Friday, November 26, 2010

My Christmas Time-Table is Uncompromising and Judgmental

I hate to inconvenience everyone’s jolly consumerism and tireless decorating, or foist my religious traditions on your secular holiday, but let me just air my grief over the warping of the Christmas calendar that gets worse every year. When I see my entire block lit up with twinkle lights a full week before Thanksgiving, when I hear LightFM playing 24/7 Christmas Carols, starting November 1st, when I get my first Christmas card the second week of November…it starts to annoy me. Then, on December 26th, when I see tinsel-clad evergreens already on the curb, Delilah goes back to "Your favorites from the 80’s, 90’s, and Today," and my neighbor is already on the roof pulling down their lights, it officially drives me nuts.

You’re welcome to co-opt my celebration of the Incarnation (a festival which we had, until recently, so successfully co-opted from the pagans), if you would, please, just get the timing right. There are two important things to remember. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas and Christmas is 12 days long. If you choose a warm October day to put up your outdoor lights, I can respect that – just please, refrain from lighting them until, at the soonest, Thanksgiving night. And if you can’t wait until January 6th to take it all down, I understand; you do have to go back to work and school, after all. But can we compromise and wait until New Year’s Day? I’m sure it will multiply the entertainment value, if my neighbors have to climb on the roof with a hangover, after all.

It is a struggle for myself, and as a parent, to keep Christmas in perspective. With every birth and marriage, our family enlarges and our shopping list grows, threatening our budget and overwhelming our time and focus. The growing darkness of shortened days can feed my sense of hurry and offset the fun of gathering with friends and loved ones. The stress to prepare everyone’s favorite side dish at the big meal can overshadow the good times of pouring too much champagne in Grandma’s flute and seeing what happens. There are so many things that happen between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that are completely out of my control, but one thing I can control is when I light up the tree, when I break out Elf, and when I pack it all away for next year.

I’m trying hard to keep Christ at the center of our celebration. I’m trying hard to instill in our kids the serious and delightful meaning of preparing our houses and hearts for the Savior’s arrival. I want them to understand that for God to come to Earth is worth a huge celebration, without letting that celebration bleed out into meaningless chaos. One place where that starts, for me, is teaching them about Advent and the 12 Days. Maybe I’m up tight. It’s been said before. But if all you jingle-bellers would cooperate, it would
 certainly help!

But when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law, so he could set us free from the Law, and we could become God's children. Galatians 4:4-5

Friday, November 19, 2010

I love a good poop story.

Parenthood has a way of numbing you to body fluids. From runny noses to midnight vomit, offspring will share with no sense of propriety. Even elimination, once handled behind closed doors with a loud fan to stifle the evidence, sometimes enters the public domain when you fail to notice the your baby outpaced their diaper’s capacity on your sleeve, the lack of a changing table in the public restroom reduces you to making the swap in the restaurant booth, or your preschooler escapes the restroom, pre-cleaning, to demand assistance from the other parent.

Two kids into motherhood, I have no lack of good poop stories. There’s the time my older daughter, all of ten days old, projected a stream of mustard colored poo onto her daddy’s chest. Her timing was perfect; he was just going in face first with her feet in one hand and a wipe in the other, and I was at the exact 90 degree angle to see the perfection of her arch, as it narrowly dodged his face and landed squarely below his chin. I laughed until I peed and got the scissors to cut him out of his ruined clothes. She was also the newly potty-trained flower girl, who confronted the stress of a highly formal rehearsal dinner by going into the dark corner next to the table and relieving herself on the four star restaurant’s carpet.

But, unlike some young mothers, I didn’t come into parenthood a poop-novice. My job, at least to some degree, had prepared me for the journey. It’s my best church poop story.

I had only been on staff a short time, and had no children of my own yet. There were a dozen kids in children’s church, and I was alone with them. An older couple had brought their grandson to visit. They were well-respected church leaders, and generally carried themselves with extreme dignity and decorum. Their grandson was the best dressed kid in church that Sunday, and I thought little of it when he asked to use the restroom. “Of course, it’s right next door. Just come back when you are finished.”

I couldn’t leave the other kids to show him, but he was about five years old, I thought, and came from good stock. Surely, he knew what he needed to know.

