairs in bed, sick.  my usually helpful, oldest boy had announced he was slammed with pre-christmas-break-trying-to-fit-it-all-in-homework. and he disappeared down the stairs to his room.

that left me alone with the three youngest. i eyeballed them all standing expectantly in my kitchen, a cloud of anticipation hovering over their eager faces.  it was 7:45 and it had already been a very long day.  i just wasn't sure i had it in me to push back bedtimes and pull out the rolling pin and measuring cups.  "are you sure we can't do slice and bake?  how about drop cookies? rice krispie treats? oreos?" i was reaching for simpler straws here,  but my young ones, in their excitement, were already pulling out supplies and making plans and discussing decorating ideas.  before i knew what hit me, the island countertop was covered in flour and i had a mixing spoon in my hand.  my 11 year old daughter was calling out instructions to everyone. (she is like that).  somehow my clean, post-dinner kitchen was being overtaken by small people and too many ingredients.

sugar cookies.  does anyone have a really good recipe?  because i don't.  i would pay money for a good one.  well, maybe not money, but i'd really, really like a good, fail-proof, simple, yet yummy recipe.  do share! we mixed up the ingredients pretty quickly.  my daughter did her Real World Math, her doubling and halving thing, and then it was time to roll out the dough --everyone's favorite part.  for my kids, this is where all those years of working with playdough come in handy.  they believe themselves to be experts because, for years, they have been doing this with multi-colored, manufactured, chemically altered playdough.  playdough always works.  real dough doesn't.  real dough tastes a whole lot better, but it is difficult to manuever.  there is a fine balance between adding more water or adding more flour.  the dough can be too sticky or the dough can be too dry--it just depends.  playdough is always playdough and it is perfect until some careless kids mixes the colors, leaves the lid off or smears it into the living room rug.

but good recipe or not, rolling out the dough isn't easy.  at least in my kitchen it isn't easy.  plus, i had to give everyone a chance to try.  even bella insisted.  there was no way she was missing out on this pre-bedtime fun.  five minutes into the endeavor i was certain all of us would need to be bathed tonight.  there was flour everywhere.  even the dog, who had strategically positioned himself below us, was wearing a fine coat of white.  i saw bedtime creeping further away from my weary-woman clutches.  i don't know about you, but i need my children in bed at a reasonable hour, especially in a busy season like christmas.  i had plans for tonight;  christmas cards to address, teacher gifts to prepare, a few presents to wrap, (modern family to watch). but instead i was standing in my kitchen covered in baking flour and trying to keep three children from eating raw cookie dough.

with our lousy dough finally rolled out on the counter, it was time for the cookie cutters.  it's not that i bake cookies all the time, but you'd think by the size of my cookie cutter collection, i ran a small business out of my kitchen.  at the top of my pantry are two huge bins filled with cookie cutters.   we have the entire alphabet, all the numbers possible, enough stars to light the nightitme sky and hearts of every size.  we have leaves and trees and flowers and at least a couple dozen animals, including a kangaroo.  a kangaroo?  yes, a kangaroo.   "i want to make christmas trees, mama."  sarah declared, her head barely looking up from the too thin dough she was rolling.  "please find me a christmas tree."  i was right there with her.  let's make this simple, let's just do one thing and do it well.  we didn't need to use all 400 cookie cutters. oh no, we just needed to get in a groove, repeat a pattern, come up with a system--bake the cookies, and bed the children. bam! that was my plan---until i came across my grandma's christmas tree cookie cutter.

it was mixed in with the rest of the 400,  like nothing special.  except that it is.  clearly old fashioned, there was nothing plastic or easy grip about this cutter.  i pulled it out and held it in my flour-coated hand.  and as i sat there on my dirty kitchen floor,  i remembered, as a child, eating cookies exactly this shape.  i remembered the simple green sugar grandma used to cover these trees.  nothing extravagant, but beautiful to the eyes of a small girl. and delicious.  i don't know if it is true, but my grandmother seemed to do a lot of baking, at least in comparison to me.   growing up, for the first part of my childhood, we lived in a duplex with my grandparents.  grandma's kitchen was just downstairs and it was quiet and clean and her dough was always perfect.  every year we spent christmas eve downstairs at my grandma's.  cousins came and christmas happened exactly the same way.  we'd eat dinner and nibble on the christmas cookies, open presents and then head off to candlelight service at the exotic hour of eleven.  i am sure i took all of it for granted.  but there was something so special about this gathering repeated year after year at grandma's house.

we don't have that with our own children.  sure we have two wonderful grandma's houses to visit, but they aren't just down the stairs or just down the street.  they are 6 hours and 12 hours away,  and so it is different.  a couple of miles don't separate the kids from their cousins, but thousands of miles.  we have cousins in ohio, new york, oregon and utah.  too far to go for christmas cookies or candlelight church.  and oh, can i tell you, this grieves me.   probably one of my main regrets in life is all this distance between family.  i know my siblings feel it too. and i am sure the grandparents feel it even worse.  i grew up with grandparents involved in the tiniest intricacies of my life, with cousins who came to every birthday celebration, with summer cookouts, sunday afternoon visits and holiday meals.  we never had to think about what we were doing or where we were doing it, at least from my young-girl perspective, it all seemed simple.  there's not one sibling or cousin of mine that doesn't think of their birthday and not remember grandma's graham cracker cake with cream cheese frosting.  she baked one for everyone's birthday each year -- young and old.  i grew up on graham cracker cake.  i think of it every single time i turn another year older.

and sitting on my kitchen floor with this christmas tree cookie cutter in hand, i thought again of grandma.  i thought again of all those holidays with my extended family. it seemed almost too much for me at this late hour, with all these children, in all this baking mess, with all this bedtime still out ahead.  there are times when even we mother's long to return to things simple and similar.  times when we'd like to waltz down the stairs to christmas dinner and beautifully wrapped presents at grandmother's house.   but we are the dinner cookers and present wrappers and cookie bakers and magic makers.  we are the ones carefully creating special moments and lasting memories.   and, oh, let me just say, this delights me to be so.  i love this deeply.  i love my role, my job, my calling, my mothering.  as a little girl, i wanted nothing more then to grow up and have a home of my own and fill it with little ones and laughter and beauty.  but sometimes we bake cookies late at night, with wild children, and dirty floors and sticky dough.  and sometimes the magic feels a little dull and a little disappointing. because this is real life and real life is a little messier than our  girl-dreams imagined.  but then we find a treasure like grandma's christmas tree cookie cutter, and we remember.  and though it takes a lot of work to bake the cookies and make the merry, it is worth it. every sticky, flour-covered piece of it.

and tired, but encouraged, i take the christmas tree cookie cutter from the box of 400 and tell my youngest three, "this belonged to my grandma, let me tell you about her..."

author's note:  something new i learned this christmas -- age 43:
if you allow a 3 year old girl to play with too much flour, she will, undoubtedly, spill most of it on the floor.  and the large golden retriever waiting patiently below will, undoubtedly, do his very best to lick it all up.  except that his mad tongue licking will only accomplish dampening the flour on the floor.  and when just the right amount of moisture is added to flour,  it eventually turns into a rather substantial paste.  a paste so substantial, it will require nothing short of multiple scalding hot water rinses and a razor blade to remove -- the next day.