Friday, December 19, 2008

I'll be home for Christmas . . .

Well, the long-awaited day is here. We're heading to Colorado today to see my parents! Monica and her family will be joining us in a couple days, and I'm very excited to all be together. When you read this, would you please say a little prayer for traveling mercies? Thank you so much. If you'd like to hear one of our family's favorite Christmas songs, inspired by our beloved state, you can listen here.I also want to wish Nathan a happy birthday, as he turns 2 tomorrow. This photo is so him--full of energy and mischief, just like his daddy. Look at that spark in his eye! =) We love you, Nathan, and we take joy in watching you grow and learn.

Merry Christmas, everyone!
"Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" 2 Corinthians 9:15

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fall into reading final update

First, thanks to all who commented about the weather yesterday--so interesting. The temperature range was 77 degrees: -13 in Ontario and 64 in South Carolina. Crazy!

Here's a link to my original fall reading list, and below is an actual list of what I read these past 3 months:

-Shepherds Abiding by Jan Karon--This was my favorite of the list, and I reviewed the Mitford series here.

-Cleaning Up the Clutter by Emilie Barnes--I was interested in reading this because Monica found it so helpful. It wasn't my favorite, though I always enjoy reading about organization! =)

-The Girlfriends' Guide to Toddlers by Vicki Iovine

-Gorgeously Green by Sophie Uliano--plan to write some posts on this in January

-The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs--I was proud of myself for finishing this one "on time" (before we leave for CO so I can return it to my mom after an 8-month loan!) and will share some thoughts from it soon.

-Hints on Child Training by H. Clay Trumbull--still working on this one, which was recommended by a fellow blogger after this post. I will definitely post some thoughts once I'm finished.

I was disappointed I didn't get to as many books as I thought I would, but with working part-time and extra involvements, I really can't compare my list to what I plowed through last fall. Once I finish the child training book, I'm definitely going to seek out a novel--I love informational reading, but I could use a little fiction right now! Thanks to Callapidder Days for once again hosting this fun event.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weather woes

Last Tuesday morning was supposed to be our annual MOPS Christmas brunch. My mentor mom and I planned to go to the church Monday evening to set everything up, complete with holiday linens and china! Unfortunately, we got hit with an ice storm Monday afternoon and schools were canceled for the next day, thus canceling our brunch.

The leaders decided to try having the brunch this morning instead, so we set about revising our plans. However, once again--due to weather--the brunch was called off. Several inches of snow and sub-zero temperatures are expected today. Such a bummer!

There are many things I like about living in Iowa, but this is certainly not one of them. Yesterday morning, when I drove to work, the bank sign read negative 9 degrees--and winter's just getting started!

I'm curious--what's the weather like today in your neck of the woods? You don't have to give a specific location--just be general, but I think it will be fascinating to see what the temperature range is across the miles!
photo credit to Digital Agent on Flickr

Monday, December 15, 2008

Breath of Heaven

When I was growing up, my dad and I used to sign together in church. I don't remember how we got started, although I think we discovered sign language when my mom took a class at the local deaf school. I wish I could remember the first song we ever signed to, but I remember many of the others over the years. It's such a beautiful form of expression, and it became a unique ministry for my dad and me.

I have liked the song "Breath of Heaven" since the first time I heard it. But two years ago, when I was pregnant with Nathan and due the same week as Christmas, that song took on new meaning for me. I felt more connected to Mary and the nativity story than I ever had before. I decided to learn the signs to that song, and thought about sharing it in church. I was too nervous, especially being due so close to the time, and felt it was best kept a private act of worship.

Earlier this fall, it occurred to me that I would once again be pregnant during the Christmas season. I decided to talk to my pastor and the music leader about signing this song in church, and they agreed to let me do so. Yesterday morning, I was able to accompany these beautiful words in both services. While I was signing, a screen displayed various passages about Christ and his birth. I'm so glad I decided to participate in the Advent season in this way, and hope signing this song was as meaningful for others as it was for me.

