Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best Gift

Two weeks ago Big Sis was working on something in her office, something she'd scramble to hide when I approached.  She rolled it up, wrapped it, labeled it from her to me, and placed it beneath the tree.

I opened her present this morning:  a kaleidoscope drawing of some of the special things we experienced together this year. 

She included representations of her soccer team that I "coached," the fairies we attracted to our backyard, the Jolly Rancher ornaments we made over Thanksgiving, and her second grade field trip to the pumpkin patch I chaperoned. 

Ultimately, time is what we crave most, despite all the items money can buy.  I remain convinced that the most valuable gifts we bestow upon one another are time and attention. 

My daughter's little present tells me she too recognizes and cherishes our time.  And she's wise enough to know that acknowledging and honoring our time together would be a most precious gift. 

If they weren't clear already, priorities for 2011 are even more obvious now. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


The holidays are here and so are the stresses and tensions of being joyful and grateful and reflective and excited about the new beginnings represented by the turn of the year. 

If your life is in order and you're simply marking traditions and time passing, it's safe to whine about the weather and items to accomplish on the to-do list before each holiday event and happening.  In this case, happiness abounds, particularly when you lift your head and count your blessings.

But if life has come skidding to a sudden halt or floats in limbo--if someone is in the hospital or far away, if you're losing your house or your marriage--then it could be the 22nd of December or the 3rd of January for all that date and time matter. 

I think about this sudden convergence of what truly matters when bad things happen.  I think about the cookies I'm baking and errands I'm running and cards I'm addressing and stamping and old friends I'm seeing and gifts I'm buying and making and bags I'm packing, and how luxurious all that is. 

I think of those for whom the holidays are on hold or not happening this year.  Or for whom they're different. 

We're out of school and removed from the tangible grief of our students for their classmate.  Removed from his name on our rosters and his family's home, not ten blocks from his math and English classes.  I am getting ready for Christmas.  But I am conscious that his family, cookies baking or not, holiday traditions maintaining or not, is still mourning.  Forever, in some measure.

The significance of the passing of a member of one's community is aply captured by an anonymous student who signed the butcher paper stretched on our cafeteria tables in the hours, days, and weeks after his death in honor of D, our lost classmate.   

Without the explicit permission from their author, I share these words.  They resonate.

I didn't know you.
I never met you, spoke to you, saw you.  But you were one of us.  A classmate.  A friend, a son, a person. 

The loss of any life is heartbreaking. 
Even though we never met.  Never talked.
Never waved at each other from across the hall. 
Never made a private joke about one of our teachers. 
Even though none of this happened between you and I, doesn't mean it didn't occur.  It doesn't make you unimportant in my eyes simply because I never met you.

I am so, so sorry.  Your life is lost,
and that is unbelievably sad.  And even
though I never met you, I'll miss you.  I'll
remember you.  You are important.  You
may be lost, but you will live on in
memory.  Memory of a smile.  An inside joke.
Your friends and family miss you,
and I'm sorry for their loss. 
Please be in peace,
wherever you are. 
Please stay in our memories. 
I never met you,
but I love you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Present Previews

Before Wednesday's late-night wanderings through the aisles of Target, I had managed to do very little shopping for gifts, particularly for the girls. I had, however, found some handmade dolls' clothes at a craft fair a few weeks ago, thinking Santa might want to dress their American Girls in new duds for Christmas morning.

I was excited about those outfits, cute and unique. And I was proud that I had the beginnings of a plan for December 25.

Imagine my dismay when I walked through the front door after work on Monday evening and found the little garments on the dining room table. Husband looked at me sheepishly. Daughters gathered around me, hopefully.

"Hey, Mom! Are those for us???"

"AAAAAAHUUUUAURGGGH!" I clenched my fists and headed to the kitchen to express myself briefly and in less appropriate terms.

"I was afraid of that," Husband mumbled regretfully.

I could only be irritated with myself, as I had haphazardly stored the bag containing the presents on the floor beside our bed.  Not exactly hidden.  In their defense, the girls are a little young yet to be serious snoopers.

