Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Clinging to Christmas

A few months ago, I saw an amazing little film called God Grew Tired of Us. It is the story of The Lost Boys, a group of Sudanese orphaned and displaced young men who fled from the genocide in their country and spent years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before some of the boys were invited to come and live in America. The film chronicles their experience of attempting to assimilate into American culture, which proves to be more challenging than any of the boys ever imagined. One of the scenes that really stuck in my memory involves the boys' initial impressions of their first Christmas in America. I'm unsure of the exact quote, but one of the young men said something to the effect of:

"Your Christmas includes many things which are very beautiful. Trees and lights and music, but I am very confused about what any of this has to do with the birth of Christ."

Ain't it the truth? American Christmas is undeniably lovely and fun, full of traditions, family, and of course, presents. But for those of us parents who consider ourselves to be Christians, it can be immensely challenging to find any meaningful context for the holiday in a culture where Santa and sleigh bells get top billing, particularly when we hope to pass the true significance of the holiday on to our children.

How can Jesus compete? His songs are much trickier for kids to learn than our American holiday standards. Try explaining the lyrics "round yon virgin" to a four year old, and you'll quickly be tempted to turn on "Frosty the Snowman" instead. Jesus doesn't do photo shoots at the mall. He doesn't have a clay-mation holiday special. And he certainly doesn't get to take credit for Barbies and Star Wars action figure sets under the Christmas tree.

Several of our friends have chosen to eliminate Santa from their Christmas celebrations in an attempt to focus the holiday on its true meaning. I definitely understand and respect the sentiment. For our family, however, we finally decided that unless we chose to completely opt out of Christmas gift-giving, the absence of Santa probably wouldn't make a huge difference. And really, Santa's just too much fun for us to pass up. So what else can a well-meaning parent do to help little ones understand that the birth of Christ is ultimately a much more beautiful event than a local tree-lighting ceremony?

We certainly don't have all the answers, but we're trying. For most of Advent, Jonah and I have been reading the Christmas story each afternoon in his children's Bible (and for anyone who is searching for a wonderful Bible for kids, I can't recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible highly enough - its humor and insight are teaching me each day as well!). The boys play with their little wooden Nativity set. We sing carols at church and talk, day by day, about WHY we actually celebrate Christmas. We'll make a cheesy birthday cake for Jesus. And we pray that our boys will truly take in the meaning of my favorite name for Christ - Emmanuel - or "God with us." What could be more beautiful than that?

And maybe, little by little, the real miracle is making itself known. The other day, as we finished reading the story of Jesus' birth for the gazillionth time this month, Jonah turned to me with his eyes sparkling.

"Mom," he grinned, "Jesus is SO cool."

Take that, Santa Claus.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Tyranny of the Christmas Letter

I love getting Christmas cards.  As I write, our pantry door is adorned with a myriad of festive holidays greetings:  adorable family photos, lovely cards, sweet handwritten messages from many of our favorite people.  Who doesn't feel loved when the Christmas cards come flooding into the mailbox?  

However, there's one kind of holiday greeting that can give me, well, mixed feelings:  the Christmas letter.  First, before I offend each of you who might have been kind enough to send me a holiday letter this year or ever, I should preface my comments by fully admitting that I write Christmas letters myself (okay, so the last two years I've been a bit too lazy, but I certainly have in the past), and for the most part, I adore getting them just like all of my other less detailed holiday mail.  It's enjoyable to read the yearly updates from dear friends and family who, unfortunately, live too far away for sufficiently frequent visits.  But the only problem with Christmas letters (my own included) is that they tend to reduce an entire year of living, growing, stumbling, stretching, struggling, striving, and thriving to a few tidy paragraphs of apparent bliss.  In Christmas letters, we all sound wildly successful, incredibly well-adjusted, perfectly behaved, and infinitely happy.  You know the drill:  

"It's been a banner year for the Smith family.  Bob received a phenomenal promotion to CEO of his company, which allows him to work only four hours each week and still make incredible money.   In his spare time, Bob climbed Mount Everest, ran twelve marathons, and saved 27 acres of rainforest in South Amercia.  Little Bobby is the star of his preschool class.  At the age of four, he's already reading Tolstoy, studying precalc, and excelling at Modern Dance and origami." 

