Thursday, December 13, 2012

Waiting for Christmas

We're trying an experiment this year, or a new tradition (it remains to be seen). Forgive me if I get a little preachy, I don't mean to criticize anyone else's Christmas traditions or say that it must be done a certain way, but I am really excited about this, folks. I keep finding myself explaining it to people who probably have no desire to know just because it feels kind of life-altering.

So Thom and I have been mostly Anglican for five years now. The introduction to and delving into liturgy, church calendar, and traditions has been a rich addition to our faith. We like it and we hope to continue in a place where we can combine all of that with an active and living community of believers. We're currently searching for where we will eventually settle. In the meantime, we are attending church with friends during this particular season.

As most of you know, we're in Advent right now. Not Christmas, not "Christmastime", but Advent. Advent is a period of waiting, of contemplation, of groaning, of expectant darkness.

The modern take on the Christmas season is this: there's this day where we all stuff ourselves with turkey and then the next morning (or late that night) we rush off to consume - it's Christmastime! We shop like mad, we quick get the decorations all up, we bake, we attend office parties and friend parties and church parties and small group parties and school parties, we exchange gifts, we sing carols, we watch heartwarming movies to get in the spirit, and on and on. In essence, we celebrate! For five weeks leading up to this one day, Christmas, we celebrate and celebrate and celebrate.

When we finally get to the day, we're so sick of celebrating we can hardly enjoy another feast. The presents get unwrapped in haste and suddenly all of the work you've put in for weeks before is over, it's effects fleeting. We sit in a pile of new belongings and dirty dishes at the end of the day and we think, "Thank God!....that's over."

Um, I'm sorry but that is NOT what Christmas should be.

I love Christmas - I've talked about it before. The scene described above is something I've lived out for several years now. I've been trying to recapture the joy of my childhood, and trying to fight for the celebration of actual Christmas (Christ coming to earth as a baby, God in the flesh, for the purpose of saving us) to prevail. But I keep losing.

Every year, I fill the weeks preceding Christmas with as much Christmas as I can, thinking it is getting me in the mood to celebrate, thinking it is preparing my heart. But celebrating can't prepare you for celebrating. That's like spending thousands of dollars in expectation of a raise at your next review; you just can't possibly get excited about the money when it comes if you've already spent it.

Instead, it encourages an attitude of "creating Christmas". If only I can spread enough cheer, make the right cozy atmosphere, eat all the right foods, and plan enough events to keep the excitement alive, then we can all make it to Christmas with a smile on our face. By the time we've done all this other stuff, we'll be ready to really focus on Jesus.

Well, here's the news: I'm not responsible for the joy of Christmas. It's there whether I put decorations up or not. It's not going to lessen if I don't go window shopping at the Macy's downtown. We're not going to miss it if we never get around to making cut cookies.

This has been a long introduction, but here finally is the experiment: We're not celebrating Christmas until Christmas Day and we are going to celebrate for 12 days for the entire season of Christmas. This means, in general, no decorations, even tree - we're planning to get it the weekend before and decorate it on Christmas Eve (however, Thom did put up outside lights), no Christmas music or movies - although we have been teaching the girls some carols each night with an Advent reading, no baking, no indulging in Christmas treats (but there have been a few, I will admit), and no piling on the pre-Christmas outings.

We're holding these rules loosely, not legalistically. We've "broken" them already to some degree as I mentioned. And make no mistake, we will be doing all of these and more for the full 12 days once Christmas begins. The main difference is not putting these activities on as if they are some necessary force in order to usher in Christmas, but instead (the hope is) that they will be a natural outpouring of the celebration that grows from first encountering the birth of Christ. Honestly, if I get to Christmas Day and making peanut brittle does not feel like a desire of my heart to celebrate Jesus, than I won't do it. But I think it will.

It's no wonder we get to the year's end and want to throw off any remembrance of the holidays; we embrace January 1st, turn our backs and move on - to a better year with better resolutions! We've been eating ourselves silly, indulging every celebratory whim under the label "Christmastime" for five whole weeks. Letting Advent be it's own season, a preparatory one, for sure, but distinctively different from Christmas itself does more than just lead up to the celebration, it gives us a break and a rest and wonderful stillness and lets us actually enjoy the celebration when it comes.