I was reminded, though, of the year my brother and I were caught trying to peek at Santa's stash in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

I must have been in fourth grade; it was the year I asked for a ten-speed. We lived in a tract home with a loft on the second floor overlooking the entryway and living room. Our bedrooms opened onto the loft. My brother and I, even when we had our own rooms, traditionally slept together on Christmas Eve. That night we hid flashlights in his bed so we could spy on the haul below from the loft above at the opportune time.

We waited and waited until our parents went to bed after Christmas preparations, till they securely shut their bedroom door to the left of the loft.

We made our move shortly thereafter. Flashlights pointed and hissing excited directives and warnings to each other, we crept out of my brother's bedroom and out onto the loft to peer over the edge and onto the bounty below.


Santa's minions had tucked the goods safely out of view in the dining room underneath the loft. We let out a collective sigh of disappointment and attempted one more neck-craning survey of the scene. Just as I was exclaiming to my little brother that I could swear my flashlight caught the glint of what could only be spokes of a ten-speed bicycle, my parents' door flew open and we were chased off to bed. Our flashlight beams, my parents claimed, swept the crack under their bedroom door and they thought we were robbers, stealing the presents.

Our disappointment was that we were not only sloppy "thieves," but thieves with no proper glimpse of what there was to steal, all hopes for wishes come true notwithstanding.

Suffice it to say, the ten-speed was a valid surprise the next morning.

I also recall the season years later when I deliberately peeked at my presents squirreled away in my parents' room.  The revelation was how I imagine the high of a powerful drug feels: the thrill of discovery and nervousness accompanying it was intense but short lived. My guilt and dismay at ruining my opportunity for genuine gratitude sustained itself past Christmas. That Christmas morning I kept hoping for something unexpected and was duly disappointed; there was no joy in knowing what I was getting before I actually got it.

But at some point in my life the excitement of anticipation switched from surrounding those gifts I might get to those I was giving.

Each year, there is a gift that absolutely hits the mark:  the one not asked for but which reveals the giver "gets" its recipient.  The one he doesn't know he wants, the one she thought didn't exist.  The one worked on, made, or found.  That kind of giving and getting is the Real Santa of Christmas. 

And those gifts are the secrets not to spoil and the "reveals" to protect.  My little girls' discovery on Monday reminds me to get my game on, to preserve the magic and excitement and wonder with a little more determination.

So, in that spirit:  Stay out of the trunk of my car, people!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Little Bit of Love

Last night I gave Big Sis a stack of our holiday postcards so she could give them out to her teachers. I thought she'd simply sign her name, but I caught her writing out thoughtful notes to her "princible," P.E. coach, music teacher, and second grade, first grade, and kindergarten teachers too.

Heart, warmed:   

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blossoming Books

Our daughter has her own Piles o' Stuff accumulating. I'm a little concerned we're growing a hoarder. On Saturday she and her cousin broke the plastic tee into six pieces while hitting lemons off it in the backyard, and I directed them to throw it away. Big Sis responded in what's becoming a familiar refrain: "But, Mom, I could use the pieces for something."

For a while she had a candy wrapper collection. Her backpack...eeeeeek. I think we'll plan on cleaning it out over the holidays. Last time I peered inside, I found a morass of silly bands, pebbles, small coins, loose tissues, string, bottle caps, dried flowers, and pencil nubs and useless erasers. She has stashes of "treasures" just about everywhere I look.

The tower of books by her bedside became our latest challenge. She sleeps in a top bunk and stacks her readings and journals on the adjacent dresser. On more than one occasion her hill of books has tumbled over onto the head of an unwitting victim sitting on the carpet below. She knocks her water over weekly. 

I had heard somewhere the idea of mounting a window box to the side of a bunk bed to store books (and other trash), so this was our project tonight: 

Because no project I undertake is done properly, you will note that the window box ledge-bracket-thingies stick out a dangerous distance from the bottom of the window box. Not the right size box or brackets. Oh well; we installed it anyway. But placed it over the dresser so no one pokes an eye out.