I don't think any of us really intend to portray such an abashedly candy-coated view of ourselves.  Maybe we feel insecure about the less glamorous parts of our lives, so we conveniently leave them out of the yearly synopsis.  Maybe we truly look back on the events of months past with rose-colored glasses, minimizing the reality of the tough stuff of life in our own memories.  Maybe the day-to-day challenges just don't strike us as significant enough to include. Whatever the reason, even a quick glance back through some of my own Christmas letters reveals a surprisingly incomplete, if not inauthentic, portrayal of what was truly happening in our hearts, minds, and lives each year.  

These days, I'm trying hard to embrace what is real and true in my world, even when it's not always easy or pretty.  I'm working on figuring out what I genuinely think and feel about things, not just what I think I "should".  So, with that in mind, although I'm not actually sending a Christmas letter this year (just a Christmas ecard that's quickly becoming a New Year's ecard as I procrastinate), here's a sampling of what a truly honest holiday letter might look like for us right now:   

"Kristin truly feels blessed to be able to stay at home with their boys, although they sometimes drive her to the brink of insanity.  While she loves reading, snuggling, and playing pretend games with Jonah and Eli, truth be told, she's not a big fan wrestling.  Kristin began taking Pilates classes this fall, which has been a real joy...unfortunately, she's a bit bitter about the fact that she can't seem to find time for any exercise that doesn't involve chasing small boys.  

Steve likes work these days, but he finds that it seems to get in the way of his climbing time, which in turn sometimes gets in the way of his family time.  This can make Kristin a bit frustrated... we're hoping to find a good balance in this area in 2010.

Jonah, age four, loves preschool and played soccer for the first time this fall.  He keeps us laughing with his expressive vocabulary and dramatic antics, and he also keeps us pulling our hair out when he occasionally still poops his pants or uses his whiney voice too much.  

Eli, at 21 months, is all boy and truly loves life.  If he can get messy and wrestle, he's a happy guy!  This physicality can sometimes be tough for him to control:  we've been warned that if he can't keep his hands to himself and stop hitting other toddlers, we might not be allowed to return to storytime at the library.    

Would I really write all this in a holiday letter?  Probably not.  Right or wrong, I, too, hold onto some inner need to communicate the best of things this time of year.  I guess at its core, Christmas is about hope, about the coming of light into a dark place.  And even when life feels dark, we'll cling to the hope of Christmas and keep on writing the good stuff.      

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love in the Time of Diapers

There was a time when my dear husband and I could lie in bed all day on a snowy Saturday, take off for a spur of the moment weekend away at a B&B, or even simply share the details of our days over a leisurely dinner without a small child screaming, knocking over a glass of milk, or hurling his his entire plate of squash at the dog.  

Those days are long, long gone.  

But the marriage still remains, and we're forced to attempt to keep the sparks of romance alive in the midst of poopy diapers, ridiculous sleep deprivation, and two little boys who seem innately programmed to wake up screaming the moment we begin to arouse the desires that produced these children in the first place.  

Despite these amorous beginnings, there's much about parenthood that's just not sexy.  Who feels particularly attractive when covered in spit up?  Sneaking in a shower while my small children might be destroying the house doesn't leave much time for shaving my legs, or armpits, or deep conditioning my hair, or for many of the other little primping habits that help us to feel desirable.  A night out on the town requires feats of organization and planning that can take weeks to arrange:  calling a potential sitter, waiting for said potential sitter to return my call, receiving call that the sitter in unavailable... repeating said scenario three times until an available sitter is located.  Tidying my house for the sitter, planning and shopping for an easy meal for the sitter to feed the children, locating attractive, stain-free clothing to wear, figuring out when in my crazy day I might get myself ready for the date, budgeting twice the cost of the actual date to pay the sitter... By the time I walk out the door, I've often had to spend more time preparing for this night out with my husband that we'll actually get to enjoy on the date itself.  It's all enough to tempt a weary parent to just give up on the prospects of a romantic evening.