He was gone for some time, and I realized he didn’t just need to take a quick pee. But finally, he came around the corner, and I breathed a sigh of relief that he’d been able to take care of his needs independently. He first words, however, stirred my concern, “There wasn’t any soap, so I just got my hands wet.” No soap?

Going quickly into the restroom, I was confronted with the latest incarnation of the territory dispute between the church and the daycare that leased the space during the week; the daycare had locked up their soap for the weekend.

Knowing how long he’d been in there, I couldn’t ignore the situation. I told him to wait there, and, leaving the other children to their own potential demise, I scoured the church for a spare tub of soap. Finding it, I returned and oversaw his thorough hand washing. When we turned to the paper towel, I was dismayed to see that it, too, was left empty. Ready to compromise, I told him to shake his hands off, that they would dry OK on their own.

It was a moment of utter dismay when he replied, “There wasn’t any of that other paper, either.”

“That other paper?”

“You know, the stuff you use to clean your butt.”

I rushed into the stall and with great relief, saw that there was, indeed, toilet paper there. I showed him and he was thrilled, “Oh, good! I didn’t see it!” I suggested that perhaps he should make use of it. He agreed, and said he might need a minute, because he might have more poops.

Relieved to think my poop story was resolved, I returned to the classroom and proceeded with the lesson. As time stretched out again, I knew something was wrong, so I cautiously returned to the outside of his stall door and asked if everything was OK. I could hear the indications of a struggle as he replied, “Mom says to make sure I get my butt cleaned all the way, so I check it twice with my hand when I think I’m ready.”

I didn’t ask him what he does with his hand when he realizes he is wrong, but I’m pretty sure he’d already been wrong a few times, and that was why the smells in that stall were so overwhelming. I tried not to look in when he declared himself finished; I couldn’t face the possibility. Whoever locked up the soap and paper towels on Friday could handle it on Monday, because I still had a dozen unsupervised kids waiting for me next door, a poop-smeared bathroom stall was definitely not in my job description, and I didn’t have so much as a paper towel to attack it with.

He had looked like such a little dignitary in that suit, but I knew what that little boy was really capable of.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. Deuteronomy 23:12

Friday, November 12, 2010

I was surprised by a girl.

I didn’t care about gender when I argued for a bigger family. I just knew I wanted more kids. But heading into our ultrasound last week, I was two-for-two. I just had that feeling, both times, that we were having a girl. I felt it so strongly with my second daughter that I had already purchased matching sister outfits for them. This time around, everything felt very different. I was sicker and more tired. My cravings were different. My belly had a different shape. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps this time, we were having a boy.

It probably impacted my neutrality somewhat that my younger daughter was insistent on how much she wanted a little brother. It surprised me until a few days before the ultrasound. We were spending the evening with some friends who have two boys that are close in age with my girl. She shocked me. The three of them were chasing the dog, playing sneaky hide and seek games, even tackling each other and wrestling on the ground. I started feeling nervous that things were getting too rough, but I was wrong. She was loving every second. Her older sister would have been crying a river if she’d taken those blows, but my little girl had a blast. A light bulb went on in my head and I realized why she was so adamant about wanting a brother. There’s this whole other rambunctious, fun-loving side of her that she only gets to express on the playground and the monkey bars. I knew from early on that she was a climber and that she was harder on the furniture and the dog than I ever remember being, but seeing her with her two buddies, knocking around like a maniac, I realized there’s a gap for her that her sister and I simply do not fill. For as much as she loves Barbies and dress up, she still longs for a Wild Catawampus now and then. No wonder she begs for dates with Daddy.

So I left our friends’ place that night thinking this little baby must surely be a boy. Most certainly, God knew my girl needed a brother. I embraced the possibility that we were going to get to pass on my grandpa’s name. I began to deal with my fears about whether to circumcise him, and just how awful our house was going to smell in another ten years when perspiration kicked in. I found myself contemplating whether to argue for a fourth child, so that our son wouldn’t be the lonely baby brother of two doting big sisters.

Someone else's baby girl, but you get the idea.
 None of this would matter, if the ultrasound had revealed an anatomical malady in our baby; all our attention and concern would rightly be on our baby’s health. But because all of the important stuff was perfect, the last step in the screening is what stunned us. What my aunt referred to as the “it” shot – there it was. The third time around, we did not need the tech to confirm for us; those were girl-parts. I looked over at my husband – he, too, looked shocked.

