Soaking up Words for Christmas

The other night, I was in a gathering of women and the topic of favorite Christmas traditions came up. I wanted to pass on to you what I shared that night: in recent years, my family began a tradition with our favorite stories. We have raised our children with read-alouds, so this was a natural way to pay homage to that family culture — even though with mostly teenagers, we don’t get nearly the amount of read-aloud time that we once had!

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, each member of our family selects a Christmas-themed piece to read aloud. We are each responsible to spend some time with the piece — the reader should be familiar with the selection, enough to do a good reading. If there are voices, we’re encouraged to do voices!

Then, in the most informal way possible, we read our pieces to one another. There is no pre-selected order; we simply find little gaps of time on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in which to pause and listen to something. We commence with the Christmas account from Luke 2, and then progress to the others.

It sounds ridiculously simple, but it has been so nice to revisit these characters and settings each year. Like I told the ladies the other night, my seventeen-year-old son isn’t necessarily going to reread The Wind in the Willows every year, but he loves going back and watching the mouse choir appear on the doorstep.

Here are the selections we’ve enjoyed as a family — in the comments, please share more ideas!

In no particular order:

The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry (mom or dad fight over who gets to read this one)
“And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. …They are the magi.”

John Hendrix’ excellent book Shooting at the Stars. A recounting of the Christmas Eve truce of WWI. Since they were little, our boys have been captured by this true story of men who were shooting at one another one day and playing football together the next.

The arrival of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “‘I’ve come at last,’ said he. ‘She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.’ And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.”

In the Dark Streets Shineth by David McCullough. A retelling of Winston Churchill’s visit with FDR for Christmas 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. From Churchill: “…these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”

The conclusion of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. If you haven’t read this hilarious little book about the Herdman family and how they upset a little town’s Christmas pageant in all the best ways, please put it on your list. “But as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman — sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham.”

Harry opens his gifts/the Hogwarts Christmas feast from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Who needs any prodding to get back to Hogwarts?! We love going back. “On Christmas Eve, Harry went to bed looking forward to the next day for the food and all the fun, but not expecting any presents at all. When he woke early the next morning, however, the first thing he saw was a small pile of packages at the foot of his bed.”

The visit of the field mouse choir in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This actually contains one of my favorite passages in the entire book: “He [Mole] did not at all want to abandon the new life, to turn his back on sun and air; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”

The opening of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, in which the sisters rally to have a Merry Christmas in spite of hard times. “’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
‘I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,’ added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
‘We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,’ said Beth contentedly from her corner.”

Last but not least, the conclusion of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. “‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!'”

A NOTE: also, this is the time to drag out all the pretty illustrated versions of books you’ve been protecting. Just like the fine china, the pretty books are meant to be enjoyed.

AN ADDITIONAL NOTE: there are several anthologies in existence like this already. I recently bought The British Library’s A Children’s Literary Christmas, and we also own A Newbery Christmas.

A Modest Holiday Request

Dear Reader,

Hello! Happy December 1st. No matter where you are, this is likely the merriest month of the year. It is the time when we put up ridiculously lavish displays of lights and greenery. We bring a bush into our homes and string it with garlands and memories. We make the same recipes, the same sweets. We bestow on one another gifts and love.

Over the next few weeks, you may be invited to a gathering or two. If you are in someone’s home for a party in the next month, may I make I request of you?

Take a picture of the hostess.

I say “hostess,” because in my home I am the one heading up these efforts. But in all circumstances, there is someone heading up the food and the atmosphere at your party. He or she is the one who spent hours ahead of time, determining what you might eat when you arrive, making sure there’s room in the coat closet in the front hall, and wiping the bathroom sink one more time. He’s the one shuttling the empty trays back to the kitchen to refill. She’s the one taking the trash out — quietly, so nobody’s conversations get interrupted.

But I bet that host isn’t in many pictures. He might have taken a picture of you with your spouse; or a picture of everyone at the table together; and then he put the phone down to refill somebody’s coffee.

The hostess is present in the pictures, of course: in the flowers on the table, or the spread on the buffet, or the carefully chosen blankets on the back of the couch, so you could lay down for a nap if you wanted to. But where is her face?

Thanksgiving 2015

This feels like a self-indulgent request, and I won’t deny that it’s personal. Recently I was looking back at photos from our past Thanksgivings, and I found one of me, sitting in my usual spot at the foot of the table, smiling at a guest who had insisted upon taking my photo. I was struck by how rare a photo it was. I think I was about ready to leap up to get something I’d forgotten for the table, but my friend made me freeze for a moment so she could document that I was there, too.

