Wednesday, December 19, 2012

All I Want For Christmas

As Dave and I reviewed The List the other day, he quipped, "When you're out shopping, could you pick up something really, really nice for my wife?"

I laughed.

This, people, is progress.

There was a time when his quip would have fallen flat and left me feeling slighted. I might have adopted a cool, slightly holier-than-thou countenance, and Dave might have scratched his head for a few days.

These days? Not so much.

In part, this is because I actually don't want much for Christmas this year. I have a lot, certainly all I need and a great deal of what I want. I had a growing sense of this before the events of last Friday, and it's even more pronounced in the wake of the awfulness.

I also feel this way because some of the things I really do want weren't advertised as Black Friday specials and can't be found on Amazon.

Here's All I Want for Christmas:

1. I want the deep, consoling prayer life that I experienced ten years ago, the kind that seems to elude me today.

2. I want all the fruits of the Spirit -- love, peace, patience, joy, goodness, kindness, humility, and self-control. And, by the way, I want them now.

3. I want to be the kind of mother I always pictured myself being. Can I trade in the grouchy model who shows up all too frequently at our house?

4. I want to be a better wife who, among other improvements, laughs more, who wears jeans a little less often and mascara a little more often, who gives more back rubs and offers fewer complaints.

5. I want to go on a week-long cruise, just my husband and me. Or maybe a hiking trip. Or a canoeing trip. Or maybe all three.

6. I want to get this body of mine in shape.

7. I want to love my neighbor as myself and be w-a-y more long-suffering with people who manage to irritate the fire out of me.

8. I want to start going to weekday Mass again.

In the meantime, I plan to tidy up a few loose ends tomorrow. My To Do List includes:

1. Buying a roll of Justin Bieber wrapping paper. With a dozen young men and boys to buy for, how can I resist?

2. Checking the weather forecast. Some people are predicting this:

I am hoping for this:

3. Finally, I'll invest a little time checking Facebook and You Tube for footage of my daughter in this morning's Christmas Sing. There she stood, my blonde-haired, blue-eyed darling -- smiling, singing, and pulling her dress right over her head. Can you say Wardrobe Malfunction? Honestly.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What They Said

I heard the initial news reports as I was Christmas shopping. My first response was to cry.

I didn't read much about it over the weekend because we faced the usual hurly-burly of activities that fall right before Christmas -- a Scout service project, a wedding of two sweet friends, homework and laundry, packing gift bags for the needy at church.

When I had time to click on a headline or two, I wished I hadn't.

Charlotte, Rachel, Dylan, Dawn, Catherine, James, Grace, Noah . . . I can't read any more about the children who died. I can't read any more about the principal who died (and left behind a husband and five daughters).

My Facebook friends said it better than I could.

My friend Nelson who, like me, is a parent of four young children best captured my first thought:

My heart is broken right now. I just want to go home and hold my kids . . .

And after you've hugged your kids, find a teacher to hug. My friend Lauren, a veteran of 25 years in the classroom and a woman who once faced a loaded weapon in the classroom, posted this:
As a teacher reflecting on the horror of the past several days, I really have no words . . . Many in my profession have been placed under tremendous pressures in recent years and our "effectiveness" as educators measured by test scores alone, all while the culture around us collapses at an alarming rate. To remark that this tragedy is a reflection of our society is a frightening thought, but one that bears reflection.

In the end, teachers at Sandy Hook did what all good teachers do -- they protected the children under their charge, in some cases with their own lives.

In my 25+ years of teaching, I have seen my teaching colleagues do many heroic deeds -- feed and clothe students from their own pockets, work long hours without compensation, and volunteer at countless school-based events, all to enrich the lives of the children in their charge. 
We are far from perfect -- like you we have our faults. But most of us still believe that we can change the world, one child at a time . . .

Isn't it time to recognize the teaching profession for its noble service to society and to our Children? Scores do matter, but in the end, it is the hope we bring to your child, the life lessons we teach, and the values we emote that remain long after the scores have faded away.
I am proud of what I "do" in the classroom in terms of content, but your child is why I teach.

