Hello, 2016. I’m really going to try to make more of an effort to write in this space again as life allows. There were many reasons I stopped blogging – some of which were completely out of my control – but a big reason had to do with me feeling unworthy to share anything of importance. No time (right now) to go into too much detail, but it was a lame excuse to not waste my – and your! – time with some periodic Kate ramblings, so here we go!
I’ve been tidying up over the past few days, and I came across one of many Advent calendars I had tacked up in our kitchen. Each calendar square included a prompt – an activity or a prayer – to help you and your family live the liturgy during this rich time of year. I scanned all of the neglected activities, grabbed that stupid piece of paper, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the trash. It felt like another reminder of everything we didn’t get around to doing. I was feeling low, frustrated that our dog’s death, a refrigerator breakdown, walking pneumonia for my 4-year-old and me, and then unexpected kidney surgery for me thwarted my plans. This was going to be the Advent where we reclaimed joy and simplicity. I dutifully downloaded Elizabeth Foss’s Comfort & Joy ebook way back in November, and I sat down with the kids and we made Advent goals.
Then everything started to fall apart.
After I tossed the neglected Advent calendar, I sat at my dining room table with my new 2016 planner and a rainbow of new pens that usually make me happy, and my eyes brimmed with tears as I considered what further plans I could make and fail to follow through with. But then I looked up at a beautiful portrait of Layla, our beloved family dog, that a friend of mine had painted me for Christmas, and I thought about how with Layla, everything had to do with her family. It was enough just to be with us. She had no agenda other than to be at her masters’ feet. Why aren’t my plans always so simple?
Despite all the health issues, the pet mourning, and the inconvenience of a kaput refrigerator and freezer, I wouldn’t describe this Advent or the subsequent Christmas season as anything less than joyful. The only thing that was really getting me down was the idea of perceived failure because we didn’t do lots of crafts this year or make it through our Advent story collection.
We usually set up our manger scene by the first week of Advent. This year my oldest was busily positioning Mary, Joseph, a menagerie of farm animals, and other onlookers Christmas Eve morning. But it made no difference. Come Christmas morning 6-year-old Mary Elizabeth found Baby Jesus and gingerly placed him in the manger. Jesus came. On that first Christmas, he was born in a dirty stable. None of the surface stuff – the decorations, the kids’ very “un-smocked,” unseasonal attire (my 6-year-old spent most of Advent wearing a fall festival t-shirt with a jack-o-lantern on it), etc. – matters. Jesus just needs a place in our messy hearts.
Like the Grinch tells us, Christmas comes without ribbons or tags or packages or bags. It also comes to homes where saints’ feast days pass by without crafts and special edible treats. It came to my family when Mom was in bed recovering, and Dad was working three 15-hour shifts in a row. Our Advent Plans list did not get checked off completely, but my kids were still joyful. My favorite memory was watching my girls play with my niece on Christmas day – the older ones taking care of the youngest one with servant hearts so my sister-in-law could actually stay seated and finish her Christmas feast.
People took care of me as well when things got unexpectedly rough. I have wonderful family and dear neighborhood friends who were willing to drop everything – including their own Advent plans – to serve my family and me when needed the extra help. This – more than any craft or even beloved Christmas storybook read aloud every year except this one – filled me and my home with the love of Christ. And that’s the good stuff. That’s the God stuff. That’s what His plan is all about.
I’m alive. But just barely.
In all seriousness, I saw that a hand turkey was still gobbling away on the front page of my blog, and I sighed. If that’s not proof that I am now officially a blogging failure, I don’t know what is. But I have so many good excuses. Really! Numero uno, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find fodder to write about as my kids get older. I don’t want to embarrass them, and I just don’t want to share too much. I find myself pining for a new baby for myriad reasons, and sometimes one of those reasons, I sheepishly admit is, just think of all the new blogging material a baby brings!
Reason number two I can’t get myself to blog as much: My husband, as long-time readers know, is not all that fond of blogging or any social media for that matter, and always prefers privacy over disclosure. He does, however, understand that it is beneficial for a journalist/speaker/author/someday-hopefully-published-novelist to have an online presence in this day and age, so he supports my endeavors but is definitely glad I am not investing as much time on this space as I once did.
Also, it seems that every single time I begin drafting a new post lately, I start to have connectivity issues, and I start to wonder if God uses modems to give certain people signs that they should be using their time for other pursuits.
I’ve also been struggling with some things that one day I do believe I need to write about as a means of ministering to others, but the time is not right and sometimes I fear that if I might come off as whiny/melodramatic/pathetic if I broached some of my subterranean feelings. Some things are better left buried for a bit so they can pass that embryonic stage and bloom into the light. Perspective does wonders.