As my children get older, I am beginning to realize how few pictures I am in. Dad, if Mom is the self-appointed documentarian of the family, make her get in a few photos. Don’t let her fuss at you about how she isn’t camera-ready. Tell her she is beautiful and click away.

It is a little thing, of course — and in an eternal sense, a photo doesn’t lend any significance to the service done. But in these days of ever-present cameras, let’s make an effort to temporally celebrate the one who is running behind the scenes. Give her a second to dry her hands off and take off the smudged apron, and then make sure she is remembered.

Happy Holidays!



Greatest Hits of 2017

If you’re not sick of reading year-end lists yet, here are some things I appreciated in 2017. In no particular order:

  1. Pen snob: 2017 was the year I indulged all my pen snobbery. I now have three faithful go-to pens for different purposes. A micron .03 for bullet journaling, a pilot disposable fountain pen for writing notes and checks (yes, I still do that occasionally), and in a pinch, this pen is a worthy replacement for either. Jen Wilkin made me aware that a disposable fountain pen was a thing in her first  interview on Only the Good Stuff. Fountain pens have long been favorites of mine, but the cost always made me shy away — I was afraid to lose one. Now I don’t have to worry about that. Also, if you have a kid with dysgraphia, or one who struggles with handwriting in general, give them a fountain pen. It really helps!
  2. Analog life: 2017 saw our family trying hard to become a bit more analog and a bit less digital. Try as they might, tech developers can never replace the mental exercise of writing something longhand; the weight, texture, and feel of an old book (or a new one, for that matter); or the joy of a note sent or received through the jolly old US Postal Service. David has once again returned to his longhand prayer journal, I began a bullet journal (more on that in a moment), and I read three times as many “real” books this year as I did last year — mostly because I was more disciplined about putting my phone down. I did this with the help of a paid app called Offtime. Apple users should look into one called Freedom.
  3. The Great British Baking Show: in our continuing unapologetically Anglophiliac british-bakingexistence, our family went whole hog into TGBBS this year. If you happened to be in our home while it was on TV, you might have thought we were watching a sporting event. Screams! Thrills! Tears! And the most delightful unexpected heroes. Please give this a try if you haven’t already. It streams on Netflix.
  4. Bullet Journaling: I received a lovely blank book for my birthday in June, and by the end of July — once I overcame my fears and stopped obsessing about making it perfect — I had it set up as a bullet journal. I have three sections: one principally for spiritual stuff (prayer, sermon notes, quotes, and the like); one for life-in-general stuff; and one for homeschool stuff. I also have a killer to-do page that uses post-it notes so I can clean it off and add to it as needed. I love having everything together in one place, and it’s lasted me a good six months. I might be beginning a new one in the next month or so. If you are at all interested in bullet journaling, please be careful out there on the world wide interwebs. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want everything to look perfect. Don’t do it! Ask yourself what you need that little book to do, and then use it for that. The end. No one is going to grade you on your bullet journal.
  5. Men. Ha, that’s a funny one. 2017, particularly the end of it, was a hard year on men. While the #metoo movement brought about some conversations that absolutely need to be had, I was shocked at the number of women — married women, even — who were saying casually what amounted to “men suck.” No, they don’t. I would hope you wouldn’t say that about your husband, married person. And you didn’t marry the only good one. My life is full of good men. I was raised by one, I am married to one, and I am trying to raise four of them. Helping me in the endeavor of raising those four young men are countless other good men, involved in their lives at school, at church, and in our neighborhood. The boys are thankful for them. Me too.
  6. 40. I can’t sign off on this year without acknowledging one more time that this was my year of turning 40! I ran a half marathon — a lifelong goal, and I ran it a full minute faster than I thought I could because of the help/friendly harassment of my husband. I went to NYC with sweet friends: we walked the Brooklyn Bridge, did drinks at the Four Seasons, and watched the sun go down from the deck of the Empire State Building! (did that really happen?!)

I am so thankful for the lessons and gifts of 2017. On to the next. Here’s to growing deeper in God’s grace, having patience with ourselves and others, and gratefully enjoying all His good gifts. Happy New Year, friends!

It’s Just Another Day

Here’s a repost from 2011. The holidays are upon us again:  the time of year when we are most at risk for unrealistic expectations. It’s handy to remember at this time that Jesus Christ died for sinners like us — in fact, that is the reason we celebrate.

“The real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation.” – JI Packer

Here we are, three days from the most hyped day of the year.  Our home — like many homes across America I’m sure — is crammed with wrapped packages and sweets.  The tree is decorated, the nativity scene set up, and the outside of our home glows each night with white lights.  The anticipation is palpable as each morning we rehearse how many days, and this morning, how many hours, until Christmas.

