Here comes the sun.

I’ve felt a little scruffy this brand new year.  The snow and ice sit-in was fun at first, but by Monday night I was ready to put the kids in a sled and push it—gently, mind you—down the nearest hillside just to get five minutes (or five hours) alone in the house.

See, much as I love(ish) winter break, I do not think it was intended to last as long as the Flood.  I’ve gained a whole new respect for Noah’s wife, trapped in that stuffy boat with crabby kids and cluttered quarters, because after two and half weeks of in-home partying (read:  house trashing), we ended the Big Laze with cancelled church, cancelled school, delayed school, delayed school, and delayed school again.  It was a dream for the kids.  FOR THE KIDS.

And speaking of the kids, and the house, and the kids-in-the-house-for-three-weeks-straight:  the Christmas Bomb seems to keep exploding in said house, on a twelve- to twenty-four hour rotation, even though the Big Day was over two weeks ago.  I’ve done nothing but bend over and pick things up since Thanksgiving, but the gifts just keep on giving.  Like a pebble tossed in a lake, each new gadget creates its own ripple effect of chaos, culminating in a three-foot radius of Crap circling every side.  The tree may be down, but the piles still stand high.

Come on, mom.  You know about The Piles.

I’m wading daily through piles of clothes–new ones with tags stuffed beneath old ones needing washed (really kids, why separate them?), piles of baked goods (stale and grody, but we’re not picky), and piles and piles of papers–important gift receipts, important gift cards, important thank-you card lists because I swear I’m gonna write thank-you cards this year, all buried beneath crumpled grocery lists and scribbled-on post-it notes:  return gifts!  use gift cards!  write thank you cards!

And then there’s The Wrap:  gift wrap, bubble wrap, cellophane wrap, plastic wrap–they’ve all nested, mated, and are breeding with vigor in my home.  Just yesterday I bent over (again) to retrieve what appeared to be a cross breed of gift/plastic wrap:  it was red-colored Saran, brought in special for the holidays. Ethan had wound yards of the stuff around a sock snowman he’d made for his sister, apparently hopeful that, though the red is transparent, the sheer volume applied would mask the poor creature’s identity til the moment of unveiling.  (It didn’t work, but sister played along valiantly.)

But oppressive as they may be, The Piles and The Wrap are nothing compared to The Blankets.  Tell me, oh sisters-in-post-holiday-suffering:  what’s with the blankets?  They. are. everywhere.  Slung over the back of the couch, hanging off the side of the chairs, dripping down the seats of my car, wadded in the corners of the family room, spread over the entire living room floor, flat and wrinkled and on purpose, as though we are an Afghan family preparing for Ramadan instead of an American family cleaning up after Christmas.

Wait.  Did I use the word family next to cleaning?  Oh, that’s richer than the stale apple pie coagulating in my kitchen.

What I meant to say is that I am a mother cleaning up after her family’s Christmas.  They’re still having fun, and I’m still bending over.  (And I’ll bet you three lamb kabobs that Afghan mothers are doing the same two weeks after Ramadan.  And if the cross of motherhood is no respecter of nations, you can bet they’re not happy about it either.)

So last night, despite my anticipation (dread) of another late morning, I set my alarm for six a.m., determined to get my own self, at least, back on some kind of sleeping/waking/eating cycle that doesn’t mimic that of a frat boy.  And when the alarm chimed this morning, I’m proud to say that I got out of bed a mere forty-minutes later.

I stumbled downstairs and crawled on the stairmaster, ready(ish) to take on the new year.  My feet plodded slowly (who made these pedals so heavy?) as I surveyed the nine blankets rumpled across the floor, looking as groggy and grumpy as I felt.  I knew that restoring my pre-holiday habits would eventually feel good, but right then it just felt bad.  And hard.  And kinda depressing—probably because it felt so bad and hard.

Fifteen minutes in, I almost quit.  Because, I thought (while hyperventilating), would one more day of frat boy life really doom me in the end?  I was just about to hit the cancel button when I looked up out the window and happened upon this:


 (photo courtesy of Derrick P. Smith, aka the Hub)

A sunrise.  And with it, just moments after this picture was taken, the sun.

The sun.  And everything that hot, melty, pink-orange-red perfect sun implied:  that something good was about to happen.  That things were going to change.  That the dark, the cold, the chaos, The Piles, the stifling hibernation of winter–none of it was permanent; it was not our new reality.  The sun told me that one day—not too far off—the snow and the mess and the sugar-crabbed, housebound kids would be a memory and we’d be looking forward to the light, fresh-air, happy days of spring.

I finished my workout and, before any of my lazy kids got up to start another lazy day, took a lazy moment myself to sit on the (blanketed) floor, look out the window, and stare at the sun.