Before you contradict, absolutely I believe that Christians can acknowledge, even celebrate, the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ on any day of the year. We do and we should. I'm not suggesting we pretend we don't know about Jesus until December 25th comes around (and yes, I do know that's an arbitrary date), and then act all surprised. But if there is something to distinctively celebrating this event, a day apart from other days, and I'm fairly certain that historical Christianity feels there is, than let that celebration be distinctive! Don't let it get lost in a month-long frenzy to embrace warm, fuzzy feelings.

So far, for me, it seems like I've done myself a huge favor. Every time a thought comes into my head like "I have to get a wreath for the door!" another thought speaks louder, "Wait for Christmas!" And I promise you, all the pressure is off.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Update on Twelve for '12

Since we are nearing the close of this year 2012, I thought I'd do a brief update on where I stand with my goals. Now let's see:

 1) Finish Betsy's wedding present. Not a chance - I maybe stitched on this one hour so far this year, with no foreseeable time to do so in the next five weeks.

2) Stop using shampoo.  We'll give this one a 2/3 complete.  I did this almost exclusively up until September when we moved, but, like almost everything else, it dropped by the wayside in the midst of the stress and busyness of getting settled into our new place. I have a post on more detail about losing shampoo that I haven't published yet. Perhaps I will someday.

3) Make couch pillows.  Nope, but it looks like I may finish another spontaneous sewing project - a tree skirt.  

4) Finish baby books.  Nothing.  Pathetic.

5) Placeholder financial goal.  Even though I never fixed what it was, we didn't meet it anyway.  But, oh did we try!  Let's just say that with the unexpected loss of my job (although I did get another one) and the approaching end to Thom's job, we haven't been in the best position to do what we wanted with our money.

6) Sleep through the night.  Done!

7) Learn how to knit.  Who was I kidding?

8) Travel.  Done!

9) Paint bookshelf.  Done!

10) Read five books that I already own and have never read before.  I've pretty much done this one, although everything I've read can count as "juvenile fiction".  It was my only hope.  I read Henry and the Paper Route, Harriet the Spy, The Hunger Games trilogy, and Tales of Beedle the Bard.   I hope to eek out one or two more before the year ends.

11) Cook a whole chicken.  Done!

12) Volunteer at Community Pregnancy Clinic.  No, but this is no longer a realistic goal based on moving out of the state.  Plus, it was a little optimistic to think I'd have the extra time and someone to watch the kids to make this happen.  Put on hold until kids are in school!

But at least I made up for it, by doing this:

13) Go to the dentist.  Done!  Only two cavities. :)

So that means I got about 6-7 out of 13. Fail.

I'm not going to beat myself up about this though. I can see, looking back over my year, why things played out the way they did and which ones of these were me being an ever-eager over-achiever. I think I'll do it again for 2013. I mean, why not? At least there's some record of what I've done. And something to try for if I ever do find myself with time on my hands.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Twelve for '12: Much Needed Rest

It's been over two months since I met this goal:

6) Sleep through the night. I'll define this as 8 hours straight with no interruptions from children.

And the magical formula for making that happen? Further crossing off this goal:

8) Travel. To Illinois? To California? Just somewhere that requires me to board a plane.

In early June, I got the chance to spend a few days on my own, away from kids and all other demands on my time - except the necessity to admire my new niece Vianne which wasn't very taxing, with a high priority for sleep.

I was not disappointed. For three wonderful nights, I basically slept for as long as I wanted (10 hours at the longest). I went to bed mid-evening, read in the quiet of the guest room until I got too tired, and then woke to the warm California sunlight falling across the bed in the morning, and dozed off again a few more times as needed.


And you know what else? Just between you and me, I didn't even worry about my kids while I was away. Thanks, Thom!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Twelve for '12: Blue Bookshelf

You cannot even imagine the kind of satisfaction I have in reporting that I have now crossed another item off of the list. This item, to be exact:

9) Paint bookshelf. The paint was already purchased months ago.