As one of my friends properly observed, this week is like finals week for moms.  I’ve been up until midnight every night this week so far, wrapping gifts, addressing cards, and cleaning up from yet another baking adventure.  The laundry still has to be done.  The house seems to get dirty faster because the kids are idle, not confined to their schoolwork.

As a result, a lot of expectations rest on the Christmas day payoff.  The culmination of all this effort is confined to a few blissful hours.  So it is easy, as a mom of littles, to be disappointed.  I found myself frustrated a few years ago when I was exhausted and the kids started fighting on Christmas morning.  Somebody didn’t like the special breakfast I made.  A diaper needed to be changed right in the middle of opening gifts.

I realized that year that it’s best to keep the expectations low.  Yes, it’s Christmas and yes, it’s special to celebrate with little kids.  But goodness knows we are all still sinful human beings.  Someone is going to cry.  One of the kids will make some sort of ungrateful comment about a gift you thought they’d really like.  We’re all still learning.  It’s Jesus’ coming to Earth, the very reason we celebrate, that redeems all the ugliness.

So breathe through it, moms.  Your high expectations will only make you and your family miserable.  Enjoy and be grateful.  Even though it comes just once a year, it’s just another day.

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Hebrews 13:15

The Remake

On Christmas Eve we attempted a remake of one of our favorite shots of the kids.

Christmas Eve, 2009:

original, 2009

Christmas Eve (not really, but the night we opened gifts a few days before Christmas), 2014:

remake, 2014

A good first effort. I think we can do better.

Please note: the sock in her mouth was clean this time.

20 Things I Learned in 2014

I’m joining in the fun at Emily’s blog today, listing 20 things I learned in 2014. I pray this is not a exhaustive list. Ha.

1. I learned that World Market’s lavender bed spray is a great way to keep your bed smelling fresh and clean. I change sheets weekly — let’s face it, it’s more like once every two weeks — but in between I spray my linens down with the spray after I’ve pulled the sheets back in the morning. I let it dry while I shower and dress, and then make the bed. So lovely.

2. I learned how to make sourdough bread successfully. This was a major victory in my book. The fact that you can set flour and water out on your counter for a good amount of time, feed it with more flour from time to time, and end up with a bubbling mass of yeast, eager to be made into bread? Well, that’s just the best ever.

3. I learned that love is too frequently accompanied by a desire to control. For people I love. For people who love me.

4. I learned that London’s rush hour is infinitely faster than Manhattan’s, and it’s all “keep left” instead of “keep right.” Trying to navigate that reality in the London tube in a bleary-eyed sleep-deprived state with two full-sized suitcases in tow is, um, invigorating.

5. I learned how to play chess.

6. I learned how to manage the chemicals in the pool without any major algae outbreaks all summer.

7. I learned that jumping in a 38-degree pool on New Year’s Day 2014 was not the worst thing I could endure this year.

8. I learned that facebook can be a terrible place or a delightful place — it all depends on how you manage it. My friends from Hutchmoot have become in-real-life friends this year. They make me laugh harder, delight more, and think more rigorously. What a gift. Also (#9) the “unfollow” button is a powerful tool. Use it.

10. I learned that Evensong is the best value going if you happen to be near an Anglican church in London or Oxford (or somewhere else, for that matter). Free, world-class music. In Westminster Abbey, we sat with the choristers in the quire.

11. I learned that no matter how many times I submit a piece to someone else for publication, I will still be terrified. Maybe the greater thing I learned is that it’s normal.

12. I learned that a good use of time at the stove is firing up an extra burner, melting some butter in an iron skillet, and caramelizing an onion or two while you’re there anyway. Thanks, Shauna Niequist. (and by writing that truth, I learned (#13) that my Northern pronunciation of “caramelize” causes me to spell the word “carmelize,” which is wrong.)

14. I learned that I still have a lot to learn from my husband when it comes to quietly bearing things. He is so patient.

15. I learned that keeping an extra shelf for logging the books I’ve read this year (see the sidebar) is an effective accountability tool. I’m planning to do it again in 2015.

16. I learned that no matter how many times I visit, I still miss NYC. Sharing it with my kids this year was amazing. I always, always, want to go back.

17. I learned that Pinterest does not care about your book storage needs.

18. I learned that I can still roller skate pretty well. Thank you, Roll-On America in Leominster, MA.

19. I learned that no matter how many clever apps they make, I still prefer pen and paper for a schedule and lists.

20. I learned that podcasts are my favorite. Really, my favorite thing. It’s ridiculous. I’m actually planning an entire blog series about what I’ve been listening to lately. Did you get some sort of new shiny pod-phone-thingy for Christmas? I’m here to help you fill it up with audio files. You’re welcome.

