Christmastime in the Suburbs

photo credit: Fifi LePew via photopin cc

photo credit: Fifi LePew via photopin cc

The night we lit the first Advent Candle, the CenturyLink sales-guy came to the neighborhood and seduced us away from a tumultuous relationship with Comcast with low rates and the promise of cable. We haven’t had cable in half a decade. Maybe longer.

The CenturyLink kid came into our house, took off his boots, loosened his scarf and sat at our kitchen table in the glow of our Hope candle. He sat there while my kids refused to eat spaghetti and meatballs, and we asked him questions about his life while Andrew compared plans and signed the papers.

Within a few days, a dish had been installed into the roof of our house and four-hundred channels were streaming in. Most of the channels don’t interest me, but I am thrilled that the Hallmark Channel, with its nonstop “Countdown to Christmas,” is here now to make my wrapping/baking/cleaning more bearable during these Decemebering days.

On the Hallmark Channel, there seems to be an overabundance of female executives who are obsessed with their work and who have some Lesson to learn about the Magic of Christmas. And some attractive fireman/lawyer/novelist/woodworker to help them figure it out. I finish some, half-watch others, turn some off only a quarter of the way in when it becomes clear that they’re bad even for what they are.

The Hallmark Movies are like glasses of cheap red wine. One or two is fine. But take down any more than that in too short of a time period, and you find yourself nauseous and filled with regret.

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advent journalI made an Advent Journal out of ripped cardboard and scraps of pretty paper, and every day I try to write down something. A quote from my advent reading; a moment from our day; a scattered list of gratitude. In the mornings, when I am reading the pretty words, writing in my pretty book, I remember that Christmas is complex and shattering and revolutionary and heartbreakingly beautiful.

In the morning, I remember that when we say Peace, we’re talking about a great power — the kind that banishes every bit of unpeace. But by the afternoon, I am bogged down again in all of my middle-mess. A book that’s almost-but-not-quite done. A blog that’s been ignored; a pile of half-wrapped, half-finished gifts. Gift cards still to buy for teachers and bus drivers. Christmas cards to get mailed out.

In the afternoons, the Light fades into the afternoon gray, and I forget about that powerful peace, and all I can think about is the mess. The kitchen, strewn with dishes and the dishwasher that’s leaking and the laundry that’s piled up on the bed, waiting to be folded. I’m thinking about the upended lives of friends in pain, wanting to do something — feeling stuck in the middle of my horrendously messy house. Not sure where to start.

In the morning, I want to make my heart a sanctuary for God. I sit in the dim-lit living room, staring blearily at my Christmas tree, and I know in that moment that nothing I do can bring Christ into the world. The he comes anyway, without any of my hand-wringing angst, without my struggling and scraping and scrambling to make things “ready.” In the morning, I understand that making space is not about eliminating mess…it’s just about opening my heart up wide, wide, wide. As wide as I can.

But then.

Afternoon.

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I keep forgetting things at Walmart and having to go back the next day. I have been there a shameful amount of times this past couple of weeks.

On Saturday, when I went for laundry detergent and juice for the kids and a couple of other staples, there was a Santa Claus installed between the artificial Christmas trees and the toiletries. He was nothing like the magical, twinkling versions in the Hallmark movie — or even the moderately senile one we saw last week at Culver’s. This Santa was wearing a removable white beard with pronounced white elastic and could not have looked less jolly if he tried. Every now and then, he let out a half-assed Ho ho ho that sounded so strangled and hopeless it could almost make you cry.

So many illusions. All these strings behind the magic. It didn’t seem quite as exhausting until I was the one in charge of conjuring up magic for little people. Now it seems downright excruciating.

A few parents pushed their children toward the Santa, but the kids looked unsure…if not scared.  I wasn’t over there for very long — just long enough to grab a couple of gift boxes — but as I left, I watched a two-year-old burst into tears and resolutely refuse to get out of her cart and into Santa’s lap.

Probably best. If the photograph centered the picture even a centimeter wrong, neatly arranged bottles of shaving cream would find their way into the shot, shattering whatever illusion they might have been trying to capture.

