Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Season of confusion, state of grace

The house is simply and beautifully decorated inside and out, the shopping is mostly done, the puzzling over what to buy for whom is over. What's left are those things that wind up not making much of a difference in the end ... that one last stocking stuffer, that extra bag of candy, the batch of cookies I'd wanted to make, the last minute great gift idea.

But when the season begins, earlier and earlier every year, the ever cliched "true meaning of Christmas" always weighs on me. In my mind the true Christ Mass and the western version of Christmas seem worlds apart. The former commemorates the birth of Christ, the starting point of salvation and faith and grace for millions of believers. The latter seems to be an amalgamation of traditions and celebrations throughout history. Linking the two produces a good bit of resentment and confusion in me year after year.

What we celebrate today seems to have become once again what early Christians feared: a continuing celebration of so-called pagan customs among its converts. Instead of forbidding the celebrations among its converts, early Christian leaders took an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude and adopted the merriment and lights from other celebrations. Ironically and sadly, what was perceived then as debauchery and irreverence is now reflected in the consumerism that has come to symbolize Christmas in our culture.

My husband and I are not consumers in the same vein as most of our fellow Americans. We go without so much that most see as necessities ... cable television, multiple cell phones, cell phones that do everything but make coffee, all the so-called luxuries and kitsch that define our culture. We hardly miss these things. So around this time of year, even with forces amassed to cunningly separate us from our money, we find that we've forgotten how to really want anything. Rows of shiny, neat gadgets stare back at us in the stores as we  ponder just what they would add to our lives beyond clutter and distraction. In the end, this season seems to be the only time we venture out and judiciously purchase a few nice, new items for ourselves. 

Every year, though, I wonder how buying any of these things matches the significance of the greatest gift I've ever been given - the priceless gift that Christians commemorate with the Christ Mass.

My family never did Santa Claus. In fact, we were taught that he was the red devil. And in a way, he seems to embody all that I despise about Christmas - the materialism and expectations. My parents instead kept Christmas simple - three gifts for each of us, from my parents, to signify the gifts of the Magi. Fortunately, my children are still young enough to be oblivious to the season. Danny calls Santa "that man." When Christmas lights and decor started showing up on our street, he called them Halloween lights.

Right now, we don't go to church (no nursery or children's programs at our church) and haven't talked to him much about Jesus. I know that we should start soon but I feel the need to get our story straight. And because I'm so bent on authenticity, that's a difficult task. To me, the gift of Jesus' birth is relevant year round. Why should it suddenly become more important during one month than it is every other day of my life? And why then should we blindly follow cultural cues into the halls of commerce, plastic in hand, to create a magical Christmas experience that pales in comparison to the state of grace in which I live daily thanks to Jesus' gift? These questions trouble me every year.

My poor children may one day remember me as a kill joy. I wonder: what do I tell the kids about Santa? what do I tell the kids about why we celebrate Jesus' birth in December? how do I connect the two? should I connect the two? why would I tell my children a story that I know to not be true (ie Santa Claus)? how will they feel about us when they find out Santa isn't real? how do I explain the story of Jesus - someone who is as real to me as nose on my face, but will inevitably become someone they will have to question themselves in order to know Him better? will they think we lied about both Santa and Jesus?

As usual, more questions than answers and that's okay. For now, it's probably best that we just keep it simple and not put too many ideas in their heads about either story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The annual Christmas photo fiasco

I dread the annual Christmas photo shoot. Last year's photo included such outtakes as the dog licking Danny's face, the dog with his back to the camera (as usual), and an eight month pregnant mommy in an overly shiny and really unflattering maternity blouse. None were suitable for public consumption and we wound up using a photo taken of us over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Every year my husband wants a Christmas card showing our lovely, happy family in festive attire. He stands on ceremony. I try to find clever ways around it. See, this year, I wanted the photo on the left to be our Christmas photo. Lovely needlepoint stockings hung by the chimney with care, labeled with our names, very cooperative subjects and even subtly symbolic (notice the tiny stocking on the end representing for our third child debuting in late April).

Obviously, my husband and I approach life quite differently. He has a healthy dose of optimism and self-confidence. I, on the other hand, have a healthy dose of realism and a sometimes unhealthy dose of cynicism. I appreciate the optimism, really, I do. It has saved us thousands in home repair costs as he fearlessly takes on projects such as re-siding the exterior of our house and taking down walls to remodel our kitchen.

But sometimes his optimism borders on insanity. Like when he declares that of course we can pull off a festive, happy Christmas photo at 4:45 in the afternoon with two small children, a dog and a pregnant wife who hasn't had a shower in four days.

"Now?" I ask. "Really?" It's busiest time of the day, the time of day when it's a race against the clock to get the kids fed, bathed, smoothied and settled down for bed. And, to boot, on Wednesday nights all this must done before 7 p.m. so as to make my weekly date with 12-step sanity on time.

