Finding Christmas Joy

IMG_6508I remember the first year that Christmas stopped being magical and became more about the overwhelming amount of tasks at hand.  The last nail in the coffin of childhood had been securely hammered and now I was the grown up, the one in charge of making it all happen.  In my mind there was a list of things that needed to happen, in order for it to be Christmas.  You know the kinds of things I’m talking about.  All the traditional stuff: tree trimming, decorating, baking, shopping, wrapping, mailing packages, sending out Christmas cards to dear ones.   I didn’t even have kids yet.  But, I was married. I was a responsible person.  I was a part of a separate household now and I felt that I “should” make all of these things happen.  I was overwhelmed.

Looking back, what I really needed was a Chill Pill.  Kevin certainly didn’t care.  All of those Christmas expectations were self-imposed.

Traditional Christmas observations are good things.  They can even be super fun.  I love sending and receiving cards!  Once the tree is lit, I love seeing it grace our living room.  But the point is to do things because they are meaningful and important, not simply to check off tasks on a to-do list.

The point is not to simply go through the motions.  The point is Joy.

Several years ago a veil fell off my eyes.  Our kids were still young but growing quickly.  I realized that there were a lot of things I was doing that didn’t really matter to them, or to me.  So, we stopped doing them.  I stopped caring if there was homemade popcorn and cranberry garland on the tree.  This year, the kids decorated the tree all by themselves and I still haven’t taken time to rearrange the ornaments.  The tree is heavily lopsided but the kids think it’s magnificent.  That’s enough for me.

Here are the things my kids care about at Christmas: listening to Christmas music, visiting the Children’s museum as much as possible to play and ride the Yule Slide, making and decorating cookies, and exchanging gifts.  I always take them to the dollar store so they can pick out gifts to give, just from them.  They wrap their own gifts, even the four-year-old.  They get a big kick out of that. We also do some simple advent stuff that I think they enjoy.  They also enjoy a car ride in their PJs to look at lights.  It’s so simple, but it’s magical to them.

Here is what I care about: listening to lots of sacred Christmas music, attending one or two festive events, sending Christmas cards, having time to enjoy my family and not be totally stressed out.

So, after prioritizing things, and focusing on what we really care about, all of us are a lot happier.

Another thing that has helped me tremendously … starting early!  As soon as the weather turns cold, I start brainstorming gift ideas and use an app on my phone to stay organized.  I mark my calendar in mid-November to start thinking about Christmas cards.  (That way they might actually get sent by mid-December!)  If I do those two things, there’s a whole lot more peace and joy at Christmastime.

This year I am really looking forward to Christmas with my family.  There is anticipation.  There is Joy.

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Highs and Lows of Yuletide

Here aIMG_6498re my favorite things about this Christmas season so far:

1) The sacrificial love of my husband as he took us, yet again, to the country Christmas tree farm.  I know he loves me, in part, because he pays twice the money and drives five times as far to give me that pine-scented, festive, eye-candy experience that I crave every year.  He would rather go to Lowe’s.  (Thanks, babe!)

2) The girls’ Christmas piano recital.  I was smiling almost the entire time because they were so cute all dressed up in their red-and-green Sunday best.  I think I stopped smiling for a very few tense moments when I wondered if they would end their duet at the same time. I figured they had a 50/50 chance.  But they did it!  Yay for them!  I also was cracking up because Clara, age 7, kept pointing to a misprint in the program that said, “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sin.”  She would nudge me, point to it, and start snickering, “The Angels SIN, mom!”  That girl.  She’s a piece of work.

3) Mistletoe.  Clara has also been keenly aware of the newly placed mistletoe and has taken full advantage of it.  It’s not uncommon for her to get me to walk near it and then for her to shove me a few inches and then point to it, with her check extended toward me.  Let’s just say that I’m glad she still wants me to kiss her!

4) Sitting in the back of a beautiful church with Carson, a newly-minted, squirmy, lovable two-year-old, while listening to a brass concert.  It was light-hearted, full of excellent music, and very festive.  Even Santa came out to play the French Horn.  I didn’t mind sitting in the back of the church.  Carson is so cute and adorable these days.  During the sing-along carols, he grabbed a hymnal and sang loudly, off-key, with unintelligible syllables, but with all his heart.  He garnered more than a few smiles from the people sitting nearby.

I am convinced that it is music that makes the Christmas season what it is.  Without Christmas music flooding our homes, cars, and concert halls, what would Christmas be?  Not half as extraordinary.