Hug a teacher you know in the days to come, and remember to say Thank You for the many sacrifices they have made for YOUR child along the way.
May God have mercy on the Souls of the fallen at Sandy Hook and all the schools around our nation who have experienced similar tragedies . . .

And in the midst of this dark, dark deed, there were other heroes as well. My friend Carleene posted this:

We saw darkness yesterday. Yet this week we read, "Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it."

A seventeen year old who lives nearby hears shots and rushes to the school to see if his sister is okay. Love shines in the darkness.

A custodian runs through the school to warn kids and teachers to take action to protect themselves, and in the process putting himself at risk . . . Self-sacrifice shines in the darkness.

Teachers lock their doors and have their kids gather in corners and hide in closets and stand vigil themselves in case a shooter arrives at their classroom. Courage shines in the darkness.

Law enforcement officers escort kids to safety telling them to close their eyes so that they do not see what eyes should never have to see. Compassion shines in the darkness.

And many parents hugged their children a little harder yesterday. The hearts of parents turn toward their children. Love shines in the darkness.

Oh, Lord, our hearts are broken. We need the Light! Let Your light shine into this darkness.

While no one understands what was going through Adam Lanza's mind, this piece sheds a sliver of light into the lives of the mentally ill and those who try to love them.

Wrenching, just wrenching.

No more reading for me. Today, I am going to hug my kids a little harder and pray a lot more.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

An Ode to Mrs. Heffley

Kolbe was in a friend's van when Last Christmas came on the radio.

"Kolbe," Rachel said. "This is your mother's favorite."

Rachel loves this song and especially likes  the 80's version. We shared a laugh about 80's music. It's like 80's hair or 80's make-up or 80's greed or 80's leg warmers -- big, colorful, over-the-top.  Rachel let me in on a secret: One of our very holy and seemingly reserved friends rocks out to Love Hurts.

Who knew?

To my children's utter amazement -- bewilderment might be a better word -- I have an 80's playlist of my own, one that includes 99 Red Balloons by Nena and What's Going On by Four Non-Blondes and Come On, Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Riders. Loud, brassy, and the musical equivalent of teased hair. Blood-pumping distraction if I'm in the middle of some detested chore like washing floors or entering a three inch stack of receipts.

As I've shared before, the boys look askance when my 80's alter-ego takes over and begins swaying to the music.

"Okay, Mrs. Heffley," Tim will say, patting my arm gently. "It's time to calm down."
My Hero

What? You don't know Mrs. Heffley?

Mrs. Heffley, that long-suffering mother from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, is my hero. For a proper introduction to Mrs. Heffley, please rent the second Wimpy Kid movie -- Rodrick Rules.

Now, I could issue a lengthy list of disclaimers and warnings about the movie, but let me be honest: I laughed harder watching this movie than any other movie, EVER.

I get Mrs. Heffley. She's a forty-something mom with glasses and shoulder length brunette hair. She's a writer. She has three sons. She's prone to launching into speeches that begin, "All I want is for you boys to be friends . . . ", "I am really shocked . . . ", "Is it too much to ask . . ."

Too, too funny.

Thursday morning was a fiasco. Three days of sickness capped off by twelve hours of rain punctuated by little sleep and a growing anxiety about all the Christmas shopping I was not managing to accomplish -- ugh. On top of all that, the pantry was cleaned out. Now, I could have sent the kids to school with ice water and Reese's peanut butter cups to sustain them. But, no, self-sacrificing mother that I am, I went to the store at 7:43.  That's 7:43 a.m., as in morning. Who does this, you may logically wonder. Believe me, I ask myself this same question time and again. But rather than reflect too long on these unanswerable mysteries, I cranked up some tunes as I returned home at 8:03.

Forget the 80's.

Play That Funky Music came on, and I was rocking out.

I briefly wondered what would happen if I suddenly crashed the car. Oh, the scandal! Forget everything your mother ever told you about unexpected accidents and clean underwear. Anyone happening upon the crash scene would confront much more shocking discoveries.

