Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Get the Hell Out of Here, 2006! or Counting My Blessings

All in all, this has been a year to forget, punctuated by moments of sublimity.

It's hard even to bring myself to the point of complaining, since the abundant blessings that flood my world far outweigh the multiplicity of headaches that pounded us from every direction this miserable year. So, I will not complain. Instead, for my own sanity and perspective, I'm going to remember the good stuff. There was plenty of that.

Sadie: This is the truest and best blessing of my life -- my daughter and the privilege of mothering her, teaching her, and learning from her. This year, I got to hear Sadie speak her first German words ("Ich heiße Sadie.") and see her dance in her first ballet recital. I got to tickle her, poke her, nuzzle her, kiss her, and rub her soft little downy head far more than she appreciated. I got to store a veritable treasure trove of funny memories as Sadie explored expressing herself in English. I got to have what Sadie calls our "pow-wows" late at night when sensible parents would have long had their children sleeping -- free-ranging conversations about whatever comes to mind. Watching her become the person that God imagined her to be is thrilling beyond compare. She rocks my world.

Jason: I have the best husband in the world. Protest all you want, fellow lady bloggers -- my man is the best; at least he is certainly the best for me. He is passionate, grouchy, funnier than anyone, works damn hard for our family and only complains a wee bit. He is a man, and he lets me be a woman. He loves his little Bug. He loves the Lord. He has made me laugh for the past 12 1/2 years, and he protects me and loves me and would kill anyone who hurt me. He's my biggest fan, and I am his. Whenever anyone asks me why I went to college in South Dakota, I always answer, "Why, to meet Jason, of course."

Shelter, Food, Medicine, The Basics: Okay, the rats almost got the better of us on the first front, but do not think that it has escaped me how very blessed we are to have a roof over our heads at all. We have food in abundance, beyond subsistence -- way beyond. We have great medical care -- the best in the world -- as was certainly driven home in a pointed way when Sadie made her Emergency Room trip in August. We do not worry from day-to-day about how we will survive. It may not always be so, but I'd be an ungrateful wretch, indeed, were I not to acknowledge what a supreme gift that is right now.

The Freedom to Worship: All over the world, Christians are persecuted for worshipping the Lord. In America, we are free to worship Him. That is a blessing not to be taken lightly, though too often I take it for granted.

Teaching Sunday School: Not only to I get to hang out with a sweet group of four and five-year-olds every Sunday morning, I get to share with them my love for the Lord. Wow!

Books: It will surprise no one who has ever read this blog before that I thank the Lord for wonderful books in my daily prayers. While this was a crappy year for debt and household issues, it was a remarkable year for books. In the interest of economizing space, I will write of the highlights

Music: Although my dad once called me "musically illiterate" (a label with which I will not quibble), the music I love is very important to me. I was blessed this year with attending a few more Carolyn Arends/Spencer Capier concerts, starting in January with the Carolyn Arends Forum International Round-Up (C.A.F.I.R.) in Ottawa, ON. This brought the doubly sweet blessing of good music combined with good fellowship. Carolyn also released a new album this year, which is always a treat, and she released some amazing "download-only" songs via her website. Any year that contains new Carolyn Arends music cannot be a total downer.

Friendship: My best friend, Sabina, moved back to Washington in July. This would make it a stellar year for friendship in my life without anything else added. BUT, I also got to meet, at last, a kindred spirit, vermonster, at the aforementioned C.A.F.I.R., and my blogging friends, Joelle and Andrea. Add to that the opportunities to chill out with my dear friends Kadie and Holly. The friendship of other women becomes more and more precious as the years wear on.

G.K. Chesterton: Although he ought, technically, to go under the "Books" heading, my discovery this year of the life and works of the amazing Gilbert Keith Chesterton towers above the other excellent books I read as a separate cause for celebration. I have tried repeatedly to write of Chesterton, but so far words elude me. He was a singular personality and mind: Quirky, witty, exuberant, confrontational, fearless, and a hell of a lot of fun. Reading him is akin to eating a perfect, ripe peach: He is juicy and messy and delicious -- he will get all over your face and drip down your chin onto your blouse, but there is nothing more satisfying.

Well, there is the shortlist of gratitude. There are myriad other notes of sweetness in the symphony of grace that infuses my world, but I shan't bore the reader by listing them. How grateful I am, most of all, that the love of the Lord keeps me from despair! He is so good to me.

Happy 2007 to All!

The Best Christmas Gift

Okay, the BEST Christmas gift is the best gift, period: The Birth of the Baby King.

But, I want to write a little about the best gift I've ever received in a purely secular sense on the holiday of Christmas. This is the gift that my memory recalls when people ask -- and people do sometimes ask -- me what present stands out most in my mind from my childhood. It was, by far, the most special, most surprising, most delightful cadeau that my tiny fingers ever unwrapped. But, first, a wee background story:

Shouldn't everyone have a groovy aunt? Every girl, at least, ought to have an aunt who is fun and generous and warm-hearted and intuitive and gives that little girl a relationship with an adult woman other than her mother and younger than her grandmother. I am a firm believer in the power of aunts. I had a groovy aunt, briefly. Her name was Linda.

Linda loved my uncle. And, I suppose in his way, my uncle loved Linda. One thing is for certain: Everyone else in the family certainly loved her. I remember well her constant inclusion in all things loud and chaotic and Italian that happened when my mother's family gathered in groups of two or more. There would be Linda -- beautiful, serene, laughing and wholesome. As far as I knew, she was my aunt. And a groovy aunt she was, indeed.