I'll save the eye-poking for myself, for when I clean out another of her stashes and risk the wrath of Big Hoarder Sis.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Cookin' This Christmas

Let's pretend you asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I would reply that I have everything I want.  Which I do.  Especially considering I have my job, my healthy self and family members, my unforeclosed house, my amazing friends.

But then you would press me, and I would ask, "Okay, you mean, besides this?"

You would nod.  And for a moment I would think about how I wrote that post a year ago, and here we are a year later, carton of contentment and everything.  I will concede a little bit of longing.  But just a healthy dose, the curable kind. 

Tell me something tangible, something material you desire, you would prod. 

Okay.  Okay?  I'll tell you what I want.  I want another bedroom on this house.  And a half-bath.  Just one more toilet would make it so no one has to run outside for a Nature Pee during rush hour.  And if Santa wanted to throw in a jacuzzi tub with the deal, who am I to argue?

But Santa has other plans, it seems.  Santa, rumor has it, is giving us a new water heater this season. 

So not sexy, a new water heater!  No one will come by and comment on its color to justify the money spent.  There's just no bang for your buck on a new water heater.  It's an invisible expense. 

Nevertheless, if I had to choose between room addition and water heater, I'd have to go with the heater.  Invisible it may be, but under appreciated it is.

When I spent a year in Kenya, I lived in a very modern house almost the size of our current one and with a water heater.  The fact that I had to set an alarm each morning so I would wake in time to turn on the heater  so the water for my shower 1.5 hours later would be warm but not Too Hot, and the fact that I had to occasionally replace the propane tank that fueled my kitchen stove (much like we do for our barbecues) reminded me that gas lines and water heaters are too often taken for granted in our First World.  Most of my neighbors in Africa had neither. 

So we're gifting ourselves a new water heater, because we'd all be huddled in one bedroom after bathing in cold water without one.  And if going with the tankless water heater option means that we gain some cupboard space for at the very least, a broom, then Santa is our hero.

We'd also love to paint our kitchen cupboards--that is, with any funds leftover from the water heater allotment.  How likely are we to have funds leftover?   Not very likely.  It's more likely that our kids' play kitchen gets a remodel.

To that end, I am at Gearhead Mom again this week, reviewing the upgrade of our kids' play cafe.  Talk about bang for your buck:  a play kitchen is all play and no clean-up.  For the children, anyway!  You feed them while they pretend to be cooking and eating and serving others.  A brilliant investment.  Way cheaper than a room addition, a water heater, AND a coat of paint on your kitchen cabinets.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stealth on a Shelf

Last year we adopted our own Elf on the Shelf.   "Icicle," who was a mere "Snowflake" (oops) last year, perches somewhere in our home to keep an eye on the kiddoes by day and then flies back to the North Pole each night with a report for Santa on our behavior.  She returns to a new spot in the house by dawn. 

She has a lot to remember, that elf.  Of course, there are the daily details of naughtiness (was it yesterday or today when Big Sis threatened Little Sis?  How many times did Little Sis say "NO!" to her mom?).  Then she has to remember to find a new secret yet conspicuous roost each morning.  How easy it is for her to accidentally wind up in that same comfortable nook she inhabited yesterday...

Our daughters aren't expressing concerns about Icicle witnessing their infractions and reporting them to Santa, nor does the elf's presence seem to deter misconduct.  The sisters are rather boldly confident in their positions as non-coal recipients. 

Me?  I am not so sure. 

Nevertheless, the daily hunt for Icicle is a first waking thought.  Where she'll be each morning, and whether or not she has the power to direct Big Sis to her missing iPod are pressing concerns (Big Sis has left her a note requesting this service).

And then there is the issue of her proximity to Little Sis. 

Big Sis sprung from the womb a lover of costumed characters and mall Santas.  At two years old, she ran through the gates of Disneyland and into the arms of a six-foot furry Tigger. 

Little Sis, on the other hand, is having none of it.  She's skeptical of strangers both costumed and plain and warms slowly even to family friends.  She loves fairies and elves, but Not In Her Room.  Meanwhile, Big Sis would like nothing more than to find Icicle snuggled under her covers one morning. 

Hence, it is an unspoken agreement that the girls' room is off limits to Icicle.  Little Sis is clear on the fact that no sleeping will occur if the elf's beady little eyes are focused on her. 