*

I bought Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book and tried to read it to the kids, but at five and three, it’s too much for them. I kept reading the words louder and louder while they punched each other across my lap. I feel like Ann’s children do not respond this way when she reads to them and curse myself silently for doing a bad job of teaching my children the true meaning of Christmas.

What they actually interested in is Elife — our inherited Elf on the Shelf. They have a borderline unhealthy obsession with him, every morning waking up early to figure out where he is. One day, when friends were over, I heard Dane yell, “YOU GUYS. ELFIE IS WATCHING AND HE’S GOING TO TELL SANTA THAT YOU ARE BAD!” I smacked my head on the kitchen counter a few times and lamented my terrible parenting.

At three and five, Dane and Liam could care less about the Advent candles except for when it comes to who gets to blow them out. When I suggested that Dane and I go to the Dollar Store to buy a gift for his brother, he burst into tears and said, “But I want to buy a gift for ME!” and if I’d been alone, I’d have found a place to smack my head again.

I think that maybe we’re failing at Christmas, but then Andrew says, “Maybe this is the part where they learn the joy of expectation.” And for a minute I feel better.

*

I slide my credit card through the machine and buy a Chipotle gift card for the kid whose name I pulled off of the McDonald’s Christmas giving tree on a whim. I can do this — buy gifts for strangers. Feel a certain amount of satisfied goodness when I give it to the lady at the counter. We’re not poor — not in that way. Not rich of course— not free from money troubles — but not destitute. I can give good gifts to the people in my life. I can give good gifts to strangers.

In the morning, I am writing in my beautiful journal, feeling the gratitude of all of this.

But then Afternoon, and I feel just as poor as anyone else, standing in my fully stocked, wildly messy kitchen. I am not sure what it is I need to be delivered from, only that I am clinging to this story of a Deliverer born in Bethlehem.

I am desperate to believe that he will deliver even those of us who find our homes in the suburbs, our hunger and poverty not quite as physical but every bit as terrifying.

On the table — a pile of gifts that will communicate love, but not the kind of love that the world needs. On the counter — cookies that are sweet but that cannot fill our hungry hearts. Red wine that does not quench our thirst; Hallmark Movies on a reel whose fictional plots are a two-dimensional, shadowed attempt at capturing That Great Romance — the one I will never wrap my mind entirely around.

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santaChristmas is just barely over a week away, and I’m doing it wrong…and I’m doing it right. I’m rich and I’m poor. I’m giving, and also, I’m standing in my kitchen, destitute. I’m receiving something beautiful that I don’t feel, don’t understand, don’t know how to accept.

In the suburbs, the Christmas lights are glowing bright on lonely homes, and the trees are heavy with baggage and hope. The Walmart Santa is carrying his own set of demons, and the Hallmark Christmas Movies actors have washed out of hopeful film careers into this netherworld of sappy movies. They kiss, and the credits roll, but we all know that the story goes on past “Happily Ever After.” That it’s never quite that simple.

And it’s just another Christmas in the suburbs — just another month of seeking and being sought, of looking and losing and being found, found, found again by the God who always comes to the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways:

A manger. A big box store. The buzzing silence of your own hungry heart as you eat a sugar cookie in two giant bites over the kitchen sink.

What I’m Into – November 2014

what i'm into

This month has been all about the book.

I had this goal to finish my first draft of Book 2 by Thanksgiving, and so while other things happened during November, there was a giant book-shaped shadow over the entire month. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I deleted. Then I wrote some more.

I was bound and determined to hit that deadline (even though it wasn’t my publisher’s but my own self-imposed, arbitrary date). And it might have actually happened, if we hadn’t caught what I can only assume was the Bubonic Plague.

The kids and I went in for our flu shots, and we all ended up with some bastardized version of the flu mixed together with some nasty cough that we picked up at the pediatrician. Dane missed a day of school, and I had to cancel the three playdates I’d lined up for Liam the week before Thanksgiving (the ones at other people’s houses so that I could drop him off and go write).

Instead, the two of us spent the week laying on the living room floor, hacking and feeling generally miserable.

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I did try to power through, even with the Plague, and get the manuscript done, but I didn’t quite get there. And by the time I sent the first 53k words off to a friend to read, I hated everything about it. Plus everything else I’d ever written. Plus the entire word.

