December 31, 2010

Weather and Memories

Here is an Arizona weather update that will not bring envy to our Midwest friends: There was a freeze advisory last night which will continue tonight. The high today was in the low 50s and there was a wind chill factor last night. A neighbor claimed to have seen snow flurries yesterday, though we were out and about shopping and missed it. Right now, our downstairs furnace is not working, though the new one we installed last spring, that keeps the upstairs warm, works fine. Here it is a minor inconvenience. In Chicago, this would be a more serious problem. We will get it fixed by Monday.

Our family Christmas present to ourselves was a trip to Flagstaff/Williams for two days. The original plan was to ride on The Polar Express Monday night and go skiing the next day. However, I didn't have my act together enough to get ski clothes for everyone in time. Plus the snow was very icy and hard--not good conditions for first time skiers. The Polar Express was really fun. We took the 6:30 p.m. train out of Williams. We drank hot (okay, warm) chocolate, ate cookies, heard an audiobook of _The Polar Express_, sang Christmas carols, saw Santa Claus, who gave them bells. As we returned to Flagstaff, Eric and I discussed options for the next day. We decided upon a tour of Lowell Observatory, home of Pluto, which is another way to say that Pluto was discovered there. It was a great tour. The tour guide involved the kids in many ways. They got to operate the dome, and move the original refracting telescope around with her supervision and help. We picked up some souvenirs, like a book called _Can You Count to a Googol?_, and a really beautiful cobalt blue ornament for the Christmas tree named "Night Skies." We ate at Olive Garden and returned home.

The only "problem" we had involved our hotel accommodations. We had a great view of the snow-capped peak of Humphrey's Peak. The room was swanky, like we just stepped into an IKEA catalog showroom. Everything about the room and hotel was stylistically focused on giving a feeling of snow, including the frosted glass on the door and surrounding the desk. However, a frosted glass door to the bathroom is not very practical when six people are staying in a room. Every time someone went to the bathroom, the light glared through the door, waking Eric and I up. I believe there were at least six trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night, including one that I made.

The frosted glass door ended up being the least of our problems, however. Sometime around 12:50, a person near our room decided to take a bath. Or try and create rhythm by turning bathwater on and off. After fifteen minutes, I guess they got bored because they decided to keep it on, creating a roar in the wall that went on for what seemed like forever and probably lasted at least 20 minutes. Eric finally call the front desk to complain. At 1:40, the water turned off and stayed off. Or so we thought....The Bath Person ran their water rhythm at 2:30 for another 30 minutes and repeated the efforts at 3:30 for yet another 30 minutes. In the past, when we had babies and were disturbed by inconsiderate hotel guests, I would think "At 5:30 a.m., when our kids are up and crying to have their diaper change and be fed, we will have our revenge on you, Mr. Late-Night-Carouser!" This is not as sure a thing with older kids, though my kids are plenty loud when they do wake up. For fun, I tried to think of what would cause a person to run a bath in the middle of the night: a harried mother so desperate to have an uninterrupted bubble bath that she gets up in the middle of the night for Calgon to take her away; someone who didn't get to the laundromat in time and was washing a few loads in the bathtub before a day of skiing; maybe even a terrorist building a bomb and washing equipment before, during and after his manufacture of evil (this thought came during the last session). John, of course, slept through it all. And, now I have a funny story to tell about our first trip to Flagstaff, which means, of course, that it was a great time of making memories.

Wherever you are, I hope you are staying warm and have a Happy New Year!

December 29, 2010

Living The Advent Conspiracy(?)

A few years ago, I heard about The Advent Conspiracy. If you click on the words, it will take you to a video explaining what it is all about. I really like this other video too. You are probably thinking that, considering that the Advent season is over by a few days that this post is a little late. I would tend to agree, but then again, some ideas need time to percolate in your brain and in your heart before you can really process them. For me, it has taken a few years to really wrap my brain around it. And then there is the danger of taking it a bit too far and bringing up visions of Ebenezer in our relative's mind. Here is how I tried to implement our Advent Conspiracy this year:

1. Giving gifts of the heart: For relatives, starting in September (which apparently is still to late to actually finish all projects on time), I practiced my knitting skills by making small, useful items. I still have one more to make. Hopefully, that one relative will consider it extending the joy of the season.

2. Giving Relationally, Part I: Instead of spending hours baking cookies to give away to people at Christmas, I tried to host several cooking making parties, where each family would come with dough and we would bake cookies together. This had limited success. For starters, most of the parties had to be canceled due to the stomach flu "being gifted." The one party that went through ended up taking four hours to make the cookies to be shared, probably because the primary bakers, the other two mom's and I, talked as much as we prepared cookies. My hope that the children would want to take turns helping make the cookies was not really materialized. However, the three families were able to spend some time getting to know each other better. In that regard, I consider it a mixed success. I think next year, I will change it to a cookie exchange party.

