Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Joy in the Ditches

As you might have guessed from my last post, this has not been an easy month at our house. My personality type loves quiet and calm and everyone getting along. None of that has been true this month-- not for one single minute. As a result, I have not been full of Christmas cheer. At one point, in fact, I had to have the entire family get down on our knees and pray that God would give us the ability to be kind to each other. As soon as I said, "Amen!" my daughter said, "Trixie was being annoying."

One day last week,  I was feeling done before I even started. My husband was traveling for work. I had hoped to go with him on his work trip to see the lights in New York City, but it was obvious that the toddlers could not handle the trip, so we had cancelled. I was exhausted and the kids were on overdrive. Finally I decided that I had to get them outside.  The sun was actually shining and it was obvious that they needed to do something with all of their energy. An hour later, I finally had everyone dressed and ready to head out the door. Blessedly, it was a mild enough day that it didn't even matter that the two-year-old was refusing to wear his coat. We set off to walk our dog and were tempted on to a street that we normally bypass because we saw an abominable snowman in someone's yard. When we got closer to the yard, we were delighted to see that they also had a purple hippo, a goose and goslings, a Snoopy and four frogs in Santa hats. 

We walked farther down the street, admiring the Christmas displays as we went, and I saw my daughter pick up a red velvet ribbon. This particular daughter is the ultimate trash-picker. She once convinced her brother and sisters that collecting old avocado pits was the coolest thing ever. She currently has five old tissue-boxes stuffed with odds and ends in her bed. We walked a little farther and my second daughter said, "Can I go back and show Ella something?" They both came running excitedly back to me, "It's a little lace pillow that says Joy." 

Mabel held a white pillow trimmed in eyelet and embroidered with the word JOY. Despite being picked up off the side of the road, it was still remarkably clean. 

My grumpy answer, of course, was "That is not coming into my house!"

But Ella, who always has a solution, yelled, "We need to make a tree for our ornaments! We'll make it on the back porch."

We turned the corner and what did we find? A full barrel of branches someone had cut off of their Christmas tree. "Our tree!" the girls yelled, and ran over and picked out a long branch.

Ella hoisted the tree limb on to her shoulder and we headed home. The girls set up their tree on the back porch and put their two ornaments on it. They added a few found treasures that were destined for the trash at our house and a few homemade paper hearts.

Then the next day we set out on our walk again. 
"Let's go find more ornaments!" the girls exclaimed.
"We're probably not going to find anymore." I muttered.

That day, we came home with an Ariel ornament and a scruffy wooden heart. The kids excitedly showed their dad the tree when he got home.That night when he walked the dog, he headed to the same street and came home with a large glittered ball ornament. 

Today, we set out for a walk again. The girls said, "We have to go back to the treasure street and get more ornaments." I suggested we try a different street, but had no luck, so we headed back to the same spot. I was absolutely positive there was no chance we would find an ornament today, until was the one who saw it: a red polka-dot cat on the side of the road. Then we crossed the street and I saw another, a slightly-busted hand-painted plastic ball ornament. 

Stumbling along in the muddy trenches of motherhood, I couldn't see that there was joy lying right there in a puddle on the side of the road. It took walking through the tough parts of life with my kids to see it there waiting for someone to pick it up.

Our Christmas tree has been decorated and lit for weeks now in our living room, but it's the tree on the back porch with all of its shabby, misfit ornaments where joy lives.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent: An Honest Retelling

Am I the only one who suffers from Advent amnesia each year? Who dreams of children happily making Christmas crafts and cheerfully putting on coats to attend holiday events as the snow drifts slowly down?

Instead we started the first Sunday of Advent: at home with a broken-down car, children hyped up from vacation, a birthday party, and the first snowfall -- and squabbling, non-stop squabbling.The toddlers have been a mess. The volume and energy has been through the roof.

Then a few days in, I heard a crash in the kitchen. The two-year-old had managed to break a large snowglobe and was standing in a sea of water, broken glass, and iridescent glitter. With an order to the older kids to keep the toddlers and the dog out of the room, I started picking up broken glass, mopping up water and trying to find a way to remove the glitter slick that was seeping into the cracks between the tiles.Then the toddler, who was screaming and trying to hurl himself into the room, grew quiet. I did not know at the time that it was because his sister had come up with the ingenious solution of attaching a dog leash to his belt buckle. Then as the steam was about to pour out of my ears, I hear children's voices float in from the hallway, "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."

December is a hard time to be a homeschool parent. It's a hard time to be a public school teacher, a day care provider, or a stay at home parent. Being a parent of young children in December makes it abundantly clear how much we need someone to save us!

Maybe that is what we need during Advent. The world that Jesus came to save was not dressed in its season's best. The candles weren't lit. The world was dark, chaotic, and there was an awful lot of squabbling. There were things that were broken, toddlers screaming, and parents who didn't know if they would make it through the season. It was a world that needed to cry out, "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel."