This was one of those things that I honestly felt like I would never be able to do back a few months ago when I was in a baby fog. We bought the paint at least a year ago, maybe more, and Thom had even started sanding at one point, but then the winter hit and the bookshelf went into storage. More money spent on unachieved dreams. Sigh.

Well, my little Margot turned one today and a couple weeks ago the sun came out and I painted the bookshelf. Seems like we're accomplishing milestones left and right.

It really wasn't even that much work once I got started. I borrowed my mom's power sander to take off some of the thick previous paint, then got to work covering the entire shelf with two coats of blue.

A couple days to dry and voila! I finally decorated something in our home!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Life and Death (Cont.)

Further news and reflections:

- On Saturday evening, ten years to the day after my dad's death, our friend Greg died. He was on the elder board with my dad when I was a kid; he taught my Sunday school class one year; he was an elder at the church where Thom and I attended when we were first married; he interviewed Thom for his ministry position there, and advocated for that position to be created for him. He was a tender-hearted man, a man of great faith and conviction, and a strong leader. His wife was my mentor partner as a teenager. Then Thom led the youth group while both of Greg's kids were involved. His daughter Shawna is just about the age I was when my dad died. My heart goes out to the family, especially as they walk this similar road.

- My niece, Vianne Rose, was born in the wee hours of the morning on Easter Sunday. I haven't gotten to see her yet, but I hear that all is well. Vianne's name means "alive" which seems remarkably fitting for the events surrounding her birthday, and for the miracle that took place on the first Easter. Congratulations to the new parents, Amy & Patrick!

"You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow"

-Sufjan Stevens, Chicago

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Matters of Life and Death

Today is April 6, 2012 which makes tomorrow April 7, 2012. And tomorrow is a pretty significant day, or at least it marks one: the day my dad died, ten years ago.

The day is full. I'll tell you why.

- My sister is currently in the hospital being induced with her baby girl three weeks early due to possible complications from a liver problem and preeclampsia.

- Today is my best friend's due date (another baby girl) and she was experiencing contractions all morning.

- We're in the midst of Holy Week. Thom is off to a Good Friday service as I write and Sunday morning we will celebrate Christ's resurrection.

- Another friend has just arrived from Ohio. We will be having a birthday party for her two-year-old daughter (two weeks younger than Beatrix) tomorrow morning. Her husband flies out for training on Easter morning; he is deploying to Iraq at the end of the month.

- An old family friend is currently in hospice care after battling cancer for many years.

- I turned 32 one week ago.

And in the midst of all of this, I'm trying to find space to contemplate, to celebrate Dad's life, to reflect on my process of grief, and to appreciate the hope of heaven.

It feels like too much and I'm tempted to just go watch TV instead of think, but I know that I need to focus and live through this. So here goes.


The last time I saw my dad was my 22nd birthday. It was Easter Sunday. I had flown home for Easter break at the urging of my mom who did not think that Dad had long to live. I don't remember anything about those few days at home except for the morning I left. We went to the sunrise service, my dad in a wheelchair and towing an oxygen tank.

At home, before leaving for the airport, I went into our family room alone to say goodbye to Dad. I sat perched on the armrest of the recliner, in a side embrace with him. He spoke words to me, which seared into my brain. I have them in a journal still, but paraphrased, he told me he loved me, that I needed to finish school, that I needed to help my mom make decisions, and that, most importantly, I needed to keep my faith in God.

It was a lonely flight back to school. I sat next to the window and let the tears fall silently, a deep hollowness - sorrow - settled in. At O'Hare, my roommate picked me up at the curb. She was distracted and stressed by driving in unfamiliar Chicago traffic; she greeted me coldly. I remember leaning away from her in the car, staring out the window, my insides just screaming out the injustices: It's my birthday! My dad is dying! I will never see him again!

He died late at night the following Sunday. I was awoken in the middle of the night in my Wheaton college apartment, two thousand miles away from home, with a phone call. I remember leaping out of bed, knowing it was bad news. My roommates didn't rouse, maybe because I got up so quickly it didn't wake them or maybe because they knew, as I did, it was for me.

