Category Archives: holiday story(ies)

home (christmas) : holiday message 2016

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I had two competing ideas in my head as I moved into this holiday season. The first was centered around the idea of time, and how much of our (free) time has been spent on the design and drawings for our upcoming house project. I had ambitious expectations at the start of the year that we’d be able to get through that process by fall, but the complexities of the work and the various approvals and hearings we had to prepare for and get through, meant that the work continued through the late fall and even into this holiday season. After Thanksgiving passed, I had to make a decision – do I stop working on the house project for a period of time and dive into the holiday card making process, or do I forgo that tradition (now seventeen years long) and stay in house project mode? Neither option seemed appealing.

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Then I remembered an earlier goal of 2016 – that I wanted to build a physical model of the original house and the new additions. I had purchased the supplies to do so, but I never made it past that point. The various boards were repurposed throughout the year – for science projects and art posters and soiree signs – all of those things that keep us busy and active in any given year. There’s more than one lesson there, but the clearest takeaway for me is that my time is finite and I can only do what I can do and no more. It’s been a good exercise for me – understanding where I can do good work and am needed, and focusing my attention there, but also letting some other things go.

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This is a good practice for the holiday season, and I took the time to think through all of the joys – and demands – that there are during the month of December. I selected the ones that were important to our family, to me, and that I could contribute in a meaningful way, and I put those on the calendar. And then I politely declined on the rest. The cards were at the top of that list, and so I decided that maybe I could incorporate my work on the house into the work of the cards with the idea that sometimes efficiency can yield beauty. The tradition of card making is accepted in our family – I’m granted the space and the freedom to immerse myself in the process, and over the years that has become my favorite gift of the season. It connects me to others in ways that they may never understand, but it’s important to me. Having that space to work quietly and creatively is a respite in the bustle. So I decided to build a model of the house and then share those images with others.

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The second of those two competing ideas was the idea of finding comfort in a season (and year) that has been very uncomfortable. I could approach the idea of this year’s card as a symbol of comfort and peace – our home – but that idea felt like it was turning away from the real stress and worry and discomfort of the world around us. For as I focused this year on simplifying things – commitments, acquisitions, relationships – I also worked to broaden the narrative as well – to get out of my comfort zone and push myself into work that is important and needed. Much of that work will happen outside of my house, my family, this life that we’ve created and love. So I didn’t want to create a card with such an insular focus.

I remembered the card I had made in 2007 during another period of uncertainty and stress. It featured an ink drawing of the front of our house. I cut out strips of paper to add some dimension to the cornice and mansard roof details, and I made a stamp of a Christmas wreath and added it to the center of the house. I included this message on the front:

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it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.

it means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.

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Reading that message again hit right at the heart of what I was trying to do – how I connected the idea of the work of home branching out into the work of the world. We can do both, we try to do both. M and I view this project as a way of bringing to life the work that we do in our professions for our girls at home in a way that they can see and touch and experience. We want to instill in them the idea that there is a process to making things – space, a home, a life. If you take the time to understand the things that are important and are worth celebrating, then the work has a focus and a drive that can help you get through the work ahead of you.

But we also want them to understand the other work that we do, and that they can do, in the world outside these old (and new) walls. I want the girls to understand that we can make a strong commitment to our neighborhood (by planting firm roots within it), to our schools (by being active supporters), to our church (by participating and volunteering in important social justice and education work), to our city and nation and world (in a list too lengthy to include). There is noise, there is trouble, there is hard work. There is so much of it. It overwhelms me at most times.

I needed this card this year. I needed this process. I needed to spend the advent season reflecting on the corners and moments of our home that make me feel calm. I needed to think through and understand how I can energize myself to do the work ahead.

It is my greatest wish for you that you find both the energy and calm within yourselves and your homes to do this work ahead as well. I wish you peace in the coming year, and I look forward to working with you all.

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holiday message 2015

F lost her first tooth a few days ago. She’s almost six-and-a-half years old, and she was the only kid in her first grade class with all twenty baby teeth intact until a few weeks ago. Every six months she’d climb into the big dentist’s chair and he’d wiggle and tap and poke at them all and declare them snug as a bug. Sporadically in kindergarten, and then more regularly in first grade, she’d come home with exciting stories of the ousting of all teeth except her own. The class practiced their winter concert song for weeks – All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth – while she just wished hers away.

Then one night, as she was brushing her teeth, she yelled out. “Ow!” Sure enough, once the paste was spit out and the bubbles cleared, there it was. Her first loose tooth. Loose enough to tip forward to reveal the newer, larger version already cutting through the gum. The tooth dangled on for a week, and then another. She bit into apples and crackers and big, thick slices of bread hoping to dislodge it over dinner. Occasionally she’d take a tissue to bed so she could work on it in the dark, back and forth, back and forth, until it hung forward like a sad little balloon out of air. No one was allowed to come near it; the idea of losing it had lost its appeal, and now she was holding onto it with all her might – hoping for the ideal circumstances to show themselves before she lost it. And her ideal was constantly changing.