Finally, there’s just the busyness of this season of motherhood. Oh, I was busy before with all those wee ones in my midst, but it was a different kind of busy. It was an at-home, exhausted, nursing on the hour, smelling of Eau du Breastmilk, singing the “clean-up time” song, high chair crud removal kind of busy. This new busy takes me out of the house and onto the soccer fields or basketball court or Nativity play rehearsals. I try to keep thing simple. I really, really do. Simplicity Parenting is one of my favorite books, and I have been a fervent preacher to my fellow moms that less is more and that kids don’t need a slew of extracurricular activities, academic preschools, or reading lessons at the age of 4 to get ahead in life. Just call me a hypocrite now because we had a basketball game this weekend, a soccer tournament that involved four games, and play rehearsals (and then there were the four parties we were invited to that we couldn’t make it to this weekend because of logistics and germs). My poor husband was in charge of all of the schlepping this weekend because he managed to dodge the germ bullet that hit me square in the head (more on that in a bit).
But my oldest is a mover and a shaker, an extreme extrovert, a sports fanatic. I worry she will burn out with all this sports-playing. I’ve asked our doctor if her level of play is alright for someone her age. “So long as she’s happy and healthy.” Which she is. I regularly ask her, “How are you feeling? Are you sure you want to keep playing?” She emphatically says yes, yes, yes! Last night my husband and I were talking about how we were burnt out and how, at her age, the fall soccer season should end at Thanksgiving.
“What???” Madeline gasped. “I wish it would never end.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. She looks a lot like my younger brother and apparently shares more than just a physical resemblance. My little brother was (is!) the same way. He doesn’t like to sit – not even on vacation. He doesn’t like to sleep (five hours a night suits him just fine). There isn’t a sport he’s met that he hasn’t liked. He can never be too busy. A night at home – if there isn’t an important sporting event on – is a night wasted. Yet, he’s not one to get frazzled like I would if I never have any downtime. Madeline is so very much like her godfather. So we keep busy with her activities, and the logistics of managing six people (and a dog, cat, and two fish) and a series of renovation projects for our home. Just keeping our calendar up-to-date is a full-time job.
Plus, my husband’s job is of the feast and famine variety. Recently, he worked three 15-hour shifts in three days. This week he worked several 10-hour days. Next week he works nights. His hours are rarely regular unless he’s off of work entirely. On Thursday I had a temperature of 101.4, which actually felt pretty good considering my fever had been higher the previous day. It was 7 pm, and he still wasn’t home. I was exhausted because I had had a fever since Tuesday.
Thank you, flu vaccine, for being an epic failure.
My 7-year-old and I were officially diagnosed with the flu – or as a friend of mine said, the Angel of the Flu descended upon us. Oh, why oh why, couldn’t it have not been Gabriel?
When my fever flirted with hitting 104, I felt like death might be at my doorstep. A little bit of hyperbole? Perhaps, but I like to think of myself as a fairly tough cookie (with only minor pride issues) and the flu knocked me out. Seriously. My body has never felt more achy and even after wrapping myself in blankets like a huge burrito, I could not stop shaking. No amount of ibuprofen helped with my headache. I felt as if I absolutely could not move. But, of course, I did because by this point two children also had fevers. Regrettably (judge me if you wish), the rambunctious 3-year-old boy was not one of the two to fall victim to the insidious virus and was running around the house as happy and as loudly as can be. You can imagine my horror when he gathered all of the soup cans from the pantry and a wooden spoon and pulled a Ringo Starr on us. A drumming 3-year-old does not a happy mom with a pounding headache make.
When I finally started to feel a little better, I started to panic. I had lost an entire week of my Advent life. How would I ever be ready for Christmas? Not to mention the fact that we all had bad colds over Thanksgiving, so I lost a few days there as well. I couldn’t help but think that Lent would be a better time for the flu. All Lenten starkness sounded pretty nice as I covered my flushed face with my hands. My stomach has been queasy whether from the virus itself or the Tamiflu, I’m not sure, so staying away from sweets would be a breeze. Lent is a time of contemplation. Advent is a time of action.
Or is it?
The secularization of Christmas has turned Advent into a celebratory season, but really it’s supposed to have some of the same characteristics of Lent. There’s supposed to be penance and reflection and quiet.
As I sat wheezing in the petri dish we call home, I realized it doesn’t really matter if the Christmas cards are mailed out late. Besides, as a Catholic the Christmas season doesn’t even begin until Christmas Day, so I’ve got some time. And so what if presents are tucked into gift bags instead of gorgeously wrapped? Who am I kidding? Flu or not, I am prone to stuff gifts into gift bags, or I ask my 10-year-old to wrap them because she can do a better job than I can.