3. Giving Relationally, Part II: Every year, we try to get a "family present" that is fairly big. This year, instead of something material, the family present was tickets on The Polar Express. It is a train that runs at night from Williams, Arizona along the Grand Canyon Railroad for an hour. Wait, let me clarify that: it runs for a while along the Grand Canyon Railroad until we hit a warp that brings the train to the North Pole :-). During the ride up, we are given cookies and hot chocolate, listen to an audio version of "The Polar Express", and sing Christmas carols. At the "North Pole", Santa comes on board and walks all 13 cars greeting kids and giving them a big bell. We sing more Christmas carols and generally enjoy the jingling of the bells ringing incessantly. We also spent the next day in Flagstaff touring Lowell Observatory, the place where Pluto was discovered. The guide was really good at getting the kids involved to keep their interest most of the time. We also had to play in the snow a bit, though the snow was icy and hard. Because of this trip, their gifts were smaller and fewer, but we made some wonderful memories.

4. Giving Charitably: Our charitable giving was boosted in several ways. Our church had a special Christmas Eve fund to help take care of refugees and some of the poor in the area. This helped us focus our efforts a bit. In addition, however, we received a check from Eric's grandfather's estate a few days before Christmas. In general, we consider all money coming from God who provides a job for Eric, but receiving an inheritance is doubly so. The amount was a testimony to Albert Overtoom's wise stewardship of his money, considered that he died at 99 still able to pay his bill at the assisted living community and be able to bless not only his six children, but also his twenty-odd grandchildren. We reserved a small amount for ourselves and then discussed where the rest would go. I have to say that giving away a bunch of money is really fun. Later that night, however, we would be totally humbled by the realization that it is impossible to out-give God.

5. Worshiping Fully: Sadly, this was a place where I fell short, and it is probably the one area that I should be focusing most of my "efforts". Because of all the extra curricular activities, parties, programs, etc., the first thirteen days passed before we had a chance to put up the stars and read from the Advent Calendar. In the morning, the kids and I would read from Jesse Tree Devotionals, but my own personal time with God suffered from trying to get the presents, organize the parties and doing rather than being with the One who gave Himself to be with us. Because of this, words from Isaiah 28:11-13 keep popping into my head. It seems that this has been the same evaluation I have given myself at the end of every Advent and every year, I try and figure out how to focus more on worshiping and less on doing. So this year, I am starting now to seek God's plan for next Christmas with the hope that with enough percolating and enough presence with God throughout the year, next year will be different.

"In that day the LORD Almighty will be a glorious crown,
a beautiful wreath for the remnant of his people.

He will be a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
a source of strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate."
Isaiah 28: 5-6

December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Before I start sharing some Christmas cheer, I would like to share a "bah humbug" moment brought to you by the corporate office at Starbucks--They suggested stores to be open at Christmas, though it is a purely voluntary decision based on employee willingness to work on the day. I realize that the prospect of getting double pay for holiday duty which will probably be a pretty easy day is very tempting, but please can we all agree to have just one day where we take a break from trying to stimulate the economy?

I've been given lots of reasons to laugh lately, both through my children and through circumstances. So I will share them with you:

1. Elizabeth's fun faces. These pictures were taken at a wedding this summer. This is what I get to look at every day. :-)

2. Hearing Elizabeth and John ask me the name of the girl who is singing when Elvis' "Blue Christmas started to play. They told me in very decided tones that they do not like Elvis. They also debated whether the songs sung by Annie Lennox over the Starbucks loudspeaker was a woman or a man.

3. Hearing the annual playing of the album "Cow Christmas", with such classics as "The Hallemoojah Chorus," "We Wish You a Dairy Christmas," and "Angus We Have Heard On High." I am sure that when my husband was buying this as a single man, he didn't think about how many times the kids would want to listen to it every Christmas.

4. Watching Jessi try not to smile while I was reprimanding her for getting lost in a book instead of doing her chores (while secretly wishing that I could have that same luxury). Her excuse was pretty funny, too. "Mom, I was going to start cleaning the bathrooms, but then Elizabeth started washing the hallway floor and I couldn't get upstairs anymore!" Of course, walking on wet floors, has never been an impediment in the past if it involves getting to a book or toy or sweets.