But giving up just isn't an option, not if we want to come out on the other side of parenthood with some sense of affection for the spouse we so wholeheartedly fell for in our pre-kiddo days.  It takes work and a deliberate focus maintain our grasp on this tenuous thing called love.  And it might look a little different than it used to.  I've learned to find my husband attractive in situations I might not have considered before;  a man with a faux bubble bath beard making his boys laugh or sleeping peacefully with a newborn on his chest can melt my heart these days.  We make a concerted effort in little ways, like trying to call each other with a sweet word during the day rather than just a request to stop by King Soopers to buy Capri Suns for the soccer game.   And sometimes a date night can be just putting the boys to bed and sharing a bottle of wine on our deck... no sitter required.  

And though we do still dream of the days when we'll once again be able to spend amorous days alone, when our little boys run into our room and climb onto our bed in the early morning, giggling and snuggling, I often catch my husband's eye and we smile.  This love is big enough for all four of us.    

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Letter to Jonah, Four Years Old

Sweet Jonah,

You started four-year old preschool last month.  On your first day, we approached your classroom together, hand in hand, but you were clearly more excited than apprehensive, and before I knew it, you gave me a small wave and a big grin, and you were off. I sometimes spy on you a bit through the two-way mirror and watch as you get settled, hanging up your little backpack with the green and orange skater guys on it in your cubby and running up to your friends to join in the daily action. As I watch, you strike me as both amazingly grown-up and incredibly small, with those same huge blue eyes that gaze out at the world with such wonder, just as they did on the morning your were born. Part of me wishes I could freeze you in time right here, so I've decided to write down some "snapshots" of the little person you are at four and a half:

You love all things related to motorcycles and racecars. While I put Eli to sleep, you often lie on my bed and tell yourself elaborate tales about your vehicles as they trek over the pillows and down the headboard.  As I sit here writing, you are animatedly bringing your cars to life, wailing, "James! James! James! I don't want you to go! CRASH! Whoa, he got 50 hundred scratches!".

You are petite for your age, a fact I only tend to notice when I see you surrounded by other boys. You're built like your father with thin little matchstick legs, and your ribs show a bit when you and Eli run around naked in your nightly after-bath ritual. You both squeal and shreik, bare bums bouncing on the bed, burning off the final bits of energy for the day before snuggling into your jammies.

Although your build is slight, you really can throw down some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You've historically been wary of green foods, but your relationship with Farmer Ewell at Pachamama Farm, the CSA where we get most of our vegetables, has recently changed all that. Farmer Ewell has become a dear friend to you; you run and hug him each week, begging him to "play" with you instead of doing his farm chores. Later, as each veggie appears on your plate, you'll eye it warily and ask, "Did Ewell grow this beet/carrot/broccoli?". If we answer affirmatively, you gobble up your vegetables with a big grin and exclaim, "That's delicious!". I'm not sure what we'll do this winter when the veggies won't be coming directly from Ewell anymore!

You love learning to be a climber like your daddy, and you're so proud of your tiny climbing shoes, or "sticky shoes", as you call them. We can already see that you're calculated and graceful on the rock, carefully choosing each hand and foot placement. However, on a recent climb, you confessed that the climbing harness put your "penis in a silly situation." I guess that's an recreational hazard you'll learn to handle.

Your vocabulary is so funny to me, like the words of middle-aged man coming out of the mouth of a tiny child. You love dramatic exclamations like, "How could he do such a thing?!" and "Oh, I couldn't possibly do that!".