On the line was my brother; he told me the news. I don't remember talking much. I just remember the feeling afterward, the sickest, darkest, heaviest feeling I have ever had. It could only be told with sobs and groans. I curled up on the spare bed in our study and cried. My roommates came to me then and held me while I wailed and rocked and writhed.

I relive that moment often and it never fails to bring tears.

The following day was Monday and I had to get excused from classes and arrange for extensions on my work. My roommate came with me to one English class to explain to a professor why I wouldn't be there; I couldn't bring myself to walk into the classroom and talk to her. There in the hallway of Armerding Hall, I ran into another close friend. I saw her, rushed to her, clung to her neck, and sobbed while students in an hurry filled the hall around us.

Very few people at school knew my dad had cancer. I was involved in a ministry on campus when we found out the diagnosis (early summer of '00). The people involved in the ministry knew and had been praying. My roommates knew, a few individual close friends knew, a few professors knew, and that's all. Lots of individual, even close, friends did not know. How do you tell people who don't know that your dad has been dying that your dad died? I couldn't. So I didn't talk. I spent a good amount of time playing Nintendo 64 games just to keep my mind occupied.

I flew back home within a few days to attend the burial and memorial services. My arrival at the Portland airport that time was one of the most beautiful-sad memories. All my siblings were waiting for me as I walked out of Concourse E. One by one, I fell into their arms grateful to be with them all. Their hugs said, "You're home, we understand, we feel the same way as you." Those were honest hugs.

Some relatives were in town for the funeral. I remember one of my uncles was sitting in the living room when I came downstairs one morning. It was late morning, maybe ten, and he made some annoying comment about me sleeping all day or something like that. I wanted to kill him. Another time, another uncle stopped me to tell me about the stages of grief. I knew he meant well, but I couldn't possibly understand what he was talking about, I couldn't even understand my own actions.

At the church for the funeral, my family all waited in the back rooms, like actors offstage, to enter together in a procession when the service started. I gripped my sister Amy's hand as we went down the aisle. I remember feeling pretty exhausted, with no more energy to cry. Many kind and joyful testimonies were shared that night about my dad's life. I was and am so proud of him.

I had to go back to school to finish out the year. The day Dad died was exactly five weeks before my graduation. There were lots of gushing goodbyes and rekindling camaraderie among classmates at the time. I remember vividly running into one of the girls from my ministry on the sidewalk one day. She told me with great enthusiasm that she was engaged. I could not respond to her cheerfulness with the truth about what was going on with me. Dad's death was only a few days old, and I acted like everything was fine.

Another time, I tried to spit it out awkwardly. A boy who had had a crush on me - he had asked me out earlier in the year; I refused, but we had remained friends, stopped me in the hall one day. He asked me casually how I was as anyone might in normal conversation. I said that I wasn't doing well actually, that my dad had died. He laughed in response. I guess he thought I was joking. He was one who should've known my dad was sick, but he didn't remember at least not in that moment. That encounter certainly didn't encourage me to be more forthcoming with my emotions.

A friend who had already graduated, but was still living nearby, went for a walk with me to the park one day. I had seen her regularly over the two years since I knew my dad had cancer, but I never mentioned it. For whatever reason, it never seemed like the right time to say it or I didn't know how. At the end of the walk, my friend asked me if my family was coming to graduation. I said that my mom and my brother were coming and she asked, "Why not your dad?" I shifted uncomfortably on my feet and replied that he had died. She was shocked and mystified. I was miserable and embarrassed. My hasty, stammering explanation could not recover any trust; I felt false and shallow.

Eventually, one of my friends caught on; I was not seeking any help and was receiving as much. She informed the chaplain's office of Dad's death. The college chaplain called me directly to ask how I was doing. I remember it feeling very strange to speak to someone whom I had been watching on stage three days a week for the last four years, now, at the end, because my dad was dead. I don't think I was very honest or else I didn't know what I was feeling so I just gave the expected answers.

Later, they inserted my name into the prayer requests in front of the entire school. There had been students' parents with cancer in the regular prayer list for months if not years, but my dad had never been one of them. One girl in particular, another senior, had been in a couple of my classes. Her dad also had cancer, but she was loud and outgoing. In both classes, she shared all about it and asked for prayer. I remember sitting in those classes, watching her with bitterness and awe. There was part of me that wanted to jump up and say, "Me too! My dad is dying too! Pray for me!", but that would have meant attention and vulnerability. Silence always won.