5. All the slow, indecisive drivers that God has put in my way in the last week while I am shuttling kids to activities or trying to shop. I also enjoyed driving in the pouring rain yesterday and the fog last Friday as I drove to Tuscon to see grandmas and my uncle. Remember from a previous post, that I was determined to laugh through trying circumstances. I had to laugh at myself for being nervous driving in fog when I was fully capable and not very nervous about driving in snowstorms in Illinois less than two years ago. I am becoming such an Arizona wimp!

6. Seeing joy on two different mailman's faces. The first one was overjoyed when I offered him some Christmas cookies. I think we are one of the last people on his route. The other mailman at the Post Office counter was ecstatic when I brought in packages for some relatives yesterday (12/22) and told him that I wanted to extend the joy of the season by sending it standard rather than express or next day. He drew Christmas Trees on them to make sure that the recipients would know that they are Christmas packages. In case you are wondering, the packages involved some projects that took longer than expected.

6. Looking out of my bedroom window into the living room below (yes, you are reading that right) to see Kyle look up at me and give me one of his big, huge, grins. This is becoming my standard morning routine.

7. Watching a Tim Hawkins video clip that I haven't seen yet. This clip had the kids and I almost rolling on the floor laughing. We had to watch it several times to hear it all. My house apparently is full of deadly weapons.

I hope anyone reading this has a Merry Christmas. And if you are one of the relatives getting a late Christmas present, I hope it makes your post-Christmas time merry, too.

December 12, 2010

Trying to be a train conductor

For our Thanksgiving trip to Memphis, I downloaded a couple of games for the kids to enjoy if the audio books, movies, or activity books were wearing thin. It takes roughly 48 hours to get to Memphis and back. I tried to download games that had a little academics as well as fun. The games I downloaded were "Contraptions" and "Train Conductor". I ended up splitting my time between knitting and playing the video games while listening to movies or audio tapes or silence (which is golden by the way). If you are interested, we listened to Focus on the Family Radio Theater presentation of _Ben Hur_ and _At the Back of the North Wind_ and an audio book of _The Titan's Curse_ by Rick Riordan. All were excellent and well done.

During the drive, I became addicted to "Train Conductor." It is a game where you have three to five train tracks and you have to move numbered trains to the matching track number. This sounds so simple and yet, when you get to the two hardest levels, you have trains coming out constantly, going in opposite directions on the same tracks going to other tracks. The worst situation is when you have moved a train to the right track and within seconds of getting to its destination, another train comes out on the same side and the same track and they crash. Crashing ends the game. After a while, I would have to quit because I became so frustrated at it. How in the world do the creators expect me to be able to get all the trains on the right line when so many of them are going to the same track in opposite directions and there is no rest?

Then, I realized that some of my frustrations coming out in the game were in realizing that in real life, I was trying to keep my own set of trains and tracks going, sometimes at cross purposes. Housework, hobbies, homeschooling and Christmas holiday traditions of his family, my family and ours. All this adds up to having the spirit of perfectionism, which is pride in action as well as attitude. What if I just let some of those trains go on the wrong tracks? In the game, I would lose points but maybe avoid a crash. In life, I would probably be a bit more relaxed and able to enjoy my family more and my home more. I might be less critical of myself and those around me. Would you consider that "bonus points?" I would. As an double bonus, as I was contemplating this, I heard God telling me that some of the tracks that I am trying to manage were not given to me by Him because his "yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:20)."

Wow. What a great Christmas present--rest and peace and joy. Wait a minute, isn't that what Jesus came to do in the first place? Why do I have to keep re-learning the same lesson over and over again? Oh, wait--its because I am human and humans have been suffering from major memory loss problems ever since sin took root. The irony is that I have been reading and re-reading Romans 3 & 4 a LOT lately to soak in "the basics", which speak about the righteousness that I have by my faith through the free gift of God's grace carried out by Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection. There is nothing I can do to either lose my salvation or to ensure it. Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.

So what am I going to do with this newly re-discovered knowledge? Check my schedule with God more. Laugh more and be thankful for all of God's blessings, like my kids, my husband, "toys", and the gift of laughter. Thank Him also for having a sense of humor that He demonstrates in so many ways. Laugh when my trains crash in the game. Laugh at the fact that it took two weekends to fully put up the tree and decorate the house. Laugh at the fact that I need to purge my home every three months of "precious" stuff my kids have collected that fills their beds, their closets, every spare surface of the house, and every drawer. Laugh when my washing machine decides to take a holiday break. Laugh at the undone "whatevers" that I had planned to do. Laugh with my kids and my husband at all the fart jokes that come up at the dinner table and maybe make up a few of my own. Which brings up another question in my mind: Did Jesus ever tell fart jokes at the dinner table when he was growing up?

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. --Isaiah 9: 2 - 6