"Sure ... " he declares confidently, lounging in a chair with his leg casually draped over the arm amidst the play/living room that looks like a toy bomb exploded.

By the way, a few minutes before concocting this hopelessly optimistic plan, he opened the water bill and ceremoniously announced to the children (who stared blankly back at him) that they needed to start conserving water.

"I know it's not your mother," he quipped. "She doesn't take showers anymore." (Isn't he funny, folks?)

And with that, Fabio was off to take his daily shower and find an outfit that would incorporate the vest that has appeared in every Christmas photo for the past 15 years. It's a family joke at this point. Meanwhile, I cleaned the playroom, started dinner, wrestled the kids' outfits on them, and threw on a dress that I wasn't even sure would fit over my blossoming belly (thankfully, it did). In the process, I find out that Danny had pooped in the potty without telling anyone and thus had, um, nature's glue stuck to his bum (Yay?). So for those who receive our Christmas card in the mail, thank your lucky stars that it's not a scratch and sniff card.

Here are a few of the outtakes. I'll post the winner after we mail our Christmas cards.
Christmas 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The one-eyed Fiona

Shortly before we found out that we were having a girl, we settled on the name Fiona. It was Jim's idea. He was listening to the Thistle and Shamrock show on NPR one Sunday night. The host's name is Fiona Ritchie. It struck a chord ... with both of us.

As I spread the news at work that we were indeed, miraculously, having a baby girl, a colleague and fellow Lyle Lovett-o-phile mentioned his song "One Eyed Fiona." I'd never heard it, oddly enough, and had no idea just how apropos some of those lyrics would be.
You better not cross her/You try to boss her/Then you better duck Mister/ Here come a cup and saucer/
... And she'll look right through you/With just one eye
She's fierce, this girl. We have a whole gallery of "if looks could kill photos." And a raft more of videos capture her rather intense, um, vocalizations. Fiona's antics remind some of my younger sister, who was (affectionately, I'm sure) referred to as the "nerd of the night" for her tendency to go from drowsy to wide awake in two seconds.

And that's just what we've been dealing with here. Many moms say they love to watch their babies sleep. I look for a split second then bolt stealthily to the farthest point in our house from her crib. Lingering is risky. Holding your breath and not making eye contact is highly recommended. She has been sleeping much better, though, giving us a total of 11 hours most nights. Sometimes she wakes up and complains for a few minutes and settles back down on her own. When she wakes crying hysterically in the night, though, one of us goes to her. When it's me, I pick her up with her little piggy and comfort her, but put her back down and try to pat her back. Her reaction? She howls, bolts straight up and looks at me like "If I had a gun, I'd shoot you, lady." Her father can usually get her to lay down while he pats her. However, if he so much as moves a muscle, she opens one eye wide and just stares at him like "Don't even think about leaving me, mister."

So if my second baby is like my sister, can my third one please be like my brother Paul? Calm, quiet, wise looking. My mom said she wished she'd had three more just like him.
If looks could kill ...

Friday, December 04, 2009

Flipping the switch

I'm always amazed at how our son changes with the mere flip of a calendar page. Danny turned three on Tuesday. Just how exactly does his little brain know that he must start asking rapid fire questions right about now?

What's that? Where did the boys go? Where did Dad go? Are you okay? What's in my sock? What's in there? What's going on? What's that noise?

Thank goodness we haven't gotten to the why questions yet. My best friend, bless her patient soul, answers every one of them. I'm not so patient and will have to set a three why minimum per series per hour. On the bright side, when he gets around to asking why maybe he'll start to understand our questions, like "Why do you poop in your pants when you used to poop in the potty?" and "Why did you pour the entire box of Cheerios into the napkin basket?" Now he just gives us a blank stare and repeats the question verbatim.

His brain is also starting to work a little differently. Either that or he's getting much better at explaining just what goes on up there. This morning's breakfast conversation was an excellent example.

Danny wanted me to cut his cheese, just like I cut Fiona's cheese into pieces. I explained that I was cutting it into quarters.

"Put it in the cash register," he said, nodding.

"No, please don't put cheese in your cash register, dear," I said. And then I tried to explain the fractions to my three year old. Four pieces make a whole, each piece is one quarter, etc.

He then asked me for a piece of my egg in "dimes, please." Then he chewed up his cheese, opened his mouth and said, "pennies."

I couldn't help but laugh.

Oh, and please permit me to brag just a wee bit ... yesterday Danny wanted to start using the computer mouse when we were doing "letters" on Starfall.com. So I let him, figuring it would kill some time (it did) and be an exercise in patience for me (it was). He did pretty well and by the end of the day, when we sat down to do letters again, he directed the entire process from choosing the letters to clicking and dragging them into the right places, etc. I was absolutely stunned at how quickly he picked this up.