When my time came, it was (I believe) the very last chapel service of the year. All of us seniors were sitting on the stage. They prayed for me, calling my name out for everyone to hear, and I felt my friends nearby reach out and place their hands on me. Afterward, descending from the bleachers, a couple of my ministry friends (one was the girl who got engaged) approached me with searching, sad eyes. Why hadn't I told them? I don't know why, because I couldn't.


None of this really speaks about Dad, about who he was or what he meant to me. No, to do that I'd have to write volumes. These are just the glimpses I have, the montage on repeat that plays in my head this time of year, little painful flashes and memories of a time I cannot go back and change. All of this was so formative for me, and yet I think over them now with a definite outsider's eye.

To be honest, I can't even quite remember the girl who didn't know how to talk about her pain; I've had ten whole years to do that. I know this pain so well, it is with me every day. It dulls as life moves ahead, but comes back sharply whenever I give it just a minute to sink in, like when I consider raising my girls without them ever knowing their Grandpa except in pictures. Just one minute and my insides start screaming the injustices all over again: My dad is dead! I will never see him again!

However, I would be remiss to leave it at that. I was attempting to give up complaining for Lent this year, and in doing so have realized just how prevalent complaining is in my life, so it would be easy for me to just leave off with a big whiny cry for pity. But it's Easter weekend, so how can I think on my dad's death and his separation from me, without glorying in the victory over death that we have through Jesus Christ?! The pain that I feel here on earth is just one part of the story, the present part, sure, but not the most significant part.

I will instead scream out this wonderful injustice: Christ has died for me! I will live with him!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Twelve for '12: Crock Pot Chicken

Another item to check off my list:

11) Cook a whole chicken. I've had this chicken in my freezer for ages and I have no idea what to do with it. Suggestions welcome.

In early March, I finally pulled my chicken out of the freezer and put it to work. And by work I mean letting it slow cook in its own juices for half a day in order to become a very tasty dinner for me and my family.

[Just lost my vegan/vegetarian audience.]

[Audience, what audience?]

I used the recipe found here at the 100 Days of Real Food blog at the suggestion of my friend Meredith. It was really so incredibly easy, I am ashamed to have kept that chicken frozen for as long as I did.

Here's what the chicken looked like with rub applied, before cooking. Whoops! I forgot to take an "after" picture; I was too busy eating.

We ate about a third of it that night along with a salad of penne, grape tomatoes and fresh spinach tossed in an olive oil and vinegar dressing. It was my first experimental "real food" meal which was received by the whole Blair clan with enthusiasm.

After that, we used the leftover breast meat for cold chicken sandwiches and a homemade bbq chicken pizza. The rest of the meat was frozen for an eventual pot of chicken soup. Plus, I used the further instructions from the recipe to make my own overnight chicken stock which has come in handy for several meals since.

Definitely a big thumbs up to this recipe, plus the blog is worth reading. We've been incorporating some of the ideas and recipes around here for the last month and it's been a good change. I'm not 100% sold on following all her guidelines, but there are some of them that I can really get behind, like only eating things with ingredients that you can identify and choosing homemade over store-bought whenever possible. I've definitely got a lot to learn, and I'm no food snob (yet), and I will kick and scream if you dare call me a "foodie", but having two impressionable little mouths to feed has forced me into rethinking some of our food choices.

It's funny how long I fought this, actually. I've known that sooner or later I'd have to address this nagging voice in my head that kept telling me to change, but I'd been so turned off by other condescending food-worshippers that I wanted nothing to do with it. I think I know exactly what it feels to be an atheist who finally accepts Christ but swears he'll never be called "born again". It's like tapping into something that is so ancient and true that it precedes all modern trends and labels. Somehow you want to capture the eternal message without all the contemporary trappings (judgmentalism, arrogance, insensitivity, political persuasions), but sooner or later you've just got to accept you're "one of them".

But you don't have to be a jerk about it.