Thursday, December 25, 2008

Labor Day and The Best Christmas Present Ever

Christmas Eve was my Labor Day, the day when I looked at the clock periodically and recalled what I was doing one year ago at the given time and the stages of labor that culminated early the next morning in NS' water birth. As folks invariably remind me when they find out she was born on December 25, "That's the best Christmas present ever."

Still, CP's gift to me this morning deserves honorable mention.

At 12:32 a.m. (the hour of NS' birth) I was plucked from my dreams and led into the living room. CP had smuggled in fancy crackers with brie and sparkling apple-cranberry juice ("Celebration Beverage"). Watching a slide show of marvelous birth photos (Merci, Auntie HB!), we munched and sipped and toasted our first year of parenthood.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Caroling, Caroling

One of the highlights of the past weekend (ostensibly a birthday bash, but Christmassy nonetheless) was caroling door-to-door in my sister-in-law's rural neighborhood. We bundled up against the bitter evening air and tramped through the misty drizzle. The children lit the way down the road and up the farm lanes with Grandmommy's cut-out milk jug luminaries and took turns delivering fancily wrapped sourdough loaves to surprised neighbors. We rotated through favorite carols including "Joy to the World," "Away in a Manger," and "Silent Night," always closing the serenade with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Between houses we bellowed "Jingle Bells" at passing cars. NS silently took it all in from CP's backpack.

We sampled Christmas cookies in lieu of birthday cake:

Presents for Grandmommy:

Fiddle tunes and Christmas songs:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Elizabeth and Mary

If, like me, you've attended church for decades, you've probably heard countless times the stories of Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and Mary (mother of Jesus). Last Sunday, while listening to yet another Christmas sermon hailing their exemplary obedience to God, I was struck by a new thought.

All they did (as recorded in the Gospels) was give birth to and raise children. That's all. They didn't start a non-profit, devote their lives to providing health care for the destitute, get an education, write books, travel the world, or rise to leadership positions. They lived the life that was before them--no more, no less.

Apparently, Elizabeth and Mary--a respected postmenopausal woman and a girl from nowhere--didn't even have a choice about the life-changing turn of events that were announced by angelic visitors. ("You will conceive," Gabriel informed Mary. Not, "Do you want to conceive?") The only choice they had was their attitude, and by all accounts, they jumped in with both feet, singing with glee and gratitude, as if they'd been invited to a grand adventure.

The "adventure" involved the raw, primal labor of childbirth, followed by the painstaking, seemingly incessant tasks of feeding an infant and changing diapers, the tedium of planning and providing meals for a family. This is the stuff of ordinary life, as is caring for patients in a clinic or teaching in a classroom, or whatever forms one's daily framework.

Mary's response to Gabriel reads like a morning prayer: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas: Call It What It Is

In the past few years, a perceptible linguistic shift has occurred in how the U.S. public talks about the cultural/religious season in which we find ourselves this time of year. The other day when I imported a new CD (a freebee that came in the mail) entitled "Merry Christmas 2008" into my music library, the genre designation automatically appeared as "Holiday." A quick cut-and-paste job reunited the ten songs (seven of which were carols about Christ's nativity) with their cousins in the existing "Christmas" category.

The switch from the specific religious term "Christmas" to the all-encompassing "holidays" may be decried by some Christians as yet another attempt to "leave Christ out of Christmas," adding insult to the injury of the slangy-sounding "X-mas" (which, ironically, originated from Greek and Roman abbreviations for the name of Christ).

But the religious and cultural waters of our day have become so muddied that there is no distinguishing between the purely Christian holiday (a.k.a. holy day) and the secular wintertime celebrations we hold dear. In a misguided attempt to do just that, however, Christians have tended to deny the secular aspects of their celebrations, declaring vociferously that "Jesus IS the reason for the season."

But why should we insist on labeling as Christian a celebration that causes "civilized" human beings to literally shoot and trample one another to death in their rush to acquire this year's toys, convinced by the marketing industry that they or someone they love needs them? If Jesus were truly the reason for this kind of season, I would have nothing to do with Christianity.

"The holidays" is a useful term for describing the cluster of secular and religious festivities in December and early January, including Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, Epiphany, and doubtless others which with I'm less familiar. "The holidays" is also a more accurate label for the subset often referred to as "Christmas"--a blend of sacred and secular traditions that have developed through the centuries: parties and gift giving, travel and reunions, story telling and sentimentalism, feasting and decorating, music making and church-going.

If only we could slice neatly between our secular and sacred practices. Then we could enjoy baking cookies and crafting evergreen wreaths without wondering what this has to do with the birth of Christ.

In the midst of the ethical confusion, it's refreshing for me to focus on an observance that is unique to the church: Advent (at least I don't recall ever receiving junk mail advertising Advent sales). Quite simply, Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas Day) is an opportunity to listen to the stories surrounding the entrance of Christ into humanity, and to reflect on their significance for our present lives.

The Birthday That Wasn't

Some call it the holidays; for others, it's the Christmas season. For me, it's family birthday season.

You could say the birthday rush ends within the first two weeks of the New Year with my sister's and niece's birthdays. I suppose it starts with my Dad's birthday (although this year it was several days before Thanksgiving, so maybe that doesn't count). But December is when it starts getting serious.

See, this coming weekend is strictly reserved for the celebration of my mother-in-law's MOT (multiple of ten) birthday. Never mind that her birthday is not this weekend; it was yesterday.

Yesterday CP and NS cheerfully accompanied me to the doorstep of my brother DH and his bride, where we sang him an early birthday carol ("Here We Come A-Wassailing" lyrics were modified to fit the occasion) and delivered a giant cookie with one lit candle in the middle.