You’d think that, having already written and published a book, I would have my “writing process” figured out. Turns out, I don’t. What I learned this month is that I do not do well with trying to “power through” and get things done. I thought it would be so nice to spend a month just zoned in on the manuscript, and then I could sit back, breathe, and leave it entirely alone during the Christmas season.

As it is, it’s much more complicated than that. Writing, like anything, requires you to live in the tension between two realities. At least it does for me. I can’t shut myself away for weeks at a time, so I have to find try to find that elusive place of balance where I am present both to my work and to the life happening around me. It requires that sometimes I put my work away and do the dishes or play Ninja Turtles or have coffee with a friend. It requires that sometimes I find someone else to take the kids, drive away, and work.

It requires sacrifice and patience. It asks that I be willing to let go of timelines and expectations while holding on to faithfulness. It’s beautiful and terrible. I wouldn’t trade it…or wish it on my worst enemy.

In short, it’s been a complicated month.

Reading

It’s been a shameful month in the reading department. (See Overzealous Focus on Writing Deadline above.) But I did pick up a great little anthology at Half Price called The Writer on Her Workthe voices of several different women writers on their craft. In her introduction, the editor Janet Sternburg writes:

“When an individual writer tells of her day-to-day struggles, what we’re seeing in operation is a person choosing to continue, to grow, to not be silent. She is claiming her original impulse and carrying it forward — knowing that as she does so, she commits herself to change.”

I love that, and I’m grateful to these women’s beautiful voices for bolstering me up as I work through this last terrifying part of the writing process.

Listening To

I found Radical Face this month, who I really like. They’re probably old news, but I tend to be behind the times when it comes to music. I blame a decade of my life lost to DC Talk and Amy Grant and Newsboys. It takes a girl a while to bounce back from something like that.

Noisetrade has so much good FREE Christmas music over there right now. The Orphan Care Network has a particularly good compilation out, and I discovered The Calendar Years, who I really like. 

Watching

Still watching: Parenthood, Scandal, Grey’s, How to Get Away with Murder, Nashville, and Vampire Diaries, though did lose interest in Marry Me. It was little too goofy for my taste. Andrew and I finished Season 1 of Blacklist but not in time to catch up on Season 2…so we’ll have to wait until that comes to Netflix.

In addition to the usuals, there has been a light speckling of terrible (wonderful) Christmas movies. Oh, who am I kidding, there have been a ton. I’m not even going to try to count them because it would only make you respect me less.

I have all of these writerly beliefs in compelling stories with complex characters that mirror some unspeakable reality in our joint human experience… And then the Christmas season starts, and I shamelessly abandon it all in exchange for the fluffiest of holiday love stories known to man…most of which, inexplicably, star either Candace Cameron Bure or Haylie Duff. WHAT IS THIS ABOUT? Please tell me that I’m not alone and that someone else out there has this Issue too.

On my last What I’m Into post, an astute reader, Ryan, made this comment:

I don’t mean this at all to sound critical, really, but: holy cow, I can’t believe how much TV you watch! It’s a miracle you get as much other stuff done as you do!

Of course,he’s right. I watch an abominable amount of TV, and I realize that.

My secret is this: I rarely simply sit in front of the television and do nothing but watch. (The only time I do that is when I’m watching a show with Andrew, because it bugs him when I multi-task.) But mostly, I watch my shows on the Internet, days after they air. I watch while I’m folding laundry or loading the dishwasher or prepping a week of school lunches or making a lasagna.

It’s my little way of rewarding myself for all the Mom Tasks that I have to do. A little mind-game I play with myself. Not “chores.” ALONE TIME. TV TIME! WOO HOO! True, I could spend this time better. There are TED Talks to watch and podcasts that are full of useful information or even books on tape. But what can I say? TV is my special addiction. I can’t quit it, and I don’t even want to.

Other Things I’m Into

- A trip home to Chicago to see my family. And one last walk through the woods with my kids and my Mom before winter.

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- Hallmark Christmas movies

My parents have cable, which is why holiday movie viewing started so early and has been so embarrassingly…comprehensive. We do not have cable, so I tried to cram in as much sappy viewing as possible while I was home.

But then — CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!! The CentruyLink guy stopped by last night, and my husband switched us from Comcast on the spot, and I will have free cable starting next week.