Coming back from the grocery store at 8:03 on a school day? Who does that?

Two bottles of chardonnay and  -- what's this? -- four lunchables? Lunchables???

Do people really go out in public looking like that?

And the clincher: What --- what! -- is that noise?

That,  my friends, is solid gold, circa 1976.

Play that funky music, white boy.
Play that funky music right.
Play that funky music, white boy.
Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die…
Till you die…oh, till you die!

But I forget myself.

Back to Santa 104.3. Anne Murray is singing Silver Bells.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent -- The Spirtual and The Material Collide

The ever-friendly Internet has recently been the scene of a discussion about Christmas and Advent, stress and busyness. An oh-so-very-helpful commenter expressed confusion that a devout Catholic, of all people, could find this season trying and then offered a thought that went something like this:

It's Advent -- four candles -- how hard is that?
Well, this encouraging fella gets The Hilary Rosen Award for Least Insight into a Mother's Life.

(You remember Hilary Rosen. In the heat of the election, she quipped that Ann Romney, a mother of five boys, "had never worked a day in her life.")

I read Hilary's comment and burst out laughing. And so I did when I read Mr. Advent's pithy prescription for a stress-free Christmas. (And, yes, I'm going  w-a-y  out a limb here to assume it's Mr. Advent (not Miss or Ms. and certainly not Mrs.).

Gosh, I'm being awful and judgmental and know-it-all and all sorts of horrid things that one certainly shouldn't be deep in the heart of Advent.

On the phone the other day, a friend threw out the term "Insta-Christmas." Perhaps you're not familiar with this concept. Someone wakes up on Christmas Eve, and, gosh!, the house looks great! The lights, the candles, the wreaths! The kids are all in matching clothes. They're clean! Mom just called to extend a heartfelt thanks for the tasty fruitcake that arrived in the mail. A Facebook friend commented on the lovely family photo just posted. At the Christmas pageant, the daughter's angel wings were sparkling and the son was nothing short of precious as the donkey in the manger scene.

If you're not familiar with "Insta-Christmas" that is probably because  -- wait for it now -- you're a wife and mother.

What is the point of my bombastic screed? It is not to husband-bash. Perhaps it's to bash the mistaken notion that there is The Spiritual and The Material and never the twain shall met.

And there's no such thing as "Insta-Christmas." You don't light the fourth Advent candle on December 23rd, wake up on Christmas Eve, and find "Insta-Christmas." If I fashioned an exclusively Spiritual Advent and saved up the Material for Christmas Eve, I predict two things would rapidly follow: misery and bankruptcy.

Therapy and marriage counselling would probably figure into the equation as well.

Elizabeth Foss has spent years writing about Advent and Christmas. Just yesterday, we read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, one of Elizabeth's suggestions, and later watched the movie. Thank you, thank you to Elizabeth and all the other bloggers who use the Internet to inspire.
Elizabeth shares ways to make this season beautiful and simple and meaningful.

She never says it isn't work.

A reader recently posed this question to Elizabeth: Do you decorate your house and put up your tree for Christmas before Christmas, during Advent?

And Elizabeth responded: Yes. Yes, I definitely do. When I am expecting a baby, I ready the environment well before my due date. I wash and fold tiny clothes. I freshen the co-sleeper. I find the car seat inserts. I rearrange bedrooms or dressers, as necessary. And I pretty much clean my house from top to bottom and stock the freezer and pantry. It's what I do . . . On December 25, our family welcomes the Baby. Hearts and homes are prepared well in advance.

In the atrium, we learn the liturgical colors. Purple is for preparation. We prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus on Christmas Day. Preparation requires effort.

I would be the first person to yell "enough" to the madness and soul-crushing perfectionism that add unnecessary stress and cost, that breed fatigue and greed and envy in a season that is supposed to be about anticipation and joy.

This time last year we had something like eight separate celebrations (dinners, parties, pageants) in an eight day period. No Joke. As one of my friends so eloquently and succinctly put it: Let's just not call it a celebration. Too much, just too much. This year, three of those events have been cancelled, and one has been scaled back significantly.