As soon as the tech left the room, we began to strategize for how we were going to break the news to the girls. We wanted to ease them into it, so that our younger daughter could get caught up in our joy over her new sister, instead of being disappointed. We put a pink balloon on the mailbox as their first clue, so that as they walked home from school and saw it, the idea could sink in before being confirmed. My husband videoed the girls through a window to capture their reactions. Sure enough, our younger daughter initially fell silent and looked shocked, but by the time we met her at the door with our enthusiastic confirmation, she hugged me tight, kissed my belly, and chattered affirmations to the baby; bringing joyful tears to our eyes. God knows best, after all.

While “trying for a boy” was not a factor for me in having more kids, I have to admit that the realization that I’m never going to have a son has struck me this week. It is unlikely that my husband is going to agree to have any more kids, so this was it. Somehow, as life plays out and time goes by, there are some things you have to let go of. I’m the mother of daughters. I can love my nephews and play with my friends’ kids. I can do my best to nurture the guys who come through the youth group; I can feel gratitude for great relationships with the men in my life; but I’ll never know what it’s like to have a son. What I can and will do, however, is teach my three daughters there’s nothing second-class about being female – and to love Star Wars and Cyclone Football, so there.

Come, my children, listen as I teach you to respect the LORD. Psalm 34:11

Friday, November 5, 2010

I’m a re-gifter, but I still don’t want your junk.

As the holidays are approaching, my husband and I are once again confronted with the challenge of gift-giving. It starts early, when you have out of town family to consider. It is always amusing to plan gifts with my husband; I have some values about gift giving that have been both refreshing and challenging to him through the years, because they differ so significantly from his family of origin. I remember when we were dating how he saw a Star Wars cap he liked and made the purchase, then dropped it off at his parents for them to give him for Christmas. They nonchalantly pulled the cash out and made the trade. I almost fell on the floor.

In my family, the importance of surprise in gift giving far outweighed the importance of the gift’s perfection or actual monetary value. There was almost no point in giving my parents a gift list, because we never got something we actually asked for. Instead we got crazy stuff that sometimes confused, but always entertained. Most of it was socks and chapstick, but at the end of the morning we’d end up seated back-to-back to tear the paper open on three sets of matching roller skates, or a complete family set of lazar-tag equipment. Sometimes it was a perfect match, sometimes it wasn’t, but it taught me a valuable lesson about gifts that has served me well: don’t expect anything.

In my opinion, the minute you start thinking you’re entitled to something you really want or need, something that has a specific use or value to you, gift giving becomes a perfunctory exchange of commodities. If you need a particular perfume, go buy what you like. If you want a gift from me, expect something that has a little flavor of me, and a little flavor of you. Something that reflects the joy I feel in having a relationship with you.

That, to me, is the essence of gift giving. It honors the relationship. The gifts we give are derived from those first gifts, brought to Jesus by the Magi. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: gifts no infant would enjoy. But they were meant to demonstrate the meaning of his Advent; that divinity had come to Earth to reach out to humanity in sacrifice. It honored the new relationship God was forming with us.

So, I am not ashamed to say that I regift. I’m not crazy or independently wealthy. If I get something lovely, that I’m just not in love with (especially if it is a commodity offered to me out of obligation, instead of a reflection of relationship), and I know of someone for whom it might just be a match, I will more than gladly turn it out in lavish new paper and bow for someone else to enjoy. But when I get stuck with one-off kitchen towels with a mushroom motif, I draw the line and put them in the rag bin.

I try to pay attention to budget, but not cost, in gift giving. What I try to pay the most attention to, though, is my friends and loved ones, so I won’t be at a loss when the time comes to give them something. I might give the occasional lame duck (not sure my sister-in-law was as excited about the first season of Big Love as we were), but now and then I really hit the nail on the head – and isn’t that fun for both of us? Best of all, no one ever has to wonder whether I just pulled something off the shelf and passed it off on them. I’d sooner give you a gag gift of fake barf I think will make you laugh, as a set of diamond earrings that I don’t think you’ll really love. I’m out for one thing – to let you know you matter to me.  The real gift is my affection - some people accept it with joy, others would prefer a gift card.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17