It came out, with little fanfare, in a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich in O’Fallon, Illinois. We’d spent the afternoon double wrapping all of our suitcases and wrapped packages and pillows in heavy duty plastic bags, loading them into the back of our pickup truck, and hooking a cable net over the top to keep them in place. It rained and rained all morning long, but the sun broke through the clouds just as we started to carry things out to the sidewalk, and then we were sweating, coatless in December, and starving. We dropped the last in-town gift off and headed east, looking for something quick to eat while we watched the storm system just ahead of us.

We backed the truck into a parking space at the front of the strip, and sat down at a table by the window to keep an eye on our luggage. We ate our sandwiches and drank our caffeinated sodas and fought the urge to take a nap. Then F held out her hand with a small sliver of white on it and announced that she had found this really hard piece of cheese on her sub sandwich. “I think that’s your tooth,” said M, and she vehemently denied it. “Smile,” he said, and she grimaced with a gap. We cheered and exclaimed over her luck at not swallowing it. She scowled and said she wasn’t ready to lose it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Arms crossed, and angry, but then I needed to go to the restroom and she followed. She stood on her toes and looked in the bottom of the mirror at the gap. A giggle surfaced, and then a full on belly laugh. “I lost my tooth in a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich and I thought it was a piece of hard cheese!” She repeated that again, and then again, pleased with her new narrative.

It was not the story that she had hoped for or planned for – and quite honestly, I’m not sure she even had another story in mind. I think she was actually nervous about having any story at all. Or maybe nervous about the unknown part of it. But we do not get to write our own story, despite the many times we are told that we are masters of our own pens.

I have struggled with this idea for a good part of 2015. Writing these stories is like second nature to me now, and I’ve grown accustomed to being able to take the small moments of any given day and weave them together into some sort of narrative about our lives. There is an inherent danger to this – it is easy to think that by merely writing something down we can make it so. Because sometimes it actually feels like that might work! When I look back at the last few years, there’s a part of me that is in awe of the goals we’ve set and carried through with. 2013 changed us in more ways than we initially thought it had. There is a real intentionality behind where we choose to spend our time and our resources; I’m much better at focusing, studying, and mastering a few things, and I’m also much better at letting go of other things that aren’t so important. I am stronger, tougher, more resolved. I have more confidence in my own abilities, less tolerance for intolerance in general.

Our girls are growing at lightning speed; they are far cooler kids than we deserve. I find myself pushing them – gently – not towards one certain path, but to the edges of a dozen routes, or more. I want them to be kind and respectful, but also weird and curious. They are delightful – even in those exasperating, exhausting moments, they fill me up to overflowing. When E was born, I promised her (written, signed, and dated) that I would not look at my girls as extensions of myself. I blurred that a bit in my writings here. Their stories often become mine; I weave their words in the ways that I see fit. It’s been an adjustment to let some of that go. I’m practicing on the older one so that I can rethink everything with the younger one. I fight the urge to delight you all with their tall tales – my efforts are needed elsewhere, in the hanging out and holding on for as long as I get.

In 2013 we got a swift lesson that very little in this life is really in our control. I use the word “lesson” here only because my writing and imagination rests at amateur status, not because anything about the loss of our niece was part of some overarching grand plan or teachable moment. The loss of her does not diminish in the passing of time; it is magnified by it. But other things are magnified as well, and when the hardest thing is getting out of bed in the morning, there can be a certain momentum found for lesser efforts. Determination can be a saviour; the only way to get through the work is to do the work. In 2014 I did the work. I fixed my feet, I rebuilt them, I pushed them further. I fixed my job, my attitude about work, and tackled some long-shelved goals.

At the start of 2015 we hit our groove as a family. We fell into a weekly rhythm that was equal parts gratifying and exhausting. M took on a much larger role at work and started traveling more, opting for less sleep over less family time. He often takes the first flight out and the last flight in on the same day so that he’s home as much as possible. I pick up the pick up routines more now, so often it feels like I’m cramming work into the smallest window possible. We work out regularly, I run whenever possible, we make dinner (sometimes weird dinners), we move children from point A to point B and back again, as you do in these years. We’ve gotten better at knowing what we’re better at, and we say ‘yes’ to others as much as possible. We say ‘no’ too, and that’s a revelation. I soak in the tub more, I have a glass of wine with dinner-making, I’m checking out books from the library again. My writing meanders and is longer than it should be. I still do not get enough sleep.