So I have this special prayer for you parents out there this Christmas, (which may or may not be based on my own experiences):

When snowglobes are broken and ornaments break,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When screaming toddlers must be carried out of Hobby Lobby,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When siblings can't get along and no one wants to share,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When much-anticipated Christmas events begin and end with epic tantrums,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When lines are too long and stores are crowded, and everything is just too loud,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When rolling out cookies leads to Mommy meltdowns,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When attitudes are bad and parents are feeling grinchy,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When your lovely educational plans collapse,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When another Christmas movie afternoon is all you can handle,
Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

When you threaten to cancel Christmas yet again,
 Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

In all the chaos and excitement that is December with children, I pray that you will have quiet moments of restoration too, that you will feel the freedom to let go of anything you just can't handle, even if it seems like a lot of fun. I hope that each week will bring a little more light to disperse the gloomy clouds of night.

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Our Favorite Christmas Books

. "In such a house, one did not suddenly stub one's toe on Christmas and frantically rush about preparing for it at the last minute, as if it were a disaster. In such a house, the whole year was tilted toward Christmas..." The Christmas Pony by Helen McCully and Dorothy Crayder

My husband loves Christmas. You might say that his whole year is "tilted toward Christmas." When we got married, I married into a full collection of Christmas books and decorations, and we've only added to it since we've had children. We both enjoy spending the month of December reading our favorite Christmas fiction and celebrating Advent, so it was hard to narrow down our favorite books. These are the ones we return to each year with great pleasure and anticipation.
The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeline L'Engle. This was my husband's favorite book as a child. I am so glad he shared it with me, as this short novel has become a whole family favorite and annual read for us. This book features the Austin family from L'Engle's series Meet the Austins, but can be read as a stand-alone. This is a particularly special book because it's about a family celebrating Advent. On each day of December, they do something special: they take out a special decoration, make their wreaths, sing carols. In the book, seven-year-old Vicky is practicing to be the angel in the Christmas pageant, but her mother is due with a new baby right at Christmas time, and she fears that her mother will miss the pageant, and Christmas will be ruined.
Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck is the most beautiful Christmas book we own, both the illustrations and the story. It's the story of a son who wants to show his love for his father, but doesn't have any money. The surprise he comes up with for his father is so touching and generous. We love this book, and it doesn't hurt that Pearl Buck was born in the same spot in West Virginia where I grew up.
This is the classic I most remember from my childhood. The Herdmann family threatens to ruin the church Christmas pagaent, but instead they make it one of the most memorable and touching nights of the year. Funny and true to life, this book is a favorite.
It's become part of our annual tradition to listen to this audiobook on the way home from our Thanksgiving trip to West Virginia. Not surprisingly, this book by Dave Barry is really funny, but it also is really touching too. It's the story of a family and a Christmas play, a dying dog named Frank, and how another dog name Walter and a whole lot of frozen bat poop saved Christmas.
This is another audiobook,which we listen to annually. It's the third in the Grandma Dowdel series by Richard Peck. The audio is read by one of our very favorite readers:Ron McLarty, so it is not to be missed. Christmas doesn't come until the very end of this book, but it's worth the wait. If you haven't listened to the whole series starting with A Long Way from Chicago and followed by A Year Down Yonder, you can't miss the first two either.
I am always looking for fun books that feature the nativity. We love this one. It's about a little mouse who decides to move into the nativity scene, but when he hears the story of Christmas, he realizes his mistake. He gets a surprise new home in return. Very cute for younger children.
A Night the Stars Danced for Joy by Bob Hartman is such an interesting book about a family of shepherds who visit the stable where Jesus is born. Each member of the family brings his or  her own wishes and desires for healing from physical and emotional pain, and they find redemption in their visit to Jesus. There's a lot of emotional depth to this beautifully illustrated picture book.
My oldest daughter declared that The Town that Forgot About Christmas by Susan K. Leigh is her favorite Christmas book. It's the story of a man named Matthew who moves to a town that has forgotten about Christmas. Through his healing presence and the carving of a nativity scene, the families in the town learn to connect with each other again and with the story of Christmas.
Song of the Stars is a beautiful picture book by Sally Lloyd-Jones. In this story, all of the animals in the world anticipate the birth of Christ. We love Sally Lloyd-Jones and this picture book is a great addition to the Bible story in the Jesus Storybook Bible also by Lloyd-Jones, which has our favorite reading of the Biblical story of Christmas.
We love The Three Wise Women of Christmas by Dandi Daley MacKall because it highlights the beautiful stories of Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. I especially love that they feature Anna, as she is not often featured in picture books. A great addition to Advent if you would like to learn about all of the characters in the nativity story.
Who is Coming to Our House by Joseph Slate. We received this sweet board book from our neighbors when our oldest daughter was born, and it's our favorite  nativity book to share with toddlers. I love the woodcut illustrations and simple, rhythmic text.