So what did you learn in 2014? Leave a comment or go link up with Emily at Chatting at the Sky.

Christmas, Whidbey Island

Today is the solstice: the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. I heard a friend say that she loves the nativitysolstice, because it means the sun has been flung back northward again. Imagine that: the cosmic ping-ponging of a star so much larger than ourselves, hemmed in, we like to think, by gravity and our calendars.

“It’s our turn,” says the Northern Hemisphere, and Australia and the South reply, “well, alright, then,” and send the sun back. We will trade again in six months, when my children’s necks are sticky with sweat and the fireflies dance under the trees.

It is fitting that in the darkest days of the year, we celebrate the first advent of the Lord Jesus. The people who have walked in darkness behold a great light, and He makes all things new (Is. 9:2; Rev. 21:5).

He must be made low to rejoice with the Father on high (Phil.2). He was foretold in the Garden, on the day the gate was flung closed and locked (Gen.3). And He would conquer through lowliness, in the form of a man. God in the manger. Creator with no place to lay His head (Luke 9:58).

In the early chapters of Breath for the Bones, Luci Shaw explores the idea of metaphor, word made flesh. She reminds us that the centerpiece of God’s creative imagination is Bethlehem, “…site of the Incarnation, flash point of the joining of heaven and earth, invisible and visible reality, transcendent and material.”

She shares this poem from her colleague, Loren Wilkinson. May it bless you as you consider the Word made flesh this week.

Christmas, Whidbey Island

Not in the waves, not in the wave torn kelp;

Not in the heron by the lake at dawn

Nor owls’ haunting of the wood,

Nor rabbits browsing frightened on the lawn;

Neither in the widening whirl

Of seashell, galaxy, or cedar burl,

Nor in the mushrooms’ bursting of the humid ground

May God the fathering be found,

If not found first in Bethlehem,

In thistly hay, on hoof-packed earth,

Where a girl, cruciform with pain

Grips manger boards in child birth.

There in the harsh particular,

In drafts, and stench of cow manure

The squalls of Christ, Creator, sound;

Where God grasped not at Godhead in a child

There only will the God of life be found.

Now, if we upon this wave-shaped bluff

Stand in the straw of Bethlehem

Then God shines out from everything;

The agate in the surf, the withered flower stem,

The fish that gives its body for the seal,

The flesh, the fruits that form each common meal,

The dance of pain and love in which our lives are wound;

Since Christ was flesh at Bethlehem,

In all the world’s flesh may God be found.

An Advent Narrative

Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent NarrativeJust as I did last year, I am reading through Russ Ramsey’s Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative every morning of Advent.

(Before you say, “OH NO HERE SHE GOES WITH THE ANDREW PETERSON PITCH AGAIN,” let me say, No, I am not pitching AP’s album again — although if I did, I would be completely justified in doing so. )

(To be completely on the up and up, though, this book contains some lyrics from the album and it shares the artwork.)

Ramsey’s Advent devotional begins with Creation and proceeds carefully through the Fall, Israel’s history, and the coming of Christ. If we as Christians grasp Redemption history well, we can grasp the Incarnation that much better. We ought to be people of this Story.

It’s what we like to call the “True Tall Tale.”

This year, Russ is managing a facebook group where he posts a Scripture passage, reflections, and questions from each day’s chapter. It’s not too late to join in and lend some ancient and strong significance to your Advent.

“The Lord God took this struggling man out beneath the desert sky at night, pulled back the blanket of self-doubt smothering Abram, and revealed a canopy of glimmering stars too numerous to count.”

-from chapter 4, “Number the Stars of Heaven”

Words and Un-words

It seems to be a trend in recent years to choose a theme word (or un-word, as it may be) for the year.  This method is meant to narrow one’s focus; to help in sorting through what to strive for and what to let go; to simplify.

I’m just going to say, I’m not doing that. I really admire people who are doing it. I kind of wish I could do it.

In recent years I’ve almost gone the other direction when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, goals, and the like.  I’m in my mid-thirties now; I’m pretty certain of what I need to be doing, and it’s my goal to get better at doing that.  I’d also like to quit trying to do things I’m bad at.  It’s the doing and the quitting that is my full-time job.  Some days I am better at the doing than others.  Recently I’ve been trying to do more of the quitting.

Like I just said, I’m trying to get better at doing and doing the quitting.  See why I can’t pick one word?

It takes a certain amount of trust in the Lord to understand that I’m gifted in some ways and very definitely not gifted in others. The trust comes when I’m able to leave it up to someone else — or, as the case may be, nobody else — to do those things I’m not gifted at, or not called to.

Do. Quit. Do Quit. Do.