Like Dr. Seuss reminds us, Christmas comes with without ribbons, without tags. It comes without packages, boxes, or bags. Advent is a time of preparation, but more than party-prepping, shopping, and decorating, it’s about preparing our hearts for Jesus. And what better way to prepare my heart for Love itself than to be confined to my home with sick children who need me, to have more time to read more meaningful books about Christmas, to return to the Bethlehem in my past when babies kept me home and quiet and less crazy-busy, to slow down because physically I have to and spiritually I need to?
By Thursday, even my sick children were running around the house like wild animals. Oh, to be young again! A friend of mine, who survived the flu last year, texted me, “Isn’t it funny how taking care of kids who are getting better is so much more difficult than taking care of sick ones?”
Last week was a lesson in sacrificial love, and that seems like a pretty good way to prepare for Christmas.
Yes, there are trees to decorate, meals to serve, cookies to bake*, gifts to wrap, but above all, Christmas is a time to bring light to others. The infant Christ reminded us that when He was born on a cold, deep night in a smelly stable that there will be light in our lives in the darkest, most stressful moments. The husband who comes home at lunch time, even though this means he will fall behind at work, to help you out. That was a blazing light in my life. The friends who text to see how you’re holding up. The older child who takes care of her siblings so you can rest a bit more. The cat who curls up in your lap and keeps you warm. The dog who sniffs your face and wags her tail in encouragement. The grandparents who call to check on you. There were so many little lights in my life this week.
I feel human again and have a lot to do this week, but I’m going to keep on the the lookout for the little lights and the bigger ones that start to shine all around me. And I’m going to slow down long enough to let something beautiful and hopeful unfurl deep within me, within my home.
Christ grew in Mary. May He grow in all of you this Advent and always.
*My 7-year-old suggested we make flu cookies this weekend. Don’t worry. We’re not that generous. We won’t be sharing our sweets and our germs.
I’ll be talking all things Advent at 9 am EST on my monthly Relevant Radio Morning Air Show gig tomorrow (12/15).
Each Advent season we head out to a local Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect tree. I am honestly okay with a Charlie Brown tree, but my detail-oriented husband is a perfectionist about things of which I am not and always has a hard time selecting the tree. The kids show him their favorites, and he inevitably finds a bald spot or notices the tree’s overall shape is too sparse or too asymmetrical. Eventually he reluctantly acquiesces with one of the kids’ selections after I remind him no real tree is going to be a flawless shape and height. But we’d rather have real than artificial.
Then we return home, and that’s when I start wanting things to be perfect. The tree is just a tree, but the memories we make decorating that said tree better be glittery-gold. So I make homemade cocoa. The girls dip candy canes into warm pools of chocolate. Then they watch The Grinch as my husband laces the tree with multi-colored lights. None of that elegant-only-white-light business; that’s not the kind of perfection I’m after. We do bold and bright in the Wicker house. The same holds true for the ornaments. There are no themes. The decorative danglers cover the gamut – from homemade angels with pictures of the kids’ heads for faces to a bristly hedgehog that was my husband’s as a boy.
I love sifting through the bottomless container of ornaments. So many of them conjure up memories or old loves like the golden horse head molded out of clay that reminds me of my beloved Palomino, Sunny or the Baby’s First Christmas ornament that I received during my first month of motherhood. This is a tradition I savor. My children do, too, and I hope these are the moments they will remember instead of the less sepia-toned ones like the daily fighting that occurred each morning over whose turn it was to open the drawer of our Advent calendar where four M&Ms (all the same color so as to dissuade another fight) were hidden.
I once wrote about how moms are not memory-keepers, but memory-makers. We can’t control what our children will remember or what they won’t. Nor should we obsessively try to document every moment on Instagram. Sometimes we just need to live it even when it’s not so pretty and we’re afraid of what type of emotional sediment might be settling in our children. But again, isn’t real better than artificial? We want real, human memories not contrived ones.
But living it can be so tough sometimes. For whatever reason, my Advent season this year was more stressful, or maybe it just felt that way. (Not being able to run is still taking its toll on my emotional health, but a recent MRI looked very promising, and it seems that my hamstring tear is healing quite well!) These 12 days of Christmas have been much more manageable and enjoyable, too. My husband did not get his perfect tree although it was darn close and a real beauty this year. I didn’t get my perfect memories. That’s life. We gathered around, and kids started pulling out several ornaments from the big plastic storage box all at once. I barked orders about not getting new ornaments out until each child hung up the one in her hand. Then Thomas broke an ornament. It looked like a ball, so he hurled it across the living room. And, of course, all the girls were sad as if that was there favorite ornament of all time. We comforted Thomas because we thought he was scared from the glass ball shattering at his feet. Maybe he really thought it was a ball. Poor guy. No matter that there’s no throwing in the house. Little goober gets away with everything. But then he snagged another ornament off the tree and chucked it across the room where it promptly shattered into colorful shards.