The first year we were married, I mentioned getting a Christmas tree, and Dave said, "We're going to Michigan for Christmas. Why get a tree?"

"Because I'll cry if we don't," I told him.

We bought a tree.

We've bought a tree every year except for two. One year we were having our floors refinished while we were in Detroit. Forgoing the tree was the smart thing to do. Another year I was just snowed under with all the preparations and thought, just as Dave had, "We're going to Michigan. Why do we need a tree?" We arrived home around New Year's Day, and let me tell you, I have never been so depressed walking around my barren, undecorated house.

There's a fine line between Simple and I can't be bothered. I had crossed the line, and I knew it.

One of the aspects I love about Catholicism is the emphasis on and use of stuff -- physical, material, elemental stuff -- water, ashes, smoke, oil, candles. There is no stark dividing line between the spiritual (celebrating the birth of Christ) and the material (accomplishing the physical tasks necessary for that celebration). The problem as I see it (and live it) is that the pendulum has swung so far towards the material, we barely have the capacity to take in the spiritual.

And perhaps that is what Mr. Advent was trying to communicate.

Elizabeth Foss captures it beautifully:

I am not Martha Stewart. I am an innkeeper. I am preparing a place in my home and in my soul for the Savior of the World. I need to be so grounded in prayer that Christ’s peace overflows from me to those in my home. Let the visitors come. Let them come whenever they want and stay as long as they want. I will make the house warm and the food filling, but above all, I will make certain that the Holy Infant is here. He will be the reason for our celebration. If He can cause the lion to lie down with the lamb, He can handle Christmas at my house. Despite all the other things on my list, I must make time for earnest, fervent prayer, because I know that I can’t do this under my own strength. I must invite the Baby. The only perfection here this year will be the Baby. Because a Baby at Christmas is what it’s all about.

My friend Rachel, to whom Mr. Advent's comment was directed, just posted this:

God loves us so much. Don’t forget that in the midst of your hurry. Those of us running ragged to do right by our family…well, that’s part of the deal. In this season, don’t chide yourself so much. Pray about what you need to do, ask God for joy and peace — and the wisdom to know when you are doing more than you should. And then trust in him. He does fill in the gaps. He’s aware. He’s here, in the middle of it all.
And one of her readers, commented this:

You and BXVI (Benedict XVI) are of the same mind and spirit. When someone tweeted the Pope and asked “Any suggestions on how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world?”, his response was: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you” – Happy feasting!


Monday, December 10, 2012

For God So Loved the World That He Gave

A friend shared a scripture at a recent prayer meeting: For God so loved the world that He gave . . .

And there it ended.

From billboards to Bible school lessons, most of us are familiar with the entirety of John 3:16. But in this season of gift giving, how interesting it is to end that verse with a verb.

God gave.

In the atrium we just presented my favorite lesson -- The History of the Gifts. As I've written before, of all the materials and lessons we share, this is by far the one I love best, focusing as it does on the Kingdom of God as a history of gift giving.

We open a treasure chest that contains a sampling of God's gifts.

We crush nutmeg and ginger. We examine a speckled bird's egg lying in a nest.

We look at a lovely drawing of a baby in utero.

We pull apart a cotton ball and examine a lump of coal.

We ponder the mind and the heart behind the creator who fashioned this vast and diverse universe out of nothing.

We talk first about the necessities of  life and then move on to the niceties. As I wrote last year:

What is the point, exactly, of a dolphin or a dogwood? Why is a sunflower both edible and beautiful? Why do we have cows which many of us eat, but also dogs which we simply enjoy? What is the purpose of a sunset or a rainbow or a lush snowfall? Why are babies so achingly lovely?

I often reflect that God is not a minimalist. This world of ours is full and varied and surprising.

For God so loved the world that He gave and He gave and He gave . . .

I sat in a meeting with a group of pastors last week discussing, among other topics, fatherhood. What unique role does a father play in the life of a child? How do we encourage fathers? What should fathers try to do or, more importantly, try to be?