We’re gonna get through this winter, moms, I know we are.  Know how I know?  Because today, the sun said so.

The last week of December

The last week of December is my favorite week of the year.

Despite—or maybe because of—my flighty nature, I savor the silent march of days that escort out the old year and make space for the new.  This humble piece of time tucked between Christmas and New Years is largely ignored by the social calendar, and I like it that way.

During the last week of December, friends and family seem to operate under a tacit agreement that we dare not verbalize for fear it will shatter:  Don’t call.  Don’t stop by.  I’m sleeping.  I’m cleaning.  I’m thinking.  I want.  to be.  alone.  After the noise and color of Christmas, can you blame us?  Solitude is bliss for the harried parent, grasped in occasional snatches at best.  But the last week of December is benevolent in this regard; parties and shopping are over, kids are content, and the house falls surprisingly still.  We grownups are suddenly, blessedly, left alone.

I love the happysad ritual of looking back over the last twelve months, wondering where they went and how I’ll ever get them back.  With words?  Pictures?  None of it works, so I’m resigned to a soft sigh:  ah, another year gone, slipped out the back door while I was busy in the kitchen.  I look out at the lonely silver sky and soak up the bare-treed bittersweet of it all.

Remember, after your semester finals, when you were the last one to leave the building?  You’d walk down the hall in that gray slant of early afternoon light, accompanied only by the the smell of wet nubby carpet and old textbooks and winter.  You couldn’t wait to get out of there, and yet you found yourself lingering for just a minute more.  There was something intoxicating about inhabiting a once-important space that had, with the turn of the clock, now become useless.  What was noisy and big was now silent and small, and so you stood taller within it.  In that empty hallway you felt changed; stronger, smarter, ready for what was next.  In that small solitude, you were making big plans.

And so the last week of December is for me.  In the quiet collapse of this year, I’m making grand plans to open the next.  I’m standing in that empty hallway, excited and a bit apprehensive, for how will I function without the old familiarity?  What will I choose to become next?

I love the fresh white page and newly-sharpened pencil of it all.  I love scribbling out a future narrative for my life that, though perhaps a bit dreamy and far-fetched, captures the swirling ideas in my head and binds them to words on a page.  Regardless of whether that narrative is ever realized, I think it’s pretty important that we write it.

Don’t you?

Christmas in the calm.

On December first, I said a prayer.

It wasn’t a prayer for the homeless or the hungry or PeaceOnEarthGoodwillToMen.  It was a prayer for me, and only me.

Selfish, I know, but I needed it.  And so I said it.

I prayed that, this year, I would enjoy Christmas before 6 pm on December twenty-fifth, which is about the time the colossal tasks of shopping, wrapping, mailing, cooking, cleaning, and fibbing (“I love it!”) are over and I finally get to sit on the couch, open up whatever great book my dad got me, and relax.

This lasts approximately three hours.

I then will myself to get up off the couch and at least “soak some pans,” thus commencing the colossal task of Cleaning Christmas Up.  This lasts approximately four weeks.

I’ve spent too many years saying “I love Christmas” when what I’m really saying is “I love December twenty-sixth.”  (January twenty-sixth, actually, according to my Christmas Cleanup Calendar.)  And call me hopeful, but shouldn’t the warmth and cheer of this good season envelop me during, well, this good season, and not just the days following it?  Shouldn’t I rejoice in Christmas, and not just the fact that it’s (finally) over?

I’m not a Scrooge.  I do love the glow of the season, but the older I get, it seems that rather than basking in it, I’m squinting at it from afar.  And what I’m really basking is the constant buzz in the back of my mind, screaming at me to:

