Friday, December 30, 2011

True Christmas Spirit

            “How many cookies have you had!?” I asked abruptly.
            Celia pulled her hand back from the big colorful plate and looked at me seriously. “One.”
            I chuckled, looked at my friend, and raised my shoulders. What do you say to that? “Okay, go ahead.”
            Granted, at that time she may have only eaten one, but judging by the sugar coma she had an hour later, I’d say she probably ate half a dozen by the end of the party.
            Christmas is a joyous time for our household. We have many traditions and throw some great parties. Even though we didn’t make a single dessert of any sort, we ended up with mountains of treats in the house, expanding our bellies and transforming our children into hyperactive bees.
            Back in the day, my parents’ gave us dozens of memorable traditions around Christmas – crafting gingerbread houses from scratch, caroling to friends the night before, opening presents one at a time so everyone could appreciate them, a large buffet of food to share with friends, lots of singing and family time. It makes sense that I’d want a lot of the same experiences for my own kids.
            But recreating experiences for our children is always sure to be only partially successful. Those who were the kids before are now the adults, and they somehow seem to spoil everything.
            We did make gingerbread houses on the morning of Christmas Eve. My brother showed up with the baked gingerbread, and we involved our kids as well as we could, creating delightful little cottages with bright trimming and a skier daring to swoosh upon one rooftop. We ran out of frosting so my mom made more, using raw egg whites.
            Later that evening we had a grand old time dragging our kids out in the snow for Christmas carols to a few friends’ houses. But my brothers both skipped out to work at their restaurant, and instead of the big feast we’ve shared with other families for the last few decades, my kids got hungry so intensely and drastically we had to pack up and go home for a quick meal, and then bedtime.
            Christmas morning I felt queasy, but we packed up the kids and headed to the grandparents’. There were carols, presents, and a breakfast feast, but by noon I was feeling wiped out.
            “I need to lie down,” I told Michelle.
            We packed up the kids and headed home so everyone could take a nap. I snuggled into pajamas, and slept instantly.
            The food poisoning really kicked in when I woke up. I sent Michelle back to the grandparents’ with the kids and lay on the couch clutching my stomach for the rest of the day. The whole time I sat in the living room, all the bright new toys stared at me.
            How did we end up with so many toys this year? I thought we were being more careful not to succumb to the consumerism our culture pushes on us – so what happened?
            I guess, if we trace the lineage of each toy, they all make sense in their own way, but I started feeling a bit like a Christmas scrooge on that couch – belly aching, missing out on the big Christmas feast, all alone, and surrounded by a bunch of plastic meaningless “stuff” that’ll eventually take up space in some landfill.
            But then I closed my eyes and reflected on what Christmas is all about – the birth of a special child to a homeless family, living life on the run, in fear of their life and living in abject poverty. Not a fluffy red-garbed elf.
            A little perspective does wonders to a persons’ spirit. I suddenly felt utterly thankful for my two little ones, my loving wife, and palatial home.
            So, with my belly aching and my heart full, I sang one last Christmas carol before taking another nap. Christmas didn’t go as planned, but at the end of the day I’m thankful I did get to feel even a tiny bit of that true Christmas spirit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Next Chapter

            Last night my three-year-old daughter had a fever. The house had entered that parental moment of peace when all children were sleeping for over two hours, and I rubbed my eyes as I looked at the clock.
            I heard a creak, and turned to see my little one walking down the stairs. “Daddy, I didn’t want Ratatouille,” she said to me with groggy eyes and bright red cheeks.
            “Okay, sweetheart,” I said, putting away my laptop, wondering what kind of crazy dream she must have been having.
            She erratically clomped down the stairs and into my arms. I felt the heat emanating from her as I held her on my lap for awhile.
            I dislike giving my kids over-the-counter fever medicine. Who knows what sorts of crazy things it does to their internal organs? The NY Times just reported that if you give your kid too much acetaminophin they’ll be three times more likely to have asthma. But I succumbed and gave her a full dose of ibuprofin before taking her back to bed.
            “Daddy, don’t leave,” Celia said to me groggily.
            Usually, my response would be to tell her a story or sing a song before leaving, but this time my heart went out to her, and I lay with her until she slept. The medicine took thirty minutes to kick in, so she quietly held my hand as I gazed up at her glow stars, thinking and praying.

            I’ve been particularly thankful for my children these days.
            A lovely-spirited Spanish woman has been living with us for almost half a year now, caring for our kids and fighting court battles over custody of her two youngest, with the threat of being deported hanging over her head. We have been grateful for her thoughtful energies in our household, while at the same time being torn up about her situation.
            It makes me appreciate every moment with my kids, seeing this dear person get so few of them with hers.
            As I lay there, I thought about my kids, and about the changes we’ve seen in our lives over the last year. We moved to Montana from Vancouver, Canada almost a year and a half ago, and although we’d been tempted to move back many times, we were still there, in a small town and a big house.
            Figuring out how to support the family was the biggest concern I dealt with over the year – going from one contract to another, nothing ever feeling secure, nothing ever quite paying enough, and then two months of absolutely nothing. As the debt started to pile up, for the third time in my life, I shook my head and wondered if we would have to move back to a bigger city to make ends meet.
            I think it’s particularly hard for a father to deal with those kinds of stresses. For Michelle, it seems like she gets more stressed when the kids are sick or she didn’t get enough sleep. Those things don’t bug me as much. But the looming weight of supporting my family, and the others we’re hosting, is a goliath burden constantly clouding my vision.
            Especially in the midst of financial stresses, it had been a default for me to direct huge energies outside of the home. But then, I would always be pulled back when I saw my kids at the end of a long day and they’d be absolutely thrilled to see me.
            “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” both Joshua and Celia would scream joyfully, arms raised, running with enthusiasm painted across their faces.
            And then I’d hear the story of the day.
            “There’s a toy stuck in the toilet.”
            “Again!?” I’d gasp, looking over at the bathroom and seeing the familiar hand-colored sign of warning not to enter.
            When the plumber pulled out the little black matchbox car he asked me, “Would you like to keep it?”
            “I guess so…” I shrugged my shoulders.
            “Are you kidding me!?” Michelle rushed into the room. “I never want either of my kids to come anywhere near that disgusting thing! Throw it away!”
            I nodded my head. Common sense rules again. And then I saw the bill. Eighty-nine bucks.
            “Well,” I said to Michelle with a wry smile, “That’s the most expensive toy we’ve ever had in the house! And we just threw it away!”
            Michelle laughed with me. What else could we do? With no income coming in, many big bills looming over our heads, and no idea how we’d make it, all we had was faith that God would take care of us and a sense of humor. I think it was a combination of both that pulled us through.
           
            I heard Celia start wheezing softly, and I carefully crept out of bed and into the hallway. The hum of the forced-air heater turning on accented the cold night air. I looked at the clock. Michelle would be home soon. I breathed deeply and tidied up around the house.
            With Christmas right around the corner, and the end of the year coming, I was feeling particularly thankful for our lives. Our loving family. Our supportive community. Our awesome home. And in the midst of looming worry peering at me just around the corner, I took a deep breath and realized how thankful I was.
            Sometimes everything in life feels just right – it’s easy to wake up in the morning and be excited for the day. But I think we all need the kinds of times where it takes more effort to make it all work. It makes us appreciate what we’ve got, and recognize all the goodness shining through the cracks of our broken lives.
            As I begin to write again after a six-month break, I feel like we’re also beginning the next chapter of our lives. A new year bringing new contracts, new directions, new stories. I look forward to discovering where the story will take us next.