(If you're unfamiliar with the lyrics to "Breath of Heaven," you can click here to listen.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

While he was out: a cabinet makeover

I don't know if you're familiar with the shows Clean Sweep or While You Were Out, but Eric and I have a good bachelor friend who I've been wanting to clean sweep for a long time! He is a wonderful person, and has many amazing domestic skills: the man makes yogurt and bread and even paper! However, organization and cleanliness are not his strong suits, and I wanted to give him a little help.

Earlier this fall, I surprised him by re-organizing his small and crowded pantry. I didn't want to stop there, so I asked him what other areas of his kitchen I could work on. He said his biggest issue was spices--he could never find what he needed, and thus would go out and buy another one. Upon beginning the project, I quickly saw what he meant:

Although I wanted to take absolutely everything out of the cabinet and start over, I only had a couple hours and needed to focus on the task at hand: the spices. Do you see them way up there on the top shelf? That was obviously a problem--no wonder he couldn't see what he had! I took down all the containers and counted them--there were over a hundred spice jars, not including things like extracts and flavorings! Here's a pic of them all spread out (some are even stacked on top of each other):As I started sorting them, I noticed quite a few duplicates. It was rather humorous to me at times. I've never even used allspice, and I think he had three containers of it! Whenever I could, I combined like spices to eliminate extra packaging. I set up a spice shelf near his cooking area and placed what I guessed were his most used spices on the shelf for easy access. After combining spices, if he still had more than two containers of the same spice, I set those jars aside so they wouldn't go back in the cabinet.

Next I grouped things together. He had a lot of flavorings as well as many spice blends for grilling, etc., so a friend and I labeled shoeboxes to contain those groupings accordingly:

I had a lot of fun working on this project, and have plans for dealing with those stacks of dishes in the next month or so. Our friend was quite pleased with the changes, and I hope it's helped him be able to find and use what he needs!

If you're wondering what I did with the remaining spices, I asked my friend if we could have a potluck centered around his "pantry excess." When cleaning out his pantry earlier, I'd come across quite a few staples and mixes that he said he would never use. About eight of us gathered for a very random dinner--each person was given a couple ingredients from the friend's pantry and asked to make a dish containing those items. It was a delicious meal, and a fun way to clear out our friend's shelves and have fellowship at the same time!

Note to real life friends: If you know/recognize the makeover recipient--please don't disclose his name in the comments. Thanks!


Many of you have written to ask how my dad is doing--thank you so much for your prayers and concern! I thought I should probably post an update about him, as well as a couple other things going on with us:

*Thankfully, the side effects my dad has experienced from treatment have been pretty minimal so far. He continues to be in pain from the cancer in his bones, so that's something they're still seeking solutions for. In addition, he has decided to pursue radiation, which will likely begin in January. Eric, Nathan and I will be traveling to Colorado next weekend, and we're so excited to spend special time with my family out there.

*I'm continuing to work at the college, and will do so until mid-January in this current position. Interestingly, the office I assisted earlier this fall has then asked me to re-join them in helping with a big event that's scheduled for February, so I plan to work part-time until a few weeks before the baby is born. (That big event will be here before we know it--we're just 3 months away!)

Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Silent night

Instead of battling crowds on Black Friday, I did the exact opposite. I went away by myself for an extended retreat. I've been wanting and needing to do this for awhile, but other things just kept coming up and I pushed it off. Several days in advance, I told Eric that I really needed to schedule a retreat for that Friday.

A friend of mine was traveling for the holiday weekend, so I asked if I could use her apartment for my time away, and she graciously agreed. I filled my backpack with books, journal and food and walked to my destination. On the way there, I felt both a literal and figurative weight on my shoulders. My bag was full, to be sure, but I also could feel that many thoughts and emotions had been building up inside me. As soon as I closed the door to my "haven" behind me, I burst into tears.