Fair enough. That leaves Icicle five other rooms from which to choose as she alights in our house each morning.  Big Sis sent Icicle this heads-up in the form of a note tucked info the elf's little arms the other night: 

Note the extent to which her compassion has its limits. 

Santa, if not the elf, is watching! 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sticky Stained Glass

Check out Gearhead Mom, where I am making "stained glass" ornaments out of Jolly Ranchers with the girls. 

Happy Sunday!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trading Perspectives

Dinnertime was a battlefield this week (as I may have mentioned).  I waged war on Big Sis's aversion to locking her lips while chewing (AKA "smacking," as my own mother unaffectionately calls it), and she fired back on the quality of my cuisine.  Playing the "What Was the Best Part of Your Day?" game at mealtime had us all answering internally, Duh...not this dinner hour.

Big Sis has required some extra attention lately.  It comes in waves.  Sometimes, Husband and I look at each other with the unspoken high-five, the our-kids-are-so-darned-great (scratch wood) agreement.  Then we get our comeuppance.  We've added new responsibilities and requirements in this latest round of Reality Check with second grader.  Among them, Child Doesn't Eat Breakfast Till Rabbit Gets His Kibble, and Towel Meets Doorknob (Not Carpet). 

We have been harping; seven-year-old has been crying.

Meanwhile, this evening families, friends, and community members gathered on the beach and watched the sunset in memory of our student who passed away last week.  During the reception afterwards was an opportunity to share thoughts and memories of the young man we all miss.

His father spoke, taking deep gulps, his voice cracking. "I believe there will be ripples which will spread as a result of this tragedy. 

"I tried to emphasize the important things as I parented my son:  honesty, integrity, love, and loyalty.  He and his friends have taught me more about them this week. 

"His death has reminded me what's important, and what's not important. 

"To all the parents out there: stand like a rock on the big stuff, like honesty and integrity. Don't sweat the small stuff, like towels on the floor."

I thought about Big Sis.  About our new towel rule.  About my pursed lips at each bite she chewed with her mouth open.  About unhappy moments in our household this week.  I gulped too. 

"Your kid coming home with ears pierced and tattoos?"  He nodded at his son's friends.  "Those aren't deal breakers."

I went over to give our student's mom a hug before I left the memorial to head home to my family.  "I'll always remember you telling me," she gazed at me, "as he racked up the tardies, 'Let's keep this in perspective.'  And also, 'You know, he actually has a philosophical reason for being late.'"  She smiled, and I suddenly remembered my attendance conversation with her son and my follow-up conversation with her.  He had charmed me with his reasoning.  But he had also reminded me, Minder of Attendance, of what's important. 

And his mother and father reminded me how often it is easier for me to be understanding and forgiving of my students than of my own people.

Being on time can be important; eating politely can be important; being responsible for things, including towels and carpets, can be important. 

But being real, being loving, and being generous with one's time and one's energy are important, always.

That's the lesson he left his friends and family, and that's the lesson I took home tonight.

Thank you, D.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Last Supper

It's been a rough week for dinner in our household.  Perhaps I am a bit spoiled by my daughters' general enthusiasm for meals, even those including swiss chard, kale, and mushrooms.  I certainly didn't see the gag reflexes coming on Monday when I made stuffed chicken breasts with quinoa and spinach, and on Wednesday when we had meatballs with pineapple and rice.  The spinach wasn't like normal spinach, apparently.  And the meatballs were "too peppery."

The complaining, and sighing, and retching were a bit much for me last night.  I threatened to quit. 

"No more cooking," I declared. 

"I will serve only carrot sticks and sliced turkey from now on," I promised.

Ears perked up.  "Or how about macaroni and cheese?"  Big Sis suggested.  So Not Getting The Point.

This evening, as I headed home with both girls in the car, the inevitable question arose. 

"Mom, what are we having for dinner?" 

"Something you don't like."


And then, Little Sis:  "Mommy, I don't want to have something I don't like for dinner." 

"I want to have something I like." 

"Is there any leftover macaroni and cheese?"