A friend -- a father of grown children and an experienced pastor -- said that he tells young fathers starting out, "If you view fatherhood primarily as a police function, you're completely missing the boat."

Fatherhood, in his view, means bringing forth life. Human fathers should emulate God the Father and seek to bring life into their family, to bring fun, to bring adventure, to start with the necessities and to then move on to the niceties.

What a beautiful perspective this is. In all of this, I couldn't help but think of my own father.

Now, he's a character, my dad. He and my mom made a quick stop off at my house just a few weeks ago. We sat in the backyard, enjoyed a glass of wine and some munchies . . . and laughed. My father is a funny, funny man.  Later we watched football, and Dad held Ainsley. We shared dinner and played chess.

I look back on my childhood and remember weekend after weekend spent boating and fishing. Some families are camping families or reading families or travelling families. We were a boating and fishing family. To my dying day I will remember 1975 for two reasons: First, it was the worst year of my life; second, my dad woke me up nearly every Saturday well before the sun came up and said, "Come on, Kel. Let's go fishing."

A bright spot in an otherwise grim year.

He gave. To this day, he is probably unaware of what he gave me.

He still gives.

As I sat with a crew of children looking at sharks' teeth and cinnamon, at a Praying Mantis and at a moth, I asked them what we can conclude about God based on this collection.

Which is but a meager, meager sampling of his gifts.

God is powerful, they said. God is creative. God is generous.

Finally a little boy with the face of an angel and the impishness of an elf, threw his hands up in the air and said, "He wants us to have an awesome time of it!"

For God so loved the world that He gave . . .

Saturday, December 08, 2012

I Need a Wife

I can't participate in Seven Quick Takes this week. I might be able to pull together two thoughts, maybe three, but seven? Not happening.

But I did head over to Conversion Diary and laughed at what Jen had to say:
A friend alerts me that the new trend among homeschoolers is to hire tutors so that busy parents can outsource some of the grunt work. These aren’t necessarily experts in the subject (at least not for elementary school kids); rather, they function more as teacher’s assistants who answer questions and help young children stay on task. This was a bad can of worms for me to open, because it got me thinking about the resources I could use to make homeschooling run a little more smoothly around here. My list ended up looking something like this:
  • Tutor
  • Babysitter for baby
  • Second tutor
  • Masseuse
  • Sommelier
  • Grape peeler
  • Security guard (to stand outside my bedroom door while I take a nap)
This is just a start, obviously. I haven’t even gotten to the tour guide to arrange engaging field trips and the chauffeur to take them there.
For me, it comes down to this: I need a wife. I may be plagiarizing Barbara Walters who, at the height of her career with ABC, once expressed this very idea.

I need a helpful someone to point out to me -- preferably while I'm still in a store -- that, in fact, I've been in some sort of retail establishment that sells bread every. single. day. this week. And do we have bread? No, we do not. I guess I will be visting one of those establishments again today. An unbroken record! Go me! I think a wife could help me with this issue.

I would find a wife who is under forty and who has better eye sight than I have. She could point out the flaws in my make-up that I can't see even with a magnifying mirror.

My wife could handle all the meal planning. I'd even be willing to do all the cooking if only I had that helpful someone who would just plan the darn things. I'd handle breakfast and lunch -- which go fine around here (as long as we're not out of bread). Wife, handle dinner for me, please, oh, please!

I'd keep my wife busy running items to the boys' school. I went in there yesterday and told our beloved secretary that they really should install a revolving door with my name on it. Better yet, the school could initiate a courier service that pops by my house each morning around 10:00 to collect the forgotten lunch, the PE shorts, the calculator, the Secret Saint gift, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If I had a wife, the courier service would be rendered totally unnecessary.

I need someone to keep track of my appointments. My wife could analyze my calendar and conclude that there is no logistical way the Dolins could be at six places at once. She could make the seventeen phone calls required to iron out the whole mess.

If I had a wife, I would be free to concentrate on those elements of marriage and motherhood I love -- relaxing with my husband, reading to the kids, finger painting with the little people, going to basketball games, watching Monk with the big boys.

