Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Retrospective

2011 was the kind of year wherein the fasten seat belts light remained on for the entire ride. The world outside seemed turbulent and bleak from the vantage point of our little home, and on a personal level, we drastically changed our way of doing business as a family. And the middle of a year of uncertainty, I had one perfect summer with my boys, and the engine of love that we are tending together as a family continued to get stronger.

January: Winter was not kidding around this year. We weren't sure where we were going to put all the snow that just kept falling. It was tough on our cars. I dented the side of the van pulling into park on our snow-narrowed street; Josh had an accident with a snow plow on the back roads at work.
February: The pregnancy test had two lines.
March: Ellis turned eight. Alaska grandparents came to visit. Josh and I sat in a darkened room at the clinic while the ultrasound showed that a miscarriage had happened. Afterwards, we drank beer and ate walleye sandwiches at a former favorite lunch haunt of ours and grieved. We picked up the kids from school and daycare and went through the car wash. We tried to make sense of it all.
April: I took my first trip to New York City since moving from there ten years ago. It proved tremendously healing and creatively inspiring. It challenged me to commit to making big changes in my life.
May: Spring took a long time to get here. I quit my job and pulled Charlie out of daycare. We embarked on a new model for running our family.
June: The perfect summer began. My days were filled with writing, cooking, gardening, and adventures with Charlie. Charlie turned two and Nate turned seventeen. Ellis learned how to ride a bike without training wheels.
July:  Charlie and Ellis and I became beach bums and farmer's market regulars. Ellis and I took a road trip to Chicago so I could attend my 20th high school reunion and reconnect with a wonderful group of old friends. My mom's dementia had worsened to the point that she couldn't recognize me when I came to her door during the visit. We picked wild black raspberries by the river.
August: I attempted to make pickles (update: epic pickle fail). Josh started brewing (way more successful than the pickles). Another pregnancy test had two lines, and we held our breath. We went camping and to the State Fair.
September: That sick hormonal feeling that I called "the blurgh" began around Labor Day. Writing, exercising, and adventures with Charlie were greatly curtailed. Despite this, I was never so happy to be nauseous and tired in my entire life. Josh took a day off from work each week to help out. The older boys went back to school. Alaska grandparents came to visit.
October: The midwife found the baby's heartbeat (go, baby, go!). I turned thirty-eight. I took Charlie trick-or-treating for the first time. He makes everything fun.
November: Josh turned forty-six. It stayed warm for a very long time and we enjoyed the extra chance to be outside. We spent a lot of time thinking about plans for aging parents. "The blurgh" subsided enough that I could cook my share of Thanksgiving dinner.
December: The baby began wiggling up a storm inside me and we got to see "Bumby" in action during our second trimester ultrasound. It seems that we used up our allotted snow fall last winter and none was left for us to have a white Christmas this year. Despite the ineffectual weather, the solstice sleepiness kicked in right on time and we enjoyed our customary lazy end to the year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Long Dark

Winter came quietly on snowy feathers this year.
Into the cave of this long night we go,
waking tomorrow to begin the journey
to tilt closer to the sun.

Happy Solstice.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December Traditions - Indoor Activities With My Kids

Some people do Advent calendars, but I prefer the construction paper chain countdown because it brings me fond memories of elementary school. Right now this activity is mostly shared between Ellis and me. We have the fun of making it (I cut the rings, he staples them and writes the dates on them) and he loves to wake up every morning in December and cut off yesterday's ring. For anticipation's sake, it helps that the chain sits on the piano below the presents that he can't wait to open. I'm looking forward to next year when Charlie's growing skills allow him to get more involved in this tradition.

This weekend, Josh remarked that some cookies are about the product and some cookies are about the process. In my opinion, there are definitely cookies that are more delicious to eat than decorated sugar cookies, but in terms of pre-holiday weekend fun for kids these are the best.

For me, making sugar cookies is also a spiritual exercise in battling my inner control freak as I let go of my anxiety about how much colored sugar and sprinkles gets poured on places other than the cookies. It helps to have two grownups on the task, and with each passing year I get rewarded for not being uptight as the kids motor skills improve. It is indeed about the process.

Sometimes the most fantastic traditions are ones you stumble upon. When Ellis was four, he went to a birthday party around the winter solstice and got some glow sticks as party favors. That year, when it hit peak darkness, we had fun playing with the colored light during the long evening.

Last year, Charlie fell in love with glow sticks sometime around Halloween and began calling them jack-o-lanterns. When the solstice rolled around, I revived the tradition of darkening the house, putting on music and creating our own light show.

This year, I made sure to pick up a pack of glow sticks during my Christmas shopping, and I eagerly anticipate enjoying them tomorrow.
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Monday, December 19, 2011

December Traditions - Decorations

When I started focusing on building my own family's holiday traditions, I stripped away the things that made me unhappy about the holidays as I'd previously celebrated them and instead mined the past for my favorite things. If I had to choose just one seasonal decoration for my house, paperwhite bulbs would win hands down. I had no idea about indoor bulb forcing until I met my former mother-in-law, an extraordinary gardener. While we no longer have a relationship, I am very grateful to her for teaching me ways to enjoy plants year round.