  • Find personal and meaningfulgifts for: the kids, the hub, the parents, the in-laws, the nieces, the nephews, the brothers, the sisters, the brother in-laws, the sister-in-laws, the teachers, the piano/guitar/violin instructors (no wait, the violin instructor’s Jehovah’s Witness–score), the church friends, the neighbor friends, the groomer, and the dog.
  • Pull ten large red tubs down from high, high shelf in the garage (note to self:  do not attempt to do this by standing on the garbage dumpsters for support.  Things didn’t turn out well for you last year.)
  • Haul dusty tubs into living room and watch as the kids dive in. Set up tree, hang stockings, an spend the next four days trying to remember where everything in those freaking red tubs is supposed to be displayed on your walls.
  • Christmas Cards!  Schedule family pictures; shop for outfits for each family member; take family pictures, order family pictures (no one will notice how fat you look, just order them already), import family pictures into specialized online greeting card service that will outshine last year’s (and hopefully, your neighbor’s) attempt, order cards, address and stamp cards; where applicable, sign each card individually, with a personal and meaningful note.
  • Plan and carry out personal and meaningful family traditions which may include, but are not limited to:  making thoughtful homemade cards and gifts, making and delivering treats baked with love, leading the children in a personal and meaningful Christmas service project (preferably drawn out over two weeks with multiple, anonymous, creative gifts driven and dropped off, by you, right at bedtime), providing said children with darling advent calendar filled with sweet surprises for each day of the month, taking said children Christmas caroling, attending The Nutcracker as a family ($25 a ticket–ouch!), leading said children in purchasing and donating food and gifts to local charities, attending and helping with various church dinners and parties, leading said children in a “Bethlehem Dinner” and Nativity Play on Christmas Eve (costumes, please), and a traditional Scandinavian breakfast on Christmas morning (deviled eggs, please), in which you will surely burn the deep-fried rosette pastries, as you burn them every year.
  • Plan and purchase food and ingredients for Special Christmas Baking, Special Christmas Snacks, Special Christmas Eve Dinner, Special Christmas Morning Breakfast, and Special Christmas Day Dinner.  Of course you should use your mountains of spare time to prepare all food before the holiday; plan carefully so that frozen things stay frozen and thawed things get thawed, and be sure to map out a detailed oven/freezer/fridge schedule for the Big Day.  One misstep and it’s Christmas ’03 all over again.  You remember.
  • Read meaningful Christmas books, watch meaningful Christmas videos, and listen to meaningful Christmas music.  Do it until you love it.
  • Capture the moments.  On camera, on video, online, in your heart.  Don’t forget!  It’s all on you, Mom.
  • Teach your kids, emphatically, about the True Meaning of Christmas.  Don’t forget!  It’s all on you, Mom.

Unlike most of my posts, there is little hyperbole in this list.  Do you see why I needed a prayer?

I bet your list looked a lot like mine, and I bet you said a prayer too.  And I bet it sounded a lot like mine:  a plea for help in calming down, keeping perspective, and enjoying, rather than enduring, the merry month of December.

Did you get an answer to your prayer?

I did.

And it came, as most answers to prayers come, not through direction from without but rather a shift from within.  I’m not sure how, but amidst the aforementioned Colossal Tasks, I have felt calm, and quiet, and contented.  I have felt peace.  After I said that prayer, I decided that I would do what I had time for, and what I had energy for, and what simply sounded fun.   Outside of that, my only obligations were to sleep seven hours a night and hang out with the kids as much as possible.  And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

And guess what?  Everything that needed to get done got done.  (Or done enough.)  And everything that didn’t can wait until next year or fall off the list for good.  I decided that traditions exist to serve us and not the other way around, so I say What Stays and What Goes.  And I realized how good I feel when I’m not operating on a sugar coma, so why endure late night baking when I could be reading something great?

I also decided that sometimes giving a gift card is just fine.  Even some of those service projects—important as they are—will be perfect for New Years or Valentine’s Day, or just down the road for fun.  We don’t have to cram a year’s worth of Christian service into one week, and if we’re desperately trying to, we may want to examine how much we’re serving the rest of the year.  Christmas is about joy in our relationships, not hysteria in our hustling about.  When we try to do everything, it starts to mean nothing.

The house is a mess.  Right now, at our house, we have a tacky tree that I allowed my nine-year old to decorate (he insisted on the mismatched lights and chintzy paper star); cupboards and closets bursting with discarded decor, half-finished gifts, and wads of wrapping paper; a disaster of a pantry overflowing with half-full boxes of oranges (well-intentioned casualties of several school fundraisers) and powdered sugar bags that have yet to be whipped into cookies that I have yet to bake.  Not to mention the perma-pile of laundry looming on the couch upstairs.  I tell my kids:  if you want to wear it, go dig it out—those are my glad tidings.

The house is a mess.  But around that mess has been beautiful Christmas music playing every day (thank you, Pandora) and chatting with my kids by the fire every night (thank you, Cascade Natural Gas.)  Around that mess we’ve enjoyed the happy hum of quiet but real service, real talks, real people, real joy.  Not department store pretty, just red-faced and real.  And yes, even reverent.

The house is a mess, but my heart is at peace.  Because after sixteen years of motherhood, I’ve finally learned that the best parts of Christmas are found in The Mess.  The tacky tree, the sloppy wrap, the sticky floors and the unfinished to-do list—these are what make our family’s Christmas different from a department store’s; these are what make our Christmas mean something to us.  The kids don’t want perfection, they want a Mom who dances with them on that sticky floor, laughing and whispering about all the good things to come.  It’s all on you mom.

It’s all on us.

We can go all the way and “win,” or we can go partway and have fun.  We can live to impress or live just to love.  We can choose tidy and tired, or messy and magical.

As for me, I’ve done tidy and I’ve done tired and I’m not very good at either.  But I’m discovering that I’m pretty darn good at messy.  And I choose messy.