I'd been so overwhelmed with all that was going on and I needed time and space to just be quiet and to breathe deeply. What a gift those hours were to me. I cried, I prayed, I took a little nap, I read and I wrote. I also prepared and ate a simple meal alone in delicious silence. And when the time was done, I walked home with a much lighter load.

I know that for many of us this is one of the busiest times of the year, and I am reminded of a book entitled Too Busy Not to Pray. For me, these retreats are even more necessary when I am most busy. They help re-focus me, and that's something I need on a regular basis. Can anyone else relate?

If you are considering taking a retreat sometime soon, which I highly encourage, I posted some things I've learned about retreating here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The weekend: his and hers

Dead animals:Crafting, cookies and kiddo:I'll let you guess which pictures correspond with him and which with her--ha! =)

*If you're wondering about the tape measure--Eric entered one of his pheasants in a local longest feather contest. So far, he is winning, so it will be fun to see what happens. Unfortunately for me, the prize is a mounted pheasant (think taxidermy--yikes!)
*After seeing a photo of my favorite Christmas cookie on my sister's blog last week, I've been itching to make a batch. Delish! Those cute little jars are filled with peppermint foot scrub (1 c. sugar, 1/2 c. baby or olive oil, dash of peppermint extract, and some red sugar for color)--a little gift to each of the moms in my MOPS group.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Unplug the Christmas Machine, part 4

"For most people, the real problem with Christmas isn't that they are spiritually bankrupt or that Christmas is devoid of meaning. It's simply that they haven't taken the time to define for themselves what's most important to them about Christmas." --taken from Unplug the Christmas Machine

The authors observe that many of us plan out the details of our celebrations "right down to the kind of cranberry sauce" without first asking ourselves: Why am I celebrating Christmas? What is most important to me when I consider the Christmas season?

I don't know that I had really sat down to think about these questions so directly. From my reflections on what is important to me about Christmas, I realized that I want to place more of an emphasis on Advent and on the spiritual significance of the season. In addition, I highly value being together with family so I want to take that into account when planning activities and making outside commitments. I also think traditions are very important, and I'm excited for Eric and I to continue developing this aspect of our holiday. As I mentioned in the post on gifts, I hope that we will be able to refine our approach to gift giving as well.

Another exercise Kim gave me during our afternoon together was to imagine myself in the following situations and to select the one I found most satisfying:

A. You unexpectedly receive a check in the mail for $500 to spend on Christmas gifts.
B. You have the next two weeks totally free of responsibilities (including your job and the care of children) so that you can devote all your time to making Christmas gifts.
C. All your friends and relatives decide to scale down their gift giving this year, happily exchanging stocking stuffers instead of more elaborate gifts.
D. Gifts are reserved for young children. Adults celebrate by feasting, worshipping, partying, singing and playing games.

I'd love to hear from you: Which of these four imaginary situations seems most satisfying to you and why? I think I know what my sister would choose. =)

To end the series, here is the Christmas Pledge from the book that inspired these posts:

Believing in the true spirit of Christmas, I commit myself to
*remember those who truly need my gifts
*express my love in more direct ways than gifts
*examine my holiday activities in light of my deepest values
*be a peacemaker within my circle of family and friends
*rededicate myself to my spiritual growth

Thanks again for joining me in this series. There were many additional topics I had hoped to write about, including traditions, but the expanse of material available was too much to cover everything and I needed to follow the theme here and simplify. There's always next year!

I appreciated the depth in the comments from the week, and I always enjoy reading your ideas and hearing how some of these thoughts have challenged you. If you'd like to read some additional blog posts on "Simply Celebrating Christmas," Keeper of the Home hosted a wonderful carnival on that theme this past weekend. You can also read a review I did last year of the book Hundred Dollar Holiday.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Unplug the Christmas Machine, part 3b

Note: this is the second part of a topic started on Wednesday. Click here to read that post or to review the "rules" mentioned below.