On my search for bulbs a few years ago, I discovered the beautiful compostible swags that the folks at Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis create. It's now a post-Thanksgiving tradition for me to stop there for each years' selection of winter plant joy. I leave my greens up on my door all winter, then toss them into the compost bin just as I'm getting ready to start my tomato and pepper plants in early spring. It makes the time when my garden is dormant much more enjoyable.

Hands down, my grandmother was my number one influence for how to do the holidays. At this time of year, I choose to remember the gift she had for making things beautiful and delicious. She was heavily influenced by her own mother-in-law and incorporated a lot of Swedish elements into the way she orchestrated the holidays. When my sister and I were little girls we'd sit on the floor by her coffee table an spin her Swedish Angel Chimes for hours on end. The chimes I have were a gift from her, and I love to light them with my own children and watch how something so simple can be so magical.

Also thanks to my sister, I have a wonderful stash of the tree ornaments my grandmother had when we were little. I love that my children can enjoy the whimsy of these mid-century treasures as much as I did.

Many years, we have only a small tree, depending on how easy it is to move things around in our small house. Instead, I tend to create a small and manageable Christmas display on top of the piano, where it can be enjoyed by little eyes, but is less likely to be disturbed by little hands. Josh refers to this as the "Christmas Shrine." It's something that is uniquely my idea, partially created out of necessity, as I've always lived in small spaces, and partially out of the way I am drawn to creating beautiful sacred spaces on a small scale. It changes a little bit every year, but is always the place for the hand-knit stockings I made the year we celebrated Charlie's first Christmas plus all the presents.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

December Traditions

Sometime in November every year, I always think there's no way that I'm going to do the holiday thing. I fantasize about ditching all the traditions and going away to someplace warm by the ocean. While I don't rule out that this fantasy will become reality one year, December rolls around and something almost primal kicks in and I find myself comfortably engaging in the rituals that I associate with the shortest days of the year.

The truth is, I used to hate the holidays. For much of my young adulthood, they were about family obligation and using precious vacation days to travel to places I didn't want to go. Then I got divorced and Josh and I got together and I extracted myself from the obligations and refashioned my year-end rituals to ones more conducive to joy. I held on to traditions that I loved - many of them learned from my grandmother (Sans the dramatics about how no one ever appreciated what she did. Because I did, Gram.) I added new things that were fun for all the members of the family we've created, and I scaled things to acknowledge my ursine nature as the light fades - the part of me that just wants to hibernate. My goals have been to have things be beautiful, delicious, full of love and fun, while prioritizing the need for restfulness this time of year.

Next week, as we wind our way through the Solstice and wait for Christmas, I want to catalog some of the things I do every December to make these short, cold days a little warmer and full of light. There are decorations, activities (or lack thereof), yummy things to eat and drink, and gifts that we give each other. As I post, feel free to share some of your favorite things, too. I always appreciate inspiration from my friends.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Life With Charlie

Luigi went missing for a few days. While he was gone Charlie accidentally broke off one of Mario's arms. When Mario and Luigi were reunited, this is the conversation Charlie made them have:

"Hi, Luigi."
"Hi, Mario. What happened to your arm?"
"It fell off."

Charlie to Mama: "This is a picture of when you, me, and Ellis became babies. We went inside this guy's tummy and made him sick!"
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Friday, December 2, 2011

Circle of Excellence

A couple of summers ago, Ellis brought home a bunch of cast-off corporate awards and trophies for a project he did at Leonardo's Basement. I got rid of most of the trophies, but kept the one pictured above because the "Circle of Excellence," is just, well, excellent. Earlier this week while doing some cleaning, I came across this very special award again and thought that it would come in handy for something.

Ellis has been struggling to memorize his multiplication facts for the past couple of months. He hated it so much that he would "forget" to bring home his homework and try to avoid doing practice drills whenever possible. I tried apps on my phone and math gaming sites online to try to entice him, but the most effective strategy was simply spending half an hour one-on-one with him everyday. I would use a combination of no-nonsense drills and talking about different patterns and tricks for remembering (especially those dreaded 7's an 8's). I'm most proud of teaching him tricks for remembering the 12's. Ellis rocks the 12's.

With all his hard work to master something that did not come easy for him and struggling against all the negative feelings that can cause, I decided to award Ellis the Circle of Excellence on Wednesday. It was silly, but it was awesome, and I think the Circle of Excellence will make repeat appearances in our family along the way. Josh and I are also tempted to make use of one of our neighborhood businesses to get some custom trophies for the kids related to their struggles and achievements to develop and grow as people. It's a win-win: support a University Avenue business during Light Rail construction and let the boys know that we recognize how hard they work at the challenging task of growing up. (Plus they'll have tangible proof of how crazy their parents are.)
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