"We know your birthday's not today," CP explained, "but we're celebrating another birthday tomorrow." He did not mention the fact that I planned to return later in the evening to hide with his other friends in the dark living room and yell "Surprise!" when he and AL returned from a concert. (It was past NS' bedtime, so I represented the family.) That AL has a remarkable knack for pulling off last-minute parties--i.e. 12 hours in advance--complete with shoofly pie, pumpkin pie, apple tart, and enough guests to gobble them up.

Speaking of hours, my sister HB's birthday is also today (yes, they're twins). However, for her, it will cease to be her birthday at 7:00 p.m. Why? She is five time zones from here.

While we're on the subject of today and birthdays, allow me to reminisce. One year ago today was NS' estimated date of arrival. She declined to share a birthday with Auntie and Uncle and instead chose to share her birthday with Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saved by the Beep

It's not unusual in the least for me to pass a week or two in absolute silence (bloggerly speaking, that is). But on this foggy, chill afternoon I find myself irked by my empty bag of ideas. NS is napping; dishes and cleaning are crossed off the list. It's the perfect time to crank out a side-splitting comic piece, maybe a piercing satire, or even a Christmas devotional to make the reader gaze out the window and ponder the significance of the Incarnation.

But no, it's not to be. On this completely uninspiring afternoon, instead, I'm reading everyone else's cute, witty, intelligent writing, in between glum staring spells.

Then the phone rings. To be more precise, it emits one practical beep to notify me of an incoming call, so my ears aren't assaulted by shrill, insistent imitation music for as long as it takes me to snatch the phone.

"I'm at your house," announces my friend KR. "Can P and I come in?"

Saved by the beep!

Down the driveway they come, brightening the drear afternoon and saving my readers from a pool of aimless drivel...or at least me from another day of nothing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Miracle at Apartment A, With Postscript

Disclaimer: The stuff of everyday life that feels dramatic to the protagonist may be yawn material for others.

It's nothing short of miraculous.

Just over a week ago, I was the dog-tired, frustrated mother of an eleven-month-old who didn't care to nap and woke me every few hours to nurse at night. Now, I'm gustily sleeping eight hours straight and enjoying an hour or two of daytime solitude during her morning and afternoon naps.

How did this unhoped-for miracle occur?

I decided I'd had it. "We just have to let her cry. Period," I told CP, soliciting his teamwork. We made a plan. If the crying dragged on too long, he would try to comfort NS and put her back down. But there would be no picking up between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. (She had slept 7 hours straight a few random times in her life already, so we knew she could do it.)

"Let's sleep in the living room," CP suggested. Reluctantly, I agreed, never before so glad that we decided to upgrade the sofa to a futon several years ago. I bedded down nervously, expecting long, weary episodes of screaming.

The first few nights we heard her crying only briefly at the customary wake times. CP picked her up once, and on another night I nursed her between 4 and 5 a.m. But after seven nights, all parties had racked up seven nights of 8-11 hours' sleep per night.

We've moved back to regular sleeping arrangements, but the blessed pattern continues.

The seemingly unattainable nap routine started with several hellish times of letting her cry for an hour or so until she fell asleep. Since then, the average cry-time for naps has plunged, currently ranging from zero to ten minutes.

The other night over supper, after listening to me jabber about my day, CP commented, "You've seemed a lot happier in the past week."

I shot him a meaningful look. We both knew why.

A bit shocked by our first full night of sleep:
P.S. By the way, in case you missed it, the title of this post echoes the title of my most-recently-read book, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, by Alexander McCall Smith. Letting the luxurious sleep accumulation go to my head, I recklessly stayed up almost until 11:00 one night last week to finish it. It's the latest novel in my favorite fiction series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Reading this series is like eating my favorite chocolates. Both are rich, salty-sweet, and smooth-crunchy, an indulgence that's at least a little bit good for you and always disappears way too fast.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The End of an Era: Glimpses from the Celebration of a Far-Reaching Life

My last grandparent, my mother's mother, died recently. I was privileged to be part of the celebration of her life and mourning of her passing. Here are some snapshots especially for the ones who were prevented by distance and commitments from being present.

My mom (far left) and her siblings--11 altogether--a formidable family bedrock.

The receiving line at the viewing, which took place at the retirement home where Grandma lived:

That's me with my little head-turner:

Gathering at the graveside to sing and drop flowers on Grandma's casket.
Generations two and four-Mom and AG brave the cold:

The stone church meetinghouse where Mom grew up attending (newer addition in foreground):

Cemetery where Grandma's remains rest with Grandpa's (he was buried in 2000):

In her lifetime Grandma canned probably hundreds of quarts of pickles, fruit, and vegetables for her large farm family, so the Thanksgiving display in front of the church where the funeral took place seemed like it was designed for the occasion:

She also made and gave away lots of comforters and quilts, like this crazy quilt. This display at the viewing included photos from her childhood through recent years:

Some of her many scrapbooks and photo albums were also displayed along with the family genealogy books she wrote:

As one of my family members has commented, Grandma's death marks the end of an era. As my aunt and uncle so eloquently reminded us at her funeral, Grandma was a teacher of many, many things, not only to her children, but also to her grandchildren. May we convey her lessons of learning, work, love, creativity, faithfulness, and much more, to the next generation.

Thanksgiving Sampler

At my parents' home last week, all were "safely gathered in 'ere the winter storms begin"...all, that is, except my sister in Africa and my sister in South America. They were missed.

Story time with Grandma:Can't miss an opportunity for a family cheese:Grandparents with three little bears:Sporting his blaze orange for small game season, ND shows off gathered treasures:AG teaches her baby the importance of wearing orange this time of year:
On the Clymer Nature Trail, gathering berries and greens for wreath-making:
Hunters talking shop:
Artisans at work:
A few of the festive results: