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Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

When Throwback Thursday comes around each week, I find myself thumbing through a bin of photos looking for just the right one to capture that week’s sentiment. More often than not, I spend a whole morning looking and remembering.

A few weeks ago I found a bunch from a family vacation we took out West to Utah and Arizona in 1993. The one where we drove through the desert and saw awe-inspiring rock formations and stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon breathless and speechless.

My brother is that white speck at the bottom.

My brother is that white speck at the bottom.

Later that week, I was thinking about all the places I want my kids to see in their life. How I want to take them to Niagara Falls because it’s closer than it ever was from where I grew up. How I want them to experience people and places all over the world. How I want them to remember road trips as fun and exciting, not torturous boredom. (Our daughter just agreed that traveling U.S. Route 30 from here to our hometown sounded like fun. Parenting win!)

I want them to see beyond the small slice of the world we live in. And I have my dad to thank for that.

Last year, I wrote a little bit about my dad, but recently I’ve discovered another way he has quietly shaped my life: He planted in us–my brother and me–a sense of adventure.

My dad showing us how tall this tall cactus really was!

My dad showing us how tall this tall cactus really was!

I was not what you would call a risky child. Constantly worried about doing the wrong thing or getting in trouble, I was a stick-to-the-rules-and-nobody-gets-hurt kind of girl. And trying new things was not high on my list any day of the week.

But I remember loving the idea of seeing new places.

I couldn’t tell you from memory what our first family vacation was, but I can tell you that I remember taking them.

The one that probably stands out the most is the one I mentioned earlier. It was our longest trip by car, spanning two weeks, and we packed a lot of sightseeing into those weeks. (And remember this was before the days of Google and GPS, so we planned our trip with maps and travel brochures. Old school!) Arches National Park. Zion National Park. The Grand Canyon. Utah. Arizona. And lots of places between there and our home state, Illinois.

What I always remember from those trips, imperfect as they were, is my dad. He made sure we experienced things in our childhood that were missing from his. When he saw the Grand Canyon, it was his first time also. Sharing that awe gave me a greater appreciation for whatever we were experiencing. No matter what we were doing, Dad made it an adventure.

We had this sort of unofficial rule that we couldn’t eat at places we could eat at if we weren’t on vacation. We avoided McDonald’s and Wendy’s whenever possible so we had to try new things.

Confession: This terrified me. I was so insecure in my growing up years that I didn’t know what I liked, including what I liked to eat. Ordering at a familiar restaurant was easy because I would usually just get the same thing every time. New places, though. I could hardly make up my mind and would usually just panic at the last minute and order the first thing I saw. I also had an overactive imagination (serves me well as a writer though!) so I’d imagine all the trouble we’d find by visiting a new place.

For my dad, though, it was part of the adventure. And a necessary part of the adventure. I don’t remember every off-the-beaten-path place we’ve been to, but I know my husband once found his new favorite barbecue sauce at a joint attached to a gas station. If we’d been traveling alone, we might have missed it, but my dad pulled in ready to try something new. We’ve eaten at family restaurants and new-to-us fast food places.

And I survived every single one of them.

With two young kids who I’d only call picky about when they eat not what they eat, we don’t do this enough on our travels, but my husband has a similar sense of adventure to my dad, and he builds on my childhood experiences by taking me places I’d never venture into alone. (And trust me, I’m not sorry he does it. I’d have missed out on a bacon milkshake if not for my husband.)

I’m still less of an adventurer than some people I know. I won’t be the first to volunteer for something new and even when trying something new, I’m still hesitant sometimes. I still crave the familiar and comfortable but my life is so often enriched by the unfamiliar that I’m learning to embrace those times.

I don’t know if my dad knew that’s what he was doing all those years we went on vacation or if he just brought us along on trips he thought would be fun. But I can definitely say that my increasing love of travel, of seeing new places, of visiting local eateries, started with him.

So, even though it’s hard beyond words sometimes that our family lives 800 miles from our families and hometown, our living in Pennsylvania is part of a lifelong adventure we’re passing on to our kids.

My dad took us across the country on vacation. That led me to take a trip across the ocean for a semester of college. Then it was a trip across the eastern states to make a life with my husband. Where it will lead next, I don’t know, but I’m so very thankful for a father who challenged us to see a world outside our hometown.