You're on a soccer team this fall for the first time, and you approach each game with incredible zeal. For the pure drama, you love to hurl yourself to ground, even when no other players are near, and then jump back up, calling, "I'm okay! I'm okay!". You scored two goals in your second game, running to the middle of the field pumping your little fist triumphantly. Never mind that fact that both points were in the wrong goal, or that the whole game fell apart after that with both teams of four-year olds kicking into any nearby goal in complete soccer anarchy.

Although you do love days filled with action, you still love to snuggle. When daddy and Eli wake up early and you and I sleep late, you'll wander in to my room, climb up into my bed, and nuzzle up next to me. You smell of sleep and your bath from the night before, and you breathe so peacefully, warm in my arms.

Jonah, you are beautiful and passionate, hilarious and wise. As you say, "I love you to outer space, past the moon, and around Jupiter." Thanks for letting me be your mom.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More to Come SOON....

Thanks so much to all of you who have been sending messages that you're anxiously awaiting new posts;  it feels good to know people are reading and checking!  My apologies for the delay.  It's been a crazy month, but I've been working diligently on a new post and it should be up very soon.   Thanks for not giving up on me as I'm learning to make writing more and more a part of my daily life!  

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anger Management

Most people who know me would never guess this in a million years, but I think I have an anger management problem.  

Now, if you're anything like me, the term "anger management problem" brings to mind bar room brawlers, men in tight white tank tops, and 17 -year olds who get sent to juvie for jumping their math teachers.  What I DON'T think of is a 32-year old church-going, yoga-practicing, stay-at-home mom with an endless repertoire of verses of "The Wheels on the Bus."  Me.  Smiley, happy me, right?  But beneath the innocuous exterior is a woman who has, truth be told, really struggled to keep her cool over the last 17 months.  And here's the worst part of it all:  the two people who can most easily drive me to the ugliest kind of fury are, 1.) under the age of five, and 2.) my own children.  

Now, an important disclaimer here:  first and foremost, I LOVE MY BOYS DEARLY.  I CHOOSE to stay home with them on my own accord.  They are not unusually misbehaved or obnoxious children by any means.  In fact, strangers have even approached me to comment that these kids are quite the opposite.  They are curious, loving, adorable little people... truthfully, they're the coolest kids I know.  Which makes it all the more shameful that, in recent months, I seem prone to yelling and making this loud, exasperated grunting sound, even in the grocery store or in front of gawking neighbors.  

Seriously, what's happened to me?  I started motherhood with seemingly endless patience and gentleness, a firm resolve that I would model these virtues for my boys.  A definite Kumbaya kind of mama.  I would never, I swore, be one of those mothers who screamed or slammed doors or forced their shrieking toddlers into car seats in the Target parking lot when they refused to go of their own accord.  Such women, I thought naively, simply needed to take a breath and remember what precious treasures their children were.  

But here's the thing:  some situations were just not meant to be endured by sane human beings.  Like the time a few weeks ago when both boys were given balloons on the Pearl St. Mall, which initially, made them quite happy.  I smiled blissfully as we walked along, hand in hand, each boy watching with amusement as his balloon bobbed in the wind.  However, when on the way home, peacefully buckled into their side by side car seats, their balloons accidentally twisted around each other and tangled, all hell broke loose.  Each boy yanked with all his might on his own string in a futile attempt to free the balloons, and both Eli and Jonah began to shriek like the girl from The Exorcist.  Initially, I was impressively calm.  

"Boys," I called back to them from the front seat as I cruised down the highway.  "Just let go of your strings and I'll untwist them for you."  

The duet of high pitched wailing subsided for a moment, but Eli, at just 16 months old, couldn't make sense of my offer and proceeded to tug with everything he had on his coveted yellow balloon.  Jonah, not to be outdone, yanked immediately back, and the screaming resumed.  

I raised my voice a bit.  "Jonah," I called, trying to appeal to my older, most sensible son, "just let go for a minute and I'll get your balloon back to you."  But by this time, neither boy could hear me over their screaming.  I felt my patience and sanity begin to disappear.  