What are some ways you've challenged the hidden rules of gift giving?

One example of a way I've tried to challenge these rules is in scaling back on gifts to my girlfriends, especially since most of them live far away. For one thing, I've shortened the list of recipients. Then I suggested a couple of years ago to a couple close friends that rather than sending gifts for both birthdays and Christmas, that we select just one giving occasion. I think this has been a good compromise, at least for the time being.
Another personal example: as our families continue to grow, I felt it was becoming too much to give a gift to each niece and nephew, but I still wanted to send something. Now we give one gift to all the children in each family (a book, DVD, or activity are some ideas of something they can all enjoy), as well as make a donation in their honor to the Christmas gift program from Samaritan's Purse.
I hope our families can continue modifying and adapting our gift giving in coming years, and I love what the book says in regards to suggesting alternative gift giving arrangements to your loved ones:

"When you talk with your family and friends, keep five points in mind. 1) Choose a relaxed and comfortable time when people are in an accepting mood. 2) Be clear about your reasons for wanting to make changes. 3) Be open to other people's opinions and suggestions. 4) Keep in mind that other people have done less thinking about gifts than you have and want some time to consider before they come to any conclusions. 5) Don't be afraid to experiment. You might want to try out an alternative gift giving arrangement for a year and see how it works, then make some changes the following year."
I think that's wise advice. I know this is a struggle for many people who don't know how to explain to others that they would like to give or receive gifts in a different manner than has been done in the past. I'd love to hear from you:
What are some alternative gift giving arrangements you've tried? How have you approached the topic of a new arrangement with your friends or family?

For more thoughts on simplifying gift giving, I loved this post--be sure to read the comments for some excellent ideas! And if you haven't taken the two minutes to watch this powerful video (Advent Conspiracy), I strongly urge you to do so.

Thanks for joining me in this series. We'll wrap things up Monday with a post (or two, if I get long-winded again!) about values and traditions. As always, I appreciate your comments and ideas, so thanks to all who've taken the time to share!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unplug the Christmas Machine, part 3a

Note: My editor (aka Eric) does not usually read my posts in advance, but I've had him read through each of the posts in this series to offer feedback before they're published on-line. It's been funny how I've been reminded of my college writing days this week, in the sense that I've been doing a lot of reading and preparing to put these together. All of that to say, my initial post for today was quite lengthy and dense, and Eric encouraged me to split it in two. I saw the wisdom in that suggestion and thus, what follows is part 1 of a series within a series =)--part 2 will be up on Friday.

Today we're talking about gift giving, which is clearly a hot topic when it comes to Christmas! Nathan is still quite young, but we really desire to cultivate an attitude of generous giving and gracious receiving, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

I was struck by a story from the book in which a 9-year-old boy gave his mom a list for Santa that was over 60 items long, and the mom was deeply troubled and unsure of how to proceed. According to the authors of Unplug the Christmas Machine, "Many parents find it a challenge to create a simple, value-centered Christmas in the midst of all the commercial pressure. But the task is made much easier when parents keep in mind the four things children really want for Christmas: relaxed and loving time with the family, realistic expectations about gifts, an evenly paced holiday season and reliable family traditions."

The writers suggest being specific about what kids can expect in terms of presents, as in one large gift, one small gift, and a stocking. Or, you could follow my mom's wonderful example (which I wrote about here in a fun post of some of our own family traditions). I also like the idea of parents giving 3 gifts to their children, just like the wise men brought to Jesus. In fact, somewhere recently I read of a parent categorizing the gifts like the gold (big ticket item), frankincense (something educational) and myrrh (something practical). (This is how I best remember it and I would gladly give credit if someone can reference the source!)

