I think the ideas for our card this year might have started back in early spring when the girls and I headed out on a nice afternoon into the backyard to do some sunprints.
We had gathered items from around the house, inside and out, and we filled the back porch with beautiful papers of blue and white. I thought briefly about purchasing more paper and doing the holiday cards this way, but then I realized that December is not April, and put that idea quickly to bed.
One of the things I thought about was connecting myself back to the things that I like to do, things that I wanted to try, or – in some cases – things that I didn’t necessarily want to do, but needed to do, so that they stopped hanging over my head, manifesting as additional stress.
February rolled around and, after a three year lull, we actually had quite a bit of work, and all of it due at the exact same time. I went back to full time work, and then some, working late nights and some weekends. I certainly didn’t get 52 projects completed at home this year, but we tackled some really big ones, and I’m proud of the things that we accomplished despite our limited time to work on them.
One of the things we started to work on was finishing off the back room to give us space to work on projects outside of the main thoroughfare. We painted that back wall a dark, inky black – not chalkboard paint, but that sort of color. The white of the trim and desk, and later the shelves that we hung above, was so nice – and certainly was part of the thinking behind the card.
Chalkboards were something on my mind for sure this year, as we found ourselves fully caught up in the juggle of two sometimes over-employed parents, juggling schedules and trying to keep a zillion balls in the air. I had project ideas for finding ways to remember everything we needed just to get out the door. When May rolled around I think I was near my breaking point, and I felt like I just couldn’t store another thing to remember in my head.
I’m quite sure that chalkboard paint factored in there.
We also spent a lot of 2012 eating at new places and connecting to the ones we loved the most. In November I traveled with my mother- and sister-in laws to New York, and we had some of the most delicious meals in small spaces with menus written in chalk on the wall. Chalkboards make me think of handcrafted food and bakers twine. They aren’t perfect, but they are always changing, and that means the best things get written and re-written on that wall.
And then our family connected back to painting – watercolors in particular. You might remember this afternoon when F turned that idea in her head into something visible on the paper. If I had to choose a highlight of 2012, this moment with watercolors would certainly be a finalist.
After finalizing a design, I transferred it with pencil to twenty-five sheets of taped down watercolor paper on the drawing board. I painted the larger items in with masking fluid, and nearly lost my eyesight in the process.
Then the first of many laps around the table began, waiting between coats for the washes to dry.
The girls were fascinated with the process of removing the masking fluid. “Can we do the rubbings now?” they would ask, and the fluid would peel off like rubber cement, revealing our “chalked” message on the boards.
Then I would untape, clean the table off, and start again.
This year we had family photos (!), another one of the things I wanted to accomplish this year. E helped me assemble the insert and attach the photos with washi tape to the cards.
She also cut yards and yards of bakers twine.
2012 wasn’t really about lists. It wasn’t just about getting things done for the sake of plodding through. I wanted to consciously make a clean break from the year before, and I really and truly think that I did – I think that our whole family did. You don’t stop mourning with the snap of a finger, and stress doesn’t magically disappear because your to-do list shortens as you cross things off. Going on vacation for the first time in a couple of years doesn’t solve everything – although it surely, surely helps.
The beginning of the mission statement at our church is “Connecting people to what matters most”. That’s what I was looking to do this year – to remember what matters most. And to let the other things go. As each new challenge arose I took a step back, took a deep breath, and uttered those words. And it worked. I’m a bit of a skeptic sometimes about the power of thinking, but it honestly worked.
We connected this year – 2012 – to what mattered most. We spent time with family far away, but we carefully balanced that travel with the needs of our own family, protecting those precious weekends when the work weeks got a little out of control. We connected to our schools – maybe not as much as we wanted to time- and money-wise – but in meaningful ways, and always with the goal of supporting strong, nurturing environments for our girls to grow in. We connected with our church – not just in attendance and participation, but now in a massive renovation (designed and being built, right now, by me). We connected with our community through the vibrant art and food scene – we are so lucky to be right in the center of all the action. We connected to this beautiful place we call our planet, reveling in the power of the sea and the tides, and marveling at how escaping to different landscapes can really feed the soul. We connected to our country, voting again, this November, with joyful hearts and skipping feet. We still mourn, and we still miss. But we connect a bit more back to those we have lost – even in the simple act of turning on a sewing machine or baking that most incredible chocolate cake ever.
And in those moments we are connected to what matters most. I have come to realize, and accept, that I have so very little control in my life, despite what my personality type might argue. I can give things my very best effort, but I can also step back and let things be.