Seriously.  I said that.  Who am I, after all?  Certainly not the peaceful earth mother I aspire to in my mind.  But sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures.  

I'm certainly not justifying my anger or claiming that it's a good idea to yell at children.  I deal with the shame and the guilt on a daily basis, wishing I could take back words or even an angry tone, praying that I'm not wrecking these little guys for life.  

One recent evening, I had lost my cool once again after my four-year old had refused to go to bed and had woken up his sleeping brother for the second time that night.  Jonah had padded down to the living room begging for "just one more snack" as I heard the baby begin to wail upstairs.  I banged the pantry door shut, slammed down some crackers and milk in front of Jonah, and stomped back up the steps to attempt to put the little one to bed for the third time that hour.  

When I returned down the stairs a few minutes later, I was feeling a bit calmer.  Jonah sat alone at the table with his head down in front of his empty plate.  I called him over to me on the couch, and he climbed up onto my lap.  We talked a bit about the importance of following the bedtime rules, and he nodded.  

"But mommy," he said quietly.  "You broke a rule, too." 

"Yeah, buddy.  You're right.  I was too mad, wasn't I?  I'm really sorry.  Do you know that?"

"Yeah," he whispered as he laid his blond head on my shoulder.  "You did break a rule, but you know what?  Now we'll put the rule back together."  

Gulp.  The boy really said this, came up with it on his own.  Sometimes his grace and wisdom just about knock me over.  

And I just can't help but feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's hope for me yet.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Invasion of the Incredible Hulk

Does the Incredible Hulk have a sword?"  Jonah, four years old, asks me as he cruises his scooter in wide circles on our driveway.  

"Nope," I respond.  "The Hulk is so strong that he doesn't need a sword.  Just his hands."

"Whoa." Jonah stops his scooter to ponder this fact, obviously impressed.  

It's a Monday afternoon, and ever since Jonah returned from a friend's Incredible Hulk-themed birthday party the previous Saturday, he's been bursting with questions about the green superhero who grows so large that he spontaneously explodes out of his clothes.  

Now, my husband and I have nothing against superheroes or the Hulk in particular.  He's a perfectly entertaining character, but prior to this party, we hadn't yet introduced our son to this particular facet of boyhood.  We must be somewhat unusual in this choice, because Jonah turned out to be the only kid at the party who was unfamiliar with this freaky green giant.  He played it off well, though, avoiding humiliation for all us at his ignorance of the cultural icon.  But now, he's hungry to know more, and the questions just keep coming.  

"Is the Hulk a monster?"

"Why are his pants so raggedy?"

"Does the Hulk have friends?"

"Is the Hulk good or bad?"

"What makes the Hulk turn all big and green?"

I try to be patient and answer his questions thoroughly, although I'll admit to having to check the internet for the exact reason that Bruce Banner transforms from human to hulk (it's exposure to gamma rays from an explosion in a bomb testing facility, in case you wondered).  But the truth of the matter is, I have some real ambivalence about the fact that we're entering this particular phase of life with our little boy.  It's a perfectly normal phase, one filled with superheroes and army men, lots of conflicts between the "good guys" and the "bad guys".  I think boys need to go through this stuff as they struggle to understand our crazy world and their place in it, but inevitably, this stage seems to be filled with both violence and commercialism, two concepts we've been pretty much able to control in Jonah's life up to this point.  Don't get me wrong... we certainly don't want to raise him under a rock or something, but it's been one of our greatest gifts to observe his little life unfolding in what we've hoped would be a deep sense of beauty, gentleness, wonder, and joy.  When you're the mom and the dad and your small kids look to you for eveything, and most young children do, it's really not that hard to control this through little decisons, basic stuff like choosing PBS instead of Spongebob or prime time, simple toys like blocks or cars instead of guns or Nintendo, playtime spent mostly outside collecting bugs or wading in a creek rather than in a McDonald's PlayPlace.  Up to now, we haven't done a whole lot of talking about gamma rays or bombs.  

But now the rules are changing on us.  We're suddenly not the only viable influences on Jonah's life.  His little friends on the playground and in preschool are much more articulate and opinionated than they used to be.  On a daily basis, he seems to come to us with ever-increasing knowledge and curiosity about video games, guns, boxing, death, or other concepts that belie the fact that, at the ripe old age of four, his grip on his own innocence is tenuous.  

It's poignant to watch this process unfolding, and to know that despite my best intentions, Jonah's view of the world is changing day by day.  The best we can do is take his little hand and promise to walk with him through this maze of reality...me, Steve, Jonah, and the Incredible Hulk.  

Monday, August 24, 2009

Little Boys are Like Tomatoes... :)

I've been a mother for over four years now, but I've only been a gardener for about four months.  When my husband and I finally bought our first home in the spring, we had big dreams for our little yard.  We imagined lush gardens teeming with perennials, vegetables, berries, native grasses... all cultivated by our own green thumbs.  We set to work planting as soon as we could, relishing each trip to the local nursery, carefully choosing the best amendments for our soil, pouring over plant guides, designing layouts, getting our hands nice and dirty.  We watered, we composted, we weeded, we pruned, we mulched.  

But really, we had no idea what we were doing.

And within a few weeks, our promising garden withered like an old man who had spent too much time in the suntan oil.  

We searched in books and consulted neighbors and family, all of whom seemed to have a different opinion.  

"More water, definitely."

"Less water.  You're drowning them."  

"Must be the bad soil.  Dig it all out and start over."

But then one day, miraculously, the sage started to perk up.  The tomatoes produced some flowers.  The strawberries gave us a few sweet fruits.  It was so strange, because we really were so paralyzed by all the advice that we didn't actually DO anything to try to improve our dying plot.  We're still not quite sure what happened, but as the summer has progressed, our little garden has survived, and even sometimes thrived.  At the moment, we're bombarded by more tomatoes than we know what to do with.  Sure, it's certainly not worthy of master gardener status, but it's ours, and we think it's pretty beautiful.

And I'm noticing that, at least for me, the process of learning to be a parent is a lot like learning to be a gardener.  These little living beings are placed in your care, and sometimes, they are lovely and you soak up the beauty and joy of the raising them.  But just as often, it seems, despite your best intentions, you flail and you do the wrong thing sometimes, and you feel as if, you've ruined these little people for life.  People give you all kinds of advice, but mostly, it doesn't help much.  Still, like our little garden, and even in spite of their parents at times, these kids keep thriving, and you praise God that many things are just way beyond our control.  

My kids like this old folk song I think Woody Guthrie sang, which seems to give voice to lots of what I feel about being a mom trying to raise little men in a tricky world.   

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down

Pulling weeds and pickin' stones
Man is made from dreams and bones
I feel the need to grow my own
'Cause the time is close at hand
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land

Plant your rows straight and long
Strengthen them with pray'r and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her love and care
Old crow watchin' hungrily
From his perch in yonder tree
In my garden I'm as free
As that feathered thief up there

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless the seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down

So I've decided to name this blog "Inch by Inch", which is the way my little boys and I are growing these days.  Slowly but surely, in spite of weeds and stones and old crows.  Those of you who are reading my blog hoping for quick family updates and always happy quips will be sorely disappointed, I'm sure.  I've decided to write not so much to document the daily happenings of our family as to process my own experiences of my days as a stay at home mom, and to force myself into some reflection.  Too many days, I tuck the kiddos to bed and plop in front of the TV for the night, neglecting to acknowledge the little miracles that occurred in my boys and in myself that day.  Inch by inch, I'm learning that the process of raising them is changing me, too.  Some days this is joyous and some days it's torturous, but it's always an adventure.  Thanks for joining me.    

Now, off to pull some weeds...