In talking about gifts, I think it's important (and somewhat humorous!) to acknowledge some of our ingrained beliefs and perceptions about giving. Check out this list from the book:

"The Ten Hidden Gift-Giving Rules"

1. Give a gift to everyone you expect to get one from.
2. If someone gives you a gift unexpectedly, reciprocate that year. (Or have prewrapped generic gifts set aside for just such an occasion.)
3. When you add a name to your gift list, give that person a gift every year thereafter.
4. The amount of money you spend on a gift determines how much you care about the recipient.
5. Gifts exchanged between adults should be roughly equal in value.
6. The presents you give someone should be fairly consistent in value over the years.
7. If you give a gift to a person in one category (for example, a co-worker or neighbor), give a gift to everyone in that category. and these gifts should be similar in value.
8. Women should give gifts to their close woman friends.
9. Men should not give gifts to their male friends, unless these are alcoholic beverages.
10. Whenever the above rules cause you any difficulty, remedy the situation by buying more gifts.

Which of these "rules" do you identify most with?

On Friday we'll talk about ways to challenge these rules, so get your thinking caps on!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Unplug the Christmas Machine, part 2

Another worksheet Kim had me fill out was about the amount of money spent at the holidays. At the top of the page, it said, "In addition to the obvious expenses of gift giving, there are many hidden costs to Christmas. This list will help bring them to your attention."

Here is the list, taken from our "textbook" for the week. (Kim asked me to place a check by all of the expenses that were part of our celebrations last year, so I did that here as an example.)

buying gifts X
craft supplies X
gift-wrapping expenses X
mailing gifts X
higher phone bills
extra dry cleaning
services such as housecleaning and carpet cleaning
higher food bills X
travel expenses X
loss of paid work hours
extra linens/bedding for company
higher entertainment costs X
tree and greenery
photo supplies and developing
more convenience meals during the holiday rush
Christmas cards X
postage stamps X
new holiday clothes
holiday tipping
donations to charities X

Whew--just reading that list can send us into a tizzy! It really is surprising how all these items add up.

Other questions to consider from the worksheet: What is your estimated total for holiday spending last year? Do you stick to a holiday budget? Is there clear communication between you and your spouse regarding holiday spending?

Thinking about these questions and our expenses and was another eye-opening exercise. It is accurate to say that many of the items on the above list are "hidden" costs of Christmas. I'm sure we can all find an area or two where we could cut back on our holiday spending.

Here are some ideas from the book on ways to save money on Christmas expenses: use cash instead of credit to pay for purchases; compare prices; buy or make inexpensive gifts (such as food items) and upgrade them with beautiful but simple packaging; consider the weight of an item if it needs to be shipped; buy wrapping and decorating supplies during post-Christmas sales to save for the next year.

The authors suggest keeping an expense log in which you record all money spent in the following categories: food, gifts, entertaining, travel, charity, family entertainment, decorations, and misc. This allows you to get a better picture of what you are actually spending, and will help you consider your budget for the following year.

Eric and I use the cash system all year long. Each month, we set aside a specified amount in various categories, including gifts and travel. Because we don't spend money each month on travel and gifts, these funds accrue throughout the year, so that by Christmastime, we don't feel the impact of spending in those areas. This also gives us a set budget for those categories, and since we use cash, we can see at a glance how much we have left to spend.

Interesting to note: According to a Gallup report, “Americans’ projected average Christmas spending this year, $616, is the lowest in Gallup’s 10-year history of tracking this question in its current format, and provides further evidence of the heavy toll the current economic turmoil is taking on America’s retailers.”

What are some of your ideas for cutting back on Christmas spending? Do you use a holiday budget?

photo credit to Shutterberry

Monday, December 1, 2008

Unplug the Christmas Machine, part 1

I explained the background of this series here in case you missed it. The title is that of the class and the book it was inspired by.

My facilitator for the afternoon, whom I'll call Kim, started me out with a set of worksheets to complete on my own. The first one was a list of dozens of traditional holiday preparation tasks (categories included gifts, baking/meals, decorations and hosting), and I was to cross out any that did not apply. Next to the items that are part of our Christmas celebrations, I was supposed to write either my initial or Eric's to indicate the primary person responsible.