My friends and have laughed about the life captured in Downton Abbey. If I woke up inhabiting that universe, no doubt I'd be Daisy the kitchen maid and not the glamorous Lady Grantham. If somehow, someway I woke up and found myself to the manor born, it wouldn't be O'Brien the lady's maid, I would most appreciate. No, I think every family could use Carson the butler -- that calm, unruffled stickler for detail to iron out all the pesky details of life (and even iron the newspapers).

Carson's not showing up anytime soon, so I'd best get back to it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

One Big Mess

And a whole lot of fun!

If you're not in a hurry, if your kids and their clothes are washable, if your table is, too, then this is a really, really fun way to spend an afternoon.

Love the tongue.


We started so very neatly.

Finger paints!

Or hand paints.
A little out of her comfort zone.

Forgive me for finding this hilarious (and for taking a picture before I plopped her in the tub).


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Get Off Your Duff Parenting

If you are regularly locking horns with a young child or two, my friend Rachel has a great post here that might inspire you. She has been addressing an issue or two involving John's pal, Henry.

Rachel writes:

One of our favorite family mantras, “When I Call You Come,” well it meant absolutely nothing to this child. It was more like “When I call, you ignore. And then I call. And then I call again. And then I come find you and grab you and drag you to where I say.”   
. . . we started a little thing called “follow through.” Which meant that every time Paul or I told Henry to do something, we got up off our duff and made him do it. When I call, you come. And if you don’t come, I walk over to you (immediately) and there are consequences for not coming.

The Dolins are dealing with a a few behavioral challenges of our own, most of them involving a blonde-headed spitfire named Ainsley.

What? The long-awaited girl child -- she who was to be all sugar and spice and everything nice -- she's giving us grief? Yes, this surprised us, too. In fact, that's been half the problem.

We shouldn't label our children, but, face it, we all do it. Ainsley was Easy Child. Label affixed.

But the thing about kids is this: Once you've got them good and labeled, they change. Mind you, they send you no warning of this, no helpful status change on Facebook, no text that says Ta Ta For Now; Easy Child Is Outta Here!

No, one tranquil night Nice Boy goes to bed and, unbeknownst to his parents, morphs into Hormonal Grouch in his sleep. The next morning the unsuspecting mom says, "Have a nice day!" He snarls, "You're always telling me what to do!" 

Mom scratches her head and wonders what just transpired.

So it has been with Ainsley. One day it slowly dawned on me that Easy Child almost never does what I tell her to do. Why was I so slow to grasp this glaringly obvious fact? She was flying under the radar mostly because she wasn't all up in my face about it. Unlike her older brother, John. John lets it all hang out there. Always has. By the time he was nine months old, we knew we had a tiger by the tail.

But Ainsley, well, she's a wily one. Until very recently, she wasn't prone to fits. She'd just quietly disregard any instructions not fully in line with her plans. For reasons unknown, this all changed, oh, four or five months ago. Easy Child is now Drama Queen who employs a variety of tactics to get her way.

There's negotiation:

"I wanna milkshake, Mama," Ainsley tells me in her sweetest voice ever. "And if I get one, I'll sleep in my own bed forever."

There's clarity:

"I want chocolate milk," she says.

"We'll see," I tell her.

"I don't want 'see'," she responds in her non-nonsense voice. "I want chocolate milk!"

Then there's plain old garden variety rage.

She puts on her coat and says, "I want it zip-did." And when no one jumps to do her bidding, this becomes, "I want it zip-did!  I Want It Zip-Did!  I WANT IT ZIP-DID!"
Let me tell you, she can fold those arms, jut out that chin, produce a glare, and stomp her foot.

As in any behavioral trials, dealing with this requires patience, a sense of humor, and follow through (all of which seem to run in short supply around 5:00 in Casa Dolin.) It requires, as Rachel explains, Get Off Your Duff Parenting.

Our friend Dennis used to say, "If you do the right thing long enough, you'll eventually be successful."

We hope he's right.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Late Night Algebra Humor

Tim: Dear Math, I am tired of looking for your X. She's not coming back.