I hope this advent season – in the many forms and ways and traditions that we all celebrate – has been a gift of quiet and of reflection. I value your presence here, and our family wishes you and yours and very, very good 2013.
2011 has been a difficult year and I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’m glad to see it go.
This may seem a bit harsh, a bit glass-half-empty, a bit whiny, and even a bit ungrateful. But it’s also true, more true than I even wish to share here, in this place that I feel more comfortable sharing in than any other place.
This has been the catch phrase – the theme – that has embedded itself into my brain throughout the year. You may know by now that I talk to myself in letter form quite frequently. Words bring order to my thoughts and sometimes I find a good opening sentence can provide just enough structure to my musings to give me the strength to make a decision, perform a task, analyze a situation. In E’s class they call this “the grabber”. Once you’ve got a good opener you’ve drawn them in and provided the foundation for the story to follow.
I run into someone I haven’t seen in awhile and they ask “How’s it going?” I find myself shrugging, non-committal. Okay. So-so. I can read the questions on their face. “It’s been a tough year,” I offer up, a vague explanation of a more complicated formula for the general state of things. I always smile – it’s the optimist in me. Things do get better, they slow down, they ease up. Right?
I carried this phrase with me for most of the year. It started so early, in the month of renewal and promise that January is supposed to be. It came in the form of a cruel and unjust diagnosis for someone that we love.
It wove its way through our heartbeats, and we felt the stress and the weight of it as we waited for our father, our grandfather, to have his heart that we love so much opened up, scarred, forced to heal in a new way. We thought we would be the most terrified during those hours when his heart would stop operating on its own, nervous that we had to trust a machine and a pair of hands to bridge the gap between non-function and function, death and life. Looking back we know now that those hours were not the difficult ones. The moments of his pain, his discomfort, were the stressful ones. Make it worth it we whispered in our heads as we tried to work, to eat, to sleep, to play.
Work stress began to pile up, and the hours in the day to get done what needed to be done just weren’t there. So we took them from the nights. Two years into my title as “underemployed”, the shift of roles at work from getting jobs done to trying to find jobs was starting to wear thin. I’d like to think of my husband as “overemployed” – too many tasks for one person to sanely do. Our beloved daycare was faced with finding a new home after twenty-three years in the same location, and M’s role as simple board member multiplied overnight, and the responsibilities and weight that he carried added into the mix. I worked late hours each week in long meetings and through stressful presentations in an effort to shape a beautiful, sustainable, functioning church out of our beautiful, dated, sometimes non-functioning one. Sleep is vital, and we got little of it.
The summer wore on with no vacation, no respite. It was a bit of belt-tightening and a bit of practicality. There simply wasn’t the money or the time. We had started out the year full of hope for new projects to complete and tasks to finish. Again, there simply wasn’t the money or the time. The list of things that I needed to be working on never shortened, and the weight of those unfinished tasks became heavier and heavier. I found that I could manage to stay on top of those things that needed to be done in the present, but the underlying things that needed to be done (or that I wanted to do) just never surfaced to the top. I long ago mastered the art of taking photos of the everyday. I almost daily upload them to my computer, sort and size them, post them and write about them. But the photo albums that I had started for both grandmothers and both girls sat unfilled as the months and years ticked by. The dropping off point was April 2009, and I know that it was because I was well into my pregnancy with the little one, and every waking moment spent outside of work and family was spent studying for an exam. And then the baby came, and the months piled up, the task growing in size, becoming more daunting with each passing day.
The girls celebrated birthdays in late summer in true birthday style, and as the schedules and rituals of the school year started up I suddenly felt the urgent desire to get this one thing done – caught up – on track. I made a chart on a clipboard of those months of photos and began going through the archives day by day. Reviewing photos, making copies, sorting them into files for my mother, M’s mother, both girls, and a few for the photo wall in the hall so long out of date. It’s a task that takes hours, it can be monotonous, but in little pieces in the evening it was manageable, and sometimes downright enjoyable.
The two places that I found respite from the stress were Sunday mornings in church and in the late night hours sorting those photos on the computer. After a very sudden and profound loss in our congregation, I remember the words of our pastor talking about those last moments he had spent with our friend, how mundane and ordinary and regular they were. He talked about moments in his life where he had gone to his spiritual cupboard and it was bare. I knew that feeling, I know that feeling. This year had too many of those moments. And I knew how difficult it was to articulate that feeling. My real cupboards were not bare. We are fortunate beyond belief in this way. Missing a vacation is not missing a mortgage payment or a meal, but the strain of that bare cupboard of a soul can be just as debilitating. I would fill that cupboard up on Sundays, and then spend weeknights looking back through those moments of our lives – the mundane, the ordinary, the regular. And God, they are beautiful. They are full of color and smiles, parks and playgrounds and books and food and family and celebrations and art and toys and school and music and joy.