Here are the things I learned from that exercise:

I crossed off a fourth of the tasks, relating to volunteer work, hosting relatives, and buying/disposing of a tree. (At this point, we don't do any extra service work at the holidays, we travel to our family for the holidays, and we have an artificial tree.)

Of the tasks remaining, I have an active or exclusive role in all of them. The thing is--I love the Christmas season, so all the gift-related tasks (and there were 7 of them involving the list, shopping, wrapping and mailing) are something I really enjoy. Kim suggested I ask Eric what is meaningful to him about these holiday preparations and to involve him more if he wants to be. As I said, I don't mind doing most of this stuff--it's fun for me! But it was a good conversation starter for me to ask him that question. I learned that overall he is glad I take care of most of the details, but there are certain responsibilities he said he would be more than willing to help with. Glad I asked! =)
Along that subject, there was an interesting quote from the book in which the authors responded to a man who asked how to help his wife slow down and enjoy Christmas. The writers suggested the couple sit down in early November to discuss their priorities for the holiday season. They said to the husband, "When she understands how important her company and peace of mind are to you, she will have more incentive to trim the 'To Do' list." They went on to recommend that the couple also discuss which tasks they considered to be essential to the enjoyment of the season. Essential is the key word. Many of us feel we need to do it "all," but we have to focus on what we and our families deem to be truly important. By interviewing men and children, the authors found that what is really desired at Christmas "is a house filled with love and acceptance, not a house decorated to perfection."

Back to the checklist of tasks, my last assignment was to make an "X" by any activity I do not value or enjoy. I was fascinated to see only one item with an X: "making or buying stockings." This may seem like a silly task to dread, but let me tell you this one issue has caused me much deliberation! My mom made personalized homemade stockings for us as kids, and Monica followed suit. I am not as gifted (or inclined) in the crafting department, but I definitely want special stockings, and preferably coordinated ones. Right now we're all mis-matched: Eric and I each have ours from childhood, and Nathan has a non-personalized but cute homespun stocking I commissioned my mom to make. I'm still not sure how to proceed with stockings, but it was helpful for me to realize it's the only Christmas task I don't enjoy. Kim offered a great suggestion that I ask my mom for help in this area--maybe even as a Christmas gift to us for next year. (So that's just a heads-up, Mom--I'll be talking with you about this soon!)
For those who feel overextended with holiday preparations, but who are unwilling to cut out many of the tasks, the authors suggest making a prioritized task list, placing the jobs you consider most important or most enjoyable at the top, and then working on the list in that order. That way you know you will at least get those things done, and can hopefully alleviate some of the pressure for the more optional or less enjoyable tasks.
One last quote I wanted to share from the book regarding how holiday magazine articles can make us feel pressured into doing more: "For women who can pick and choose wisely from all of the possibilities the magazines offer, they can be a valuable resource and a welcome incentive. Holiday craft and baking projects have their definite place in the celebration--they add beauty, originality, and excitement to the holiday. But they are not essential to a good family Christmas. In fact, they can draw energy away from more important matters. What many women need to hear from the magazines is they they can give their families an equally good or even better Christmas by doing less." I really connected with that, as sometimes I feel I need to make more gifts or more cookies, and I hope that these posts can be an encouragement to the idea mentioned at the end--sometimes less is more!

Your turn: Consider this checklist from the book, and note which tasks apply to your celebration, as well as the primary person responsible for completing the job. Then write down the tasks you don't value/enjoy. If you are married, you might also consider showing your spouse the list and discussing their role in the preparations, as well as their expectations and desires for the holidays. These are helpful exercises as we head into the Christmas season!

What are some of your favorite holiday jobs, and what do you dread each year? Are there tasks you could modify or eliminate from your list? As an example, Kim said that doing this exercise made her realize she did not enjoy the rush of getting Christmas cards out in December. So now she sends valentines instead!