Ryan — you thought I watched a lot of TV before. Just you wait until I can watch Christmas movies all day and all night without pause. Lord help us.

- Best friends having babies.

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If you’ve read my book, then you’re familiar with my two best friends from high school, Kim and Alissa. You should probably then know that they are both preggers, and freakily, due the exact same day. February 18th. Kim is having a girl, and Alissa’s having a boy, and I can’t even deal with it at all. I keep accidentally buying things for the new babies. It’s a problem.

How beautiful are they??!?!

– The first snowfall. I’m not THAT into this, but I’m trying to make my peace with winter. More about that soon.

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- Living room forts.

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(We way or may not be watching Rudolph. Before even Thanksgiving. I have SUCH A PROBLEM.)

- Christmas decorations copied from Pinterest

With the new bookshelves I bought this fall comes all sorts of space for new decor. So I took on a variety of Pinterest projects that I’d had my eye on for a while.

Andrew helped me create this sign out of reclaimed lumber. (Tutorial here.)

He took apart and reassembled a pallet and drilled the holes for the Christmas light stars, and I stenciled on the words and the wise men.

I’m in love with how it turned out. It might be my favorite decoration currently in the house.

pallet art

I also did these — a quote from The Polar Express, a chalkboard Christmas tree, JOY nail-and-string art, a glittery reindeer bust and a piece of snowflake art. I don’t know if you can really see it all here, but it looks pretty awesome if I do say so myself.

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I put all of our Santa pictures up on the old shutter by our front door, made a garland of cinnamon stars to hang on my kitchen window, and found a bargain on this pretty frame for our Christmas cards at Home Goods.

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And ADVENT…so bags with our Jesse tree ornaments and some chocolate. (I ordered Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book a little late…and I’m looking forward to trying it out with the kids!)

jesse tree bags

And book presents…one storybook every night until Christmas. (I bought them all from garage sales and thrift shops years ago, and I just keep re-wrapping them every year. For the first year, Dane is starting to catch on. “Hey! We opened this one before!!)

book presents

I know. There should be support groups for this.

- And of course getting a Christmas tree. As much as I wish we were a “go to the woods and cut down your own” kind of family, we’re a “spend 5 minutes at Lowe’s picking out a half-dead, green spray-painted tree” kind of family. Whatever. It’s fine.

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Book and Blog:

I’ve already told you about the book, so let’s not talk about that anymore. Or the fact that I’ve barely blogged all month.

Let’s talk about the fact that it’s Advent Season. There are a lot of wonderful bloggers doing Advent series. (If you read nothing else, check out John’s wonderful words at The Beautiful Due. He’s amazing.)

I’m not doing that, though last year I did do a little series on Christmas mindfulness, which included the following posts:

This year, I’ll probably just share what’s going on in our little corner of the world, as we try to wade into the Advent season in mindful, imperfect ways. I hope you’ll keep following me, even though my posts have been erratic at best.

I did write one post that is especially meaningful to me about my friend, Stephen, who had a surgery go wrong and now lives with chronic pain. He introduced a concept to me called “redemptive hygge” which has stayed with me in a very powerful way and that I will continue to bring up again and again on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, please go read it now. And if you can, support Stephen and his family.

Thanks for sticking around even though I’m totally unpredictable lately.

I’m linking up as usual with my lovely friend Leigh Kramer for What I’m Into.

What about you? What’s your November been like? Less angst-y (and Hallmark-obsessed) than mine hopefully?

Chronic Pain and the Grace of “Redemptive Hygge”

He goes by Stephen now, but when I knew him best, he was just “Steve.”

I met him when I was fifteen and on fire, and we became unlikely friends. Him with his punk rock awesomeness; me with my eternal good girl persona.

In the following photo, you will note, he is rocking the frosted tips, Shaded Red visor, and some seriously awesome neckware. And I’m wearing the not-so-clear clear braces and my usual ponytail. I’m fairly sure that tucked under neath that gray undershirt is a necklace I’ve created entirely of tiny gold safety pins to try to embrace my own punk-rock alter-ego. (Not surprisingly, it did not work.)

steve and addie

I sent Stephen this photo today via Facebook while we were discussing this post. “Remember these wacky kids, on their way downtown to Acquire the Fire??”

“Ha!” He said. “I remember they had everyone go out to different corners of the arena for where in the world you wanted to be a missionary. I can’t remember where I picked, but they spammed me with phone calls and mail for a year or two.” Oh Teen Mania.

I haven’t seen Stephen since high school, but he is one of the best people I knew during my on fire days.

Soon after we graduated, he got married, and he and his wife moved to Denmark. He became a scholar and a teacher and the very best kind of “missionary.” He wrote a Master’s Thesis about how to educate young people without sending them to seminaries or discipleship schools. He had two beautiful kids; he was teaching and speaking and taking the most beautiful photos.

And then this happened:

[If you can’t access the video, here’s the gist: In August 2013 Stephen, husband and father of two, had 3 aneurysms bleed in his spinal cord. When doctors operated to stop the bleeding, the procedure damaged his spinal cord and left him an incomplete tetraplegic with a condition called Brown Séquard Syndrome — which includes chronic pain.]

 

I think a lot these days about the ways our lives go off the rails. We set out to do beautiful and incredible things, and then, with one swift tug, pain or tragedy or a surgery gone horribly wrong comes in and changes everything that we thought our lives were about.

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself in a new space in my life, in which I’m surrounded by friends who are experiencing chronic pain of their own. Not always physically, like Stephen’s…but just as tangibly. My friend Barb, who lost her 12-year-old son Jack two months ago today, and who feels him constantly, like a phantom limb, aching. Another friend battling cancer, another infertility.

And here’s the thing: I think that Christians tend to be great in a crisis. When the tragedy first happens, we are there with the a million frozen meals and cards and flowers and prayers. When there’s a funeral, we show up in earnest, and we cry and bring dozens of cookies. We’re good at being there…initially. We’re not great at staying.

To be honest, it’s not just a Christian problem. It’s a human problem. We get stir-crazy in one another’s pain, fear it, find ourselves speechless and awkward in the face of it. In a cultural — and Christian — ethos that’s so often about conquering and victory and getting through the valley to the other side, there’s little space for the people who find themselves walking in a valley that has no end in sight.

Fifteen years ago, when Stephen and I sat on that yellow school bus, taking an old-school selfie with an actual film-fed camera, on our way to learn how to ACQUIRE THE FIRE, I never would have dreamed that this is where we’d reconnect. And yet this too is holy ground.

This piece that Stephen wrote on his Facebook page recently made me think of all of you, all of us — of everyone who might be in pain, feeling lonely, waiting for joy. Please welcome him here, give him your encouragement, and then click over and support him in this hard, new journey that he finds himself on.

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One of my favorite public speakers is Brené Brown. Here is just one gem from her talks:

“When we start losing our tolerance for vulnerability, uncertainty, for risk — we move away from the things we need and crave the most like joy and love and belonging, trust, empathy, creativity.”

Some days ago I received a spontaneous text from a friend named Christian–a Norwegian artist living here in Copenhagen–telling me he would be done with work soon and that, if we wanted, he could “come over and hang out or help with anything for a few hours.” I say spontaneous because, in Denmark, most meetings are pre-arranged with calendars made days or weeks in advance.

I had recently opened up to him over a pre-arranged coffee date about how lonely it can be for people like us–those who suffer, have sicknesses or who are facing some kind of serious crisis. And we discussed many of the possible reasons why. There is one we centered on.

In Denmark there is a concept called “hygge” that is quite special and valued. There really isn’t a great translation although the closest word we have in English is “coziness”. But it is definitely the goal for most gatherings or get-togethers. And Danes have really learned how to create these cozy spaces. Dawn recently saw a sign in a shop that gave their attempt at a definition:

hygge (n.) a complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle soothing things

I shared with him how from now on, our lives and our story could never be that kind of hygge. And perhaps that is why we have felt so lonely. I said this because our family really needs some people who aren’t afraid to come into our home with all of the pain, stress, chaos, uncertainty, annoyances and sorrow. Friends who can meet us right here in our reality and yet find ways of drawing out experiences of joy, laughter, grace and hope. A “redemptive hygge” if you will.

I wrote back to him, “maybe… what were you thinking?”

He replied, “Since the weather isn’t all that, I was thinking I could bring a canvas and some paint, and we could make a big painting together”

To be honest, our kids were restless that day and had more than a few tantrums. My pains were pretty high. Our house was kind of a mess. We hadn’t planned on having anyone over. But I had been vulnerable and open with him just days before. Now he was being vulnerable and courageous enough to listen and act. Finally, we chose to be vulnerable and let our friend come over even though we were quite unprepared.

And then something amazing happened.

Christian showed up with a large canvas and his arms full of different kinds of acrylic paints. We got out a big white bed sheet, rolled back Hope’s rug, and we all began to paint. Hope got started with lots of pink. Esben became fascinated with making hand prints and covering his hands with blue and purple paint and making impressions. And Christian began to teach us all about layers and textures. His passion became ours. Two hours passed and we not only had a unique and I’d say beautiful piece of art — but we all experienced what we crave and need most as humans: joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We all came away transformed.

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We washed off as much paint from our hands and arms as possible and then gathered around the table for some home-delivered pizza. We were all smiling. We were all laughing. All of the pain, fear, and anxiety had been muted by this one courageous act of “redemptive hygge”. As Christian gathered his things to leave for the evening he got more than a few hugs and kisses from our kids. But our two year old summed it up best when after his second to last hug he told Christian, “I love you!”

Later in the evening, Christian wrote about how touched he was when Esben said that, and added how much he enjoyed his evening with us (despite all of the seriousness of our suffering).

We have just over a month left in this campaign and we are far from our goal. Please keep sharing our story: http://youtu.be/3OwMCZ31VpU, our link to the campaign page: http://www.stephenfights.org and ask your networks to see if they’d be willing to offer a little end of the year donation. Ask if they would help by #standingwiththesandovals.

There is no question that the money raised has already helped us and has set us up to be able to pay for some vital things in the year to come. We definitely need more and we hope that with your help we can achieve it some how. But if we are really going to win this fight–if anyone that is suffering is going to “win” their fight–it will come from because of people courageous enough to be vulnerable enough to face their own pains and brokenness so that with empathy a “redemptive (and transformative) hygge” can occur. It’s something we all need in the end.

We look at our special painting every day. And it gives us hope. I hope this story from our lives can help you in some way.

Love, Stephen, Dawn, Hope & Esben

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I don’t often ask you guys to donate to causes or to open your wallets here at the blog, but I’m asking you today. Stephen and Dawn are not just some of the best people out there — they are also wise and insightful, and I think the world needs more leaders and voices and stories like theirs. Honest ones about pain. Beautiful ones about hope.

Please, stop by their GiveForward site, and give what you can.

Chick-Lit Church [at Deeper Story]

I know. I’ve been off the grid a little again. I’m working hard to finish my manuscript by Thanksgiving, and I’m closing in. I may be a bit quiet until then, but hopefully I’ll be back again full-force afterwards…just in time for that beautiful season of Advent.

In the meantime, I’m over at Deeper Story today, working out some of my angst with the Christian romance novel picture of “Church.” Here’s how it starts.

Girl could write a love story, and I was desperate for love.

It wasn’t so much the boy-girl variety that I longed for–I already had that–a dreamy college boy who would eventually become my husband. No, the kind of love that I was swoony for was the perfect church. The Christian friends-turned-makeshift family. The community I’d been wanting so desperately and hadn’t yet found. A group with whom I could sit on the deck and share all of my secrets and receive biblical wisdom and genuine prayer and all kinds of understanding and hope and love.

And Girl could write that love story better than all her others.

In her eight-book Glenbrooke fictional series, she concocted an entire town in love with God and with one another. At the front of each book, an illustrated map showed just how close everyone was to one another: Brad and Alissa’s house just off of Main Street. Kyle and Jessica up on Madison Hill. Seth and Leah out in the woods, and Shelly and Jonathan at Camp Heatherbrook. Every love story surpassed challenges and ended in another adoring, godly marriage. And then, inevitably, each of the couples became the best of friends, gathering for major holidays, baby-talking sweet things at one another’s children, grilling kebobs in the backyard at Easter.

[Continue reading at Deeper Story here.]