I remember how I felt standing there in the shadow of a beautiful, sparkling tree. I examined the pieces and knew there was no way to salvage that ornament. At that moment, I felt the same way like I’d been broken into so many pieces there was no way I’d ever be made whole again.
Nothing seemed to be turn out the way I had hoped or the way I wanted it to. The Advent memories were not very Norman Rockwell-ish at all. We were a mess. And a very noisy one a that.
So I wonder: Will the children’s memory banks see past all that? Will they take ornaments out each Christmas and smile fondly, or will they remember the shards reflecting the tear-stained faces in their broken shininess?
A few summers back an evening storm flashed in the sky. The girls and I gathered together and read The Storm Book and Storm in the Night by candlelight. They cuddled close and listened to the beautiful imagery of both the books. We weren’t doing anything grand, but no one was fighting and everyone, including me, just seemed content. It felt like we were exactly where we were supposed to be together safe from the storm churning outside. I remember thinking, “This is what I want them to remember. The stories shared. The way their mom’s face looked serene and joyful in the soft glow of candlelight, the way the rhythm of her voice sang out the lyrical words from good books, the way later that same night she did not push us off to our own beds but fell asleep beside us and loved us as well as she could in her raw humanness.”
I cannot go in to great detail because I know it is my job to protect my children and to be their champion and that sometimes means keeping things private, but one of my children is going through a rough patch. It has been going on for some time now, and I’ve been desperately trying to fix things. However, like so much of parenting, I am learning a great lesson in humility. I wince because I fear we have made some bad memories together, and perhaps this is partly why I am found myself almost maniacally trying to make our annual Advent traditions even more golden and lovely in an effort to snuff out the not-so-nice moments that are coming all too regularly.
We are getting help. We are working on it. I am trying to remain hopeful and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am trying to not let my fears that I have failed her as a mother or that she may always struggling this much eclipse the hope I have not so much in myself or even in my precious child but in an all-loving God who can make up for each of our humanness, who can take our very brokenness and transform it in to a beautiful life.
A friend of mine sent me a poignant post about how maybe Advent is supposed to be a little sad because we so desperately need a Savior. We are broken, hurting. We are not satisfied. We need hope – Christ – to be born in our hearts. We are not like that shattered ornament. We can always be redeemed and pieced back together.
I am not sure what my children will remember. Maybe they will recall the creamy cocoa, the silliness, the Tomie dePaola Advent and Christmas tales more than the fights over who got to hang up what ornament and then Mommy’s shouting over the din that she won’t take anymore of this. But maybe they will have some memories that are less than sparkling. Maybe they will have a little Advent darkness, and maybe that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed the Christmas season so much, partly because our Advent wasn’t so easy. I similarly feel that when I am back running again, I will be wiser and appreciate each step I am able to take that much more.
My kids might have some darker recollections, but perhaps they will have the Christmas memories, too. The memories where we all got it right – not perfect but right for the moment. There were broken ornaments and sometimes broken promises, too. There were silly stories and happily ever afters, but there were some tear-jerkers thrown in there as well with endings that weren’t all neat and tidy. There was a mother who did her best. Sometimes that wasn’t nearly good enough for what her children and family deserved. But many times it was. It was somehow amazingly enough. There was hurt, but there was love that was inexorably linked to mercy and forgiveness.
And there was always grace, and it almost always was born out of the darkness. It came in the child who hugged the sad Mama and told her something she’d heard that sad Mama tell her, “There’s nothing you can do to take my love for you away or to earn it.” The grace came in a “just because” note a child scribbled down and shyly handed to her mother. It came in an apology. Grace filled our hearts as we filled cups during an Advent tea for the grandmothers. It was marbled in an email a father wrote to his daughter. It came in a love note of thanks from a husband on Christmas evening, the best gift a wife could ask for and one that made her cry tears of joy and thanksgiving. It came in a hot cup of cocoa, a homemade ornament with the face of a child propped upon a lopsided gingerbread body, and a sweet, family sing-along. Grace slipped into our lives just when we needed it. It was a gift that grabbed a hold of hearts even if we were lousy at preparing ourselves for it. Somehow, like Christmas for the Grinch’s Whos, it came all the same without boxes, packages, or bags. Without perfect mamas. Perfect children. Perfect memories. Grace was there. Joy was there. This is what I hope, God-willing, these children of mine might remember.