And then I read this quote, and I have sung it in my head for the past few months, through all of the lettering and the cutting and the printing and the assembling.
For in the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed. Kahlil Gibran
That was it. I know that what I strive for most in this life is to enjoy those little things. Those everyday moments that restore me, refresh me, give me the strength to keep going and moving and making and doing. I feel the strain of the times, and I know you do to. I talk about this with friends, with family. It’s not been an easy road for anyone of late. I hope that if I know you personally and you receive one of those frames in the mail that you will take a moment this holiday season to find an example of one of those “moments” to frame for yourself. And if we just meet in this space, thank you for visiting. Your presence here lifts me up daily, and I am always grateful to share these moments with you in this way.
Thank goodness for a season that reminds us to focus on the little things: the candlelight, the familiar carol, the tiny baby. Thank goodness for the places that we can go to restock our spiritual cupboards: our sanctuaries, our gardens, our kitchens, our homes. Thank goodness for those little things we make and do and share and love.
Happy Holidays to you and yours and best wishes for the New Year from the four of us. I’ll meet you back here in 2012.
What is it about this time of year that gets so busy? We spend so very little of it running around buying things – I much prefer shopping throughout the year for the season, and limiting even that. We try to make as many of our gifts as possible (there’s the culprit), but that’s the enjoyable part of the season to me. I think it’s the rest of those things that need to be done that add up to more hours of the day being portioned out. Wouldn’t it be nice to transform the month of December into a season of preparation, not of maintenance? Twenty-five days of no laundry, no snow removal, no trips to the gas station, the dry cleaners, and we really still need to plan menus and make dinners? Who can fit the daily rations amongst the cases of eggs and creams and bowls of chilling custards and gelatos in the refrigerator? Much of the month becomes a shifting of spaces – from creation stations to dinner time to wrapping stations to homework desks to ice cream parlor. A shifting of priorities, a shifting of seasons, a bridge to that new year, where the possibility of change and renewal seems so real. There is an importance to this ritual – I see that as I work through those late nights and early mornings. It is this moment, sitting here on my parents’ couch, with family around in various stages of comfortable silence, coffee cup in hand, computer in my lap. There is a peacefulness that is more profound after the rush. It is the same as that sweetness of the bread that follows fasting, the taste of that single orange in the toe of a stocking of a family so far away from the sunny south, the feel of your own sheets after a long journey away from home. The pink, puffy cheeks of that tiny child crafted solely to erase the previous twelve hours of unimaginable pain and effort. The same cheeks that press against mine each night before sleep, with some sort of topical elixir that makes time and obligations and stresses stand still. Our joys are magnified by the work that precedes them. We mark our blessings that this work is not really work, that we’ve never known truly hard work, and that we’ve always seen the joys that result from it. We know that we are lucky beyond words to have work that involves creating Christmas scenes out of paper and ice cream confections. By doing this work, we are giving thanks that we are able to do it. We can choose where to give this thanks – to our God, to our parents, to that soldier, to our leaders, to that doctor, to that friend, to a tiny child born in a stable, to all of the above and more.
This year has been a year of making things work and celebrating the resulting joys. We’ve had to devote a lot more time and effort to making things work in a difficult economy and strained workplaces. We’ve stretched a bit more, and made things work where we thought they just might not. And we’ve been continuously reminded of just how very fortunate and blessed that we truly are. Last Christmas we received a gift from my grandparents with the only instructions attached “to enjoy”. And enjoy we did. We probably had lots of things, and projects, that could have been completed or purchased or even started – but once those things were listed out on paper, they lost a bit of their importance. We live in a house that isn’t “finished”, with or without things that we wish we had (more kitchen counter space? a commercial ice cream maker? a studio space?), and with more to-do’s than time to do them. Instead we did the things that would normally have come off the list in a year of cutbacks – we escaped for a week to the shore to introduce the littlest one to the joys of sandcastles and eating whole peaches in your bathing suit, and rinsing off later in the sea. We travelled to big cities and climbed skyscrapers and snuggled in hotel beds and introduced the older one to another world of fabulous architecture. We travelled to see family and see sights, we climbed canyons and dams and bridges and celebrated ten years of marriage, and we collapsed, happy and exhausted, back into our unfinished house each time. Celebrating the joys has been our motto, and in that vein, the celebrations have been abundant.
Thank you for visiting us each day here – we are glad that you have shared those joys with us this year. May the joys of the new year be abundant for you and yours.