Now, for little children, the often ephemeral nature of pre-marital (and, far too commonly, marital), adult coupling is unfathomable. That two people could be so close -- share a house, a library, a bed together -- without that union's being permanent is not easily understood by children who long, more than anything, for the stable structure of family relationships that anchors them safely while they explore the astonishingly exciting and discomfiting greater world. But, that sad afterword is for later. First I must describe the gift that Linda gave me one Christmas years ago.

It was the day after Christmas. Were I a Canadian, I would tell you it was Boxing Day. But, since I am an American, I'll just use that woebegone term, "day after Christmas," which reeks of dropping fir needles and crumpled-up wrapping paper. My mother revealed a most curious item to me, telling me that it was my gift from Linda. It consisted of twelve pouches sewn onto a silken cord. The pouches were all that was interesting and gorgeous. What promise! What intrigue! My mother explained that it was a "12 Days of Christmas" gift. I was to open one pouch every day for the next twelve days. Now, here was an exciting concept, and one that was just so Linda to conceive. What could be a more suitable present for a child than to find a way to extend the magic of Christmas for twelve more days?

I do not remember much of what was in those pouches. My memory -- grousing and harrumphing in reluctance at being asked to perform such a difficult dredging -- brings up some chocolate coins and small toys of little lasting value or importance. Because, you see, the gift was not the contents of the pouches, but rather the very existence of those beautiful, exquisite pouches themselves. I remember staring with no little awe at the intricacies of the sewing and the patterns of the pouch material -- no two alike. At a Christmas where I can pretty much assume that most toys were popped out of a plastic mold in a distant land, to behold such thoughtfulness evident in every stitch and fabric selection was humbling and edifying. The beauty of a mind that could invent such a present was not lost to me, even in my grubby, self-centered kid-ness. "Linda" she was, indeed.

Well, soon after this Christmas, I lost my groovy aunt. She -- remarkable and sensible woman -- desired marriage and children. My uncle did not. And so, in his stubbornness and indolence, he paved paradise and lost her. And he lost her for me. My beautiful, kind-hearted Aunt Linda was gone from my life, taking a bit of the magic of my childhood with her. With preparation like this, there was a deadened sense of resignation for me when my parents divorced a few years later. This is what happens, I guess, I thought. Adults pair up and separate and nothing is lasting or true really at all. Had I not found the never-failing Father of Life in my early twenties, I shudder to imagine what my own history of relationships would look like. I thank God that He showed me what faithfulness was and is and ever shall be.

Linda found a marriage-minded man and, I believe, had children. I've lost track of her, of course. What can a child do to sustain relationships? The last I saw of her was after my parents had divorced and she had opened up a travel agency. As for where she is today, I can only guess. But, I pray that she is happy and healthy and some lucky young woman's groovy aunt. Maybe, someday, our paths will cross again, and I will be able to let her know how much her gift of love and consideration over twenty-five years ago meant to me.

In her honor, I do my best to try to be a groovy aunt to my own niece. Aunts rule! (Ask Jane Austen.)
Happy 12 Days of Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

15 Simple Ideas for Making Christmastime a Little Merrier

Now and future ways we try to make Christmas a little holier, sweeter, and merrier at our house:

1) Never leave a shopping cart in some random area of the parking lot. Take it back to the store -- who couldn't use that little bit of exercise? -- or, at least, put it in the cart return. Wandering shopping carts, whether in herds or solo ramblers, are a pain to other shoppers and the store's employees. (Okay, I do this all year long -- but if more people did it a Christmastime, wouldn't that be great?)
2) Buy a Salvation Army bell-ringer a hot cup of coffee or hot cocoa. Thank them for volunteering (most of them are volunteers out there in the freezing cold). Give them some money -- it doesn't have to be a lot.
3) Shop neatly. Put books back on the shelves at bookstores. Refold sweaters at department stores. Never, for crying out loud, leave refrigerated items that you've changed your mind on in the middle of dry-good aisles at the grocery store! Busy employees really notice and appreciate this.
4) Donate to Toys for Tots, or some other organization that puts toys in the hands of disadvantaged children at Christmas. If you have kids, let them pick out what toys to donate.
5) Go to candlelit Christmas Eve services at church.
6) Go caroling in your neighborhood. Invite your neighbors to come along as you progress. (I've never tried this one before, but I plan on giving it a go this year.)
7) Read aloud the Christmas chapters from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Remember a time when kids were thrilled to get mittens, an orange and two pieces of candy for Christmas.
8) Bake cookies. Eat lots of cookie dough.
9) Wear red and green together as much as possible in December. Wear a Santa hat!
10) Tip people who do not normally get tips; e.g. fast food workers, retail employees, your UPS and USPS delivery men, etc.
11) Volunteer in some way at your local Union Gospel Mission. (I have yet to do this, too; but, I really want to do it next year, instead of simply making a monetary donation.)
12) Tell everyone, "Merry Christmas!" Avoid the insipid, "Happy Holidays!" as much as possible.
13) Watch Christmas movies: A Christmas Story, Christmas in Connecticut, The Shop Around the Corner, The Ref, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, etc. . . . whatever floats your flying sleigh!
14) Listen to the following Christmas music: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 by Tchaikovsky, The Messiah by Handel, A Christmas Album by Amy Grant, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald, Christmas: An Irrational Season by Carolyn Arends, A Very Veggie Christmas by VeggieTales.
15) Never let the gladsome tidings of the angel chorus two thousand years ago fade from your memory. Never lose sight of the star. Do not be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy. It is for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

How do you make your Christmases a little more merry?

We celebrate the Baby King
And everything He came to bring
Everytime we give goodwill to men
So, on December 25
Or in the middle of July
Anytime we do what pleases Him
Then it's Christmas . . .
Merry Christmas . . .
This is Christmas -- Now in flesh appearing
-- Carolyn Arends, "Now in Flesh Appearing," from Christmas: An Irrational Season (2004)