5) If there is a rival to Christmas music, it is Christmas stories.  Maybe it’s just the ages the kids are this year, but I have never enjoyed reading Christmas stories to them as much as this year.  Also, Christmas movies.  They have loved watching many classic Christmas movies this year. There has been so much laughter.

Those are the highs.  The low came yesterday when I lost Sophia at the children’s museum for about 15 minutes.  For 12 of those minutes I didn’t even realize she was missing.  We had invited a friend to come, so it was me and five kids.  I was smiling and taking lots of pictures and then we decided to move on to another exhibit.  As we walked up a long ramp, I did what I usually do when I’m out with my kids.  I counted them.  One, two, three, four.  Hmmm.  That doesn’t seem like enough kids.  One, two, three, four.  Well, it looks like a lot of kids—there’s a whole group of them running ahead of me—but I think that’s still not enough.  Who are we missing?  Sophia?  Sophia!!!   Where is she?!!

We turned around to go find her.  We rushed to examine all the corners of the dinosaur exhibit, to no avail.  I then realized that I hadn’t actually seen Sophia in the dinosaur exhibit, even though I thought she was with the older girls as we went down the ramp.  Then I asked the older girls, “Was Sophia ever with you in the dinosaur exhibit?”  The answer was, “No. We never saw her down here.”  I panicked and we ran upstairs, back to the lobby.

There was desolate Sophia standing in the distance, face turned downward, next to a large, protective security guard.  I ran up to her and embraced her.  I cupped her teary face in my hands and apologized profusely.  Poor Sophia. I was so terribly sorry and felt like the worst mother in the world at that moment.  The security guard told me that she was so frantic that they couldn’t get any information out of her.  I sat her in my lap for a while and finally said, “Sophia, what is your mommy’s name?”  She said, “Amy.”  I said, “What is your mommy’s full name?”  She said, “Amy Koons!”  I said, “Yes.  If you are ever lost again, you need to stop crying and tell the adult nearby what my name is.”  She then burst into laughter.  I guess she thought that was funny.  I also told her that, “I will never leave you. I will ALWAYS come find you.  If you are lost ever again, I will always come back.”  What I didn’t say was, “I will come find you …  eventually … if I happen to remember, in my own sweet time.”  Sheesh.  I’m a loser.  I’m glad my kids are so forgiving!

Ahh … the highs and the lows.  Life.

Nail-Biting Fiction and Memoir

After hearing several cultural references to Stephen King, one by a speaker, one at a gathering, and one in a web article, I figured I should perhaps read Stephen King, to be more culturally aware.  The speaker, for instance, said that life with kids is “part Norman Rockwell, part Stephen King.”  So, I picked up The Shining at my library.

The Shining made me more aware, alright.  While I read, it made me completely aware of every creaking, suspicious noise and mysterious shadow falling in my house.  It definitely heightened my sense of awareness … just not how I planned.

Kevin was out of reading material, so he read it too.  Now we just have to work up our nerve to watch the movie.  We will definitely have all the lights turned on when we do watch it.

After reading King, I can understand why his novels are so popular.  It was all wonderful word pictures, scenarios that had their desired affect, characters that were easily relatable, and suspense at every turn.

Novels are fun and I know that a good novel can highlight truths in ways that non-fiction simply cannot.  But if I had to pick a favorite genre, the one I enjoy reading more than any other is memoir.  Maybe it’s because I’m such a People Person.  And, when a story is really good, knowing that it actually happened makes it even more powerful.

Here are the last three memoirs I have read, all fantastic, but especially the first two:

1) Unbrokaa-unbrokenen: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Hillenbrand)—The hero of this story is Louis Zamperini who was set to break speed records in track and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  If that wasn’t interesting enough material for a memoir, in and of itself, Louis soon sets out to fight the Japanese on the Pacific Front during World War II.  I listened to the audio version of this book.  As soon as Louis’ plane went down in the Pacific and he was afloat on a raft for weeks, the book went from interesting to riveting.  In fact, we were expecting dinner guests any second as I listened to the book, but I simply could not turn it off.  (Those are the best kinds of books, aren’t they?)  The book details Louis’ survival in a prison camp and his post-war struggles to forgive his tormentors, ending with the best kind of victory.

2) Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (Carson)—Raised in poverty by a single Afriaa-gifted handscan-American mother with only a third-grade education, who taught her two sons about personal responsibility, telling them “you are the captain of your own ship,” Carson overcame the odds and became one of the premier neurosurgeons in the world.  He was the doctor who successfully separated twins conjoined at the head, when no other doctor would touch it.  He was the doctor who successfully revived a controversial technique called hemispherectomy, where half the brain is literally removed, as a last-ditch effort to save a patient.  This book was inspiring and thought-provoking, whether you are reading about Carson, the boy on the streets of Detroit, or Carson, the life-saving doctor in the O.R.  I cannot say enough about this book and highly recommend it.

3) I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (Yousafzai)—I had heard that this brave young woman recently won the Nobel Peace Prize and wanted to learn more about her story.  This book illuminated the plight of so many children, especially girls, who are denied basic rights to education.  After talking about this book at dinner one night, Kevin and I had a really good discussion with the kids about how they shouldn’t take their education for granted.  I really liked this memoir and found it very interesting, but I think that my favorite memoir of the Middle Eastern/Human Rights genre is probably still InfidelRegardless, Malala’s story is compelling and gave me much to think about.

Essentialism

aa-essentialismThere are a lot of decent life hack books out there.  I expected that Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown would be interesting, and even helpful, based on a positive review a friend wrote on her blog.  It ended up being more than that.  Since reading it a few months ago, Essentialism has truly transformed my thinking.

In effect, I have been making different decisions when it comes to how I plan my day/week/year, how I shop, and what commitments I take on.  I have mulled over the concepts in this book many times since reading it and have recommended it to many people.

Whatever your values or priorities, they are no doubt as unique as you are.  The point is: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Numerous times in this book, the author talks about “discerning the vital few from the trivial many” in order to make our greatest personal contributions in this life.  If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?  This should give us clarity.

If you are like me, you love delving into many things and having many different experiences. But, at the end of the day, it’s important to know our priorities and what is most important, or most essential, in our lives.

While this book is about much more than material possessions, it definitely gave me new impetus for cleaning out my closet.  McKeown notes that people value things they own much more than things they don’t own.  So, when trying to decide whether to get rid of something, ask yourself how much money you would pay for it, if you didn’t own it already. If the answer is “practically nothing” or “nothing,” get rid of it!  After reading this, I gave away half the clothes in my closet, things I had been hanging onto for no good reason, for lots of years.  It felt so freeing.

What if, like the clothes in my closet, I rid myself of all the activities and commitments that clog up my life that are non-essential?  Things that are not helpful, not pleasurable, not useful in accomplishing my goals.  If it’s something that I don’t think is really important or something that I don’t truly enjoy, then why am I doing it in the first place?  This book has helped me to be more mindful.

I am trying to inch toward essentialism, one step at a time.  This might mean saying no to five commitments so that I can have more free time with my kids (one of my goals while they are young) and also take on two other commitments that will be more significant for me and my family, and will help me reach my personal goals.

The thoughts in this book are very concisely written.  I think this is a credit to the author’s views on essentialism.  Essentialism was easy to read and very motivating.  I would highly recommend this book and the author’s blog.

Thankful

Thanksgiving this year was what Thanksgiving should be.  A constant hum of conversation, all the cousins reunited, glowing votives, spiced cranberries and creamy pumpkin pie, friends and family gathered around a large, extended table, the excitement of an upcoming marriage and addition to the family, sharing gratitude, a frosty football gaIMG_6184me, and a brisk, chilly walk while telephoning my family in balmy California.

There was also an E.R. visit, resulting in three staples to a cousin’s head, and a middle-of-the-night puking incident, resulting in the deep cleaning of my carpet.  But we weathered those things.  A good life always has elements of bittersweet.

After the Texas cousins hit the road, to much warmer weather I’m sure, I took Sophia (age 4) to the oral surgeon for a consultation.  We knew she had an accessory tooth that needed to be removed at some point but, it turns out, she has at least two accessory teeth and maybe more!  In a matter of moments, I realized that they were going to remove one of her teeth immediately.  I looked at my sweet, big-eyed, small daughter sitting in the dental chair and also realized that she might never forgive me for telling her that “the doctor is just going to look” when in fact, she was going to have laughing gas, a really painful shot, and a knife slicing into the roof of her mouth.

Fortunately, the promise of two cake pops solved everything.  Sugar heals all wounds.

I left the room and, 20-minutes later, came back to a slightly-loopy daughter holding a tooth box with a very long, sharp, abnormally shaped tooth therein. IMG_6364

Yes, tooth fairies do occasionally visit four-year-olds!

And the next day, she was back to her normal self, and running around the children’s museum to help celebrate her brother’s second birthday.

We have a lot to be thankful for.