In January of this year I could picture December. I knew the arc of the story before it was written. It seemed like a good one, so I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride, in gripping weekly snippets, Serial podcast-style. And when I was unable to squeeze another minute of time out of our weeks to do something different and exciting, the disappointment was crippling. We are not in full control of our story, you might recall me saying earlier. I repeat it (only) for myself because my head is thicker to get through than most. This year did not reveal itself as an amateur version of a This Old House episode, despite my attempts to make it so, even with a carefully crafted outline and thesis statement. I wanted this year to be a big story year, but it just wasn’t. It was a year of small things, repetitive things, knit together in a fashion that will hopefully serve us well in the years to come. But that’s not newsworthy, and it certainly doesn’t provide much of a tidy ending. It felt good, but mundane, and that diminished it slightly. Autumn proved to be rocky, as the pendulum swung closer to the end of the year, unaccomplished. I lost the ability to write about the same thing over and over again. I wrote the year off; I readied myself for the holiday blur and the chance to start new in the next year. And yet…

In November, my sister had a little girl, a lovely surprise of a baby, perfect in every way. She entered the world, messing up everything in her wake as the birth of a new baby will. In December, my grandfather died, a lovely gem of a grandfather, perfect in every way to me. He left the world, messing up everything in his wake as the death of a grandfather will do. Here I had written off the year’s story before it even really started, before the stories of my grandfather were uttered and then woven into the stories of my newest niece. We draw together at the close of each year around the idea of a story – a faith story, a family story, a food story, a tradition story. We tell those stories in the way we greet one another, as we linger around the table, as we stay up into the late hours of the night. These stories are magnified by birth and death, and we’ve celebrated both in the midst of this season – what better season for it?

I did not have the time or energy to commit to my annual holiday card tradition – something that would have devastated me earlier in the year. My initial ideas can wait until another year. Instead, I rethought it all – the process, the product – and in the rethinking I had an idea. I may not control the way this next year will play out, but I can celebrate the potential of it. January, in its soggy, sodden state, is something of a gift. We get another go of it, and the thought of that is thrilling. I sketched out one possibility, stamped it in shiny gold foil, polished it to a shine, and put it out there. Let’s see where it takes us, shall we?

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Happy New Year – thank you for being part of our story.

xoxo

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For the nostalgic: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

holiday message 2014

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I’ve started and stopped this letter several times now. Every time I begin to recount the events of this year, the whole thing seems to focus so much on me which makes me uncomfortable. But many of the big things that did happen this year were about me, for better or worse, and my family deserves an immense amount of credit for supporting me through all of it. Earlier this year I had to have surgery on both of my feet at the same time, which left me unable to walk, drive, climb stairs or do much of anything beyond a slow shuffle for almost two months. As soon as I finished physical therapy post-surgery, I decided I’d sit for all seven of my licensing exams, one right after another. I studied during as many waking moments as I could for most of June and July, then September and October. For a week or two in November I played a little catch up around the house, before launching myself head first into the holidays. Life is full, it is busy, but having the time again to be creative, to pick up a novel and read for pleasure, to run again without pain – it is all so, so good. And so, so about me still. If you could see me right now, you’d see the discomfort.

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In December 1999, I decided to make and send out my own Christmas cards. I had recently finished up my graduate work, and I was living and working full time in St. Louis. I had a new apartment, a job that I loved, and a serious boyfriend commuting weekly between Minneapolis and St. Louis – which meant that for half of each week I had a lot of time on my hands. I decided to make a card with snowmen – cut and folded paper doll style, out of oversized sheets of watercolor paper. I can’t recall how I came up with the idea, but I do remember cutting out all the snowmen accessories out of colorful vellum. I made a list of friends and family to send them to, and off they went.

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When I headed back to visit my parents and friends, I noticed the snowmen everywhere, on mantels and nestled into wreaths. The guy that cut my hair left them up on the mirror well past the tacky cutoff for over-seasoned holiday decorations. People mentioned they hoped I would keep up the tradition, and several have kindly insinuated dire consequences for being left off of future lists. I’m fairly certain they were in jest, but who knows really.

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The tradition did continue. The cards were simpler in the beginning, but the ideas keep coming, and sometimes they develop a mind of their own, with a complexity to match. They have come to be a favorite part of each season’s preparations. It is a gift to have the time to sit in a quiet space and be creative.

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When I realized this fall that I’ve been at this for fifteen years now, I thought it might be fun to create a card that incorporated subtle nods to cards* from previous years. I took out all the old ones, and the idea started to form. Those little details were so much fun to make, but the central theme for the card this year isn’t so much about the cards themselves, but about how I’m feeling as this year comes to a close. It was a tough year (but really, aren’t they all in some way?), but I think we rocked it. I’ve rarely had to depend on my family as much as I have this year, but they stepped up in too many ways to count. I wanted to create a card that celebrated home, and a fireplace seemed like a good one. After numerous tries, I finally mastered a pop up fireplace and mantel. I stacked the wall above it high with books, and decked the halls for the season.

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In a year that has been trying and difficult at times, in a community that has been torn and battered, in a city looking for a new way forward, in a nation and a world and a planet longing for peace and justice, we are so grateful for where we’ve chosen to put down roots. I don’t think we could have imagined fifteen years ago what this life would look like now. It is deeper, and richer, and more colorful than I could have ever pictured. Thanks for letting me share a little of that with you each year.

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Wishing each and every one of you a peaceful season and a healthy and happy new year.

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*I put a little challenge in the card insert to spot the old card references. I’ll post the answers after the holidays!

Past Holiday Cards and Messages:

2007  2008  2009  2010   2010  2011  2012  2013