I’ve heard said that the best things parents can give their children is roots and wings. Because of mine, I have both. And so, I hope, will my kids.

Happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the dads out there!

What is one thing you’ve learned from your father?

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I’ve never been very good at observing (celebrating? commemorating? participating in?) Lent. Discipline and I don’t really get along well, a relationship I keep meaning to reconcile, but well, life.

I’m terrible at persevering and following through and any time I’ve tried to give up something for the 40 days of Lent I either end up miserable, forgetful or failing. Ritual for the sake of ritual doesn’t interest me so there have been years where I’ve virtually ignored Lent because I just didn’t know what to do with it.

This year, we belong to a church that treats Lent differently than any other church we’ve been part of. For the weeks of Lent, we partner with a church in Chicago to reflect on, and inform ourselves about, a justice issue in our world. This year, it was about incarceration. Here’s what I wrote at the start of Lent.

And here’s what I can tell you now: I did not give my whole self to Lent. I read the devotionals sporadically. I wore a button … until I lost it. And while I was moved and angered and saddened by what I learned about the prison system in our country, it didn’t cause any action on my part.prison button

I mean, I wrote the blog post, I read a book about women coming out of prison and the struggles they face, and I signed some online petitions and sent some e-mails to congressmen whose votes can change the way things are done.

But does any of that matter?

What I learned during Lent, what I seem to always learn during Lent, is that I am selfish. And distracted. And busy with a lot of things that don’t matter.  I’m willing to do a little but maybe not a lot. I’m good at talking and writing about issues but when it comes to acting or doing, not so much. I don’t beat myself up too much because that doesn’t do any good, either, so I’m left with questions.

What can I do? What else can I do? What more can I do? And how?

Wearing the button on my jacket was a huge step for me. It meant that people would look at me a little longer than normal, that they might engage me in conversation, and I am more the kind of person who wants to walk quietly through her life and not draw anyone’s attention for good or bad.

Wearing a button marked me, in a way, as some sort of social justice freak or religious nut. At least, that’s what I would have thought about someone wearing the button if that someone wasn’t me.

In truth, I want to call attention to injustice. I want to stand up and fight for things that matter. That is my heart. But I am not brave. Or courageous. Or loud. Some days I have to gather enough courage to walk into the grocery store (and then spend the rest of the day reading books to recharge from the emotional toll being in public takes on me.) I want you to care about things that are important but I don’t want you to think bad of me for caring about them.

What I learned from Lent is that there are parts of me that still have to die and be transformed. Parts of me I still need to sacrifice to God’s redemption.

Now that it is Easter, a season of celebration and feasting, a time of rejoicing for God’s kingdom has come to earth, it is easy to forget Lent. Those things I learned, those passionate feelings I felt, I could compartmentalize them into the 40 days of Lent and move on with my happy, comfortable life.

Or.

I could revisit and reflect and pray and learn more. The end of Lent doesn’t have to be the end of caring and justice and “on earth as it is in heaven” kind of living. It shouldn’t be the end, I think, but the beginning.

Lent reminds me that life is about more than me, that Jesus’ sacrifice was not for me alone, and that His redemption is for every day not just a few days or a single season.

I still don’t know what this means or looks like on a daily basis.

All I know is I don’t want to quit caring about prisoners because Lent is over.

I’m curious, does Lent carry over into Easter and the rest of the year for you? If so, how? If not, what would it look like for that to happen?

I’m asking myself the same questions.

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easter synchroblogThis week at the Convergent Books blog, various writers have been reflecting on the characters of the Easter story. Today, they’ve opened the topic to any blogger anywhere to write about a character in the Easter story and what their role can teach us today. To read other posts in the synchroblog, click here.

His letter begins with these words:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life–and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1:1-4, NASB)

He is John, the apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and here, he is adamant: We heard Him, saw Him with our eyes, touched Him with our hands. This message we spread, this Gospel we preach, we were eyewitnesses! And we want others to believe because we saw it!

He almost fades into the background of the Easter story. We see glimpses of him but he’s not the first one we think of, at least he’s not the first one I think of. There are the women and Judas and Peter and the guards and Pilate and the religious leaders and Joseph of Arimathea. The Easter story is full of colorful characters, each with their own part to play, each with much to teach us about this most holy of days.

And yet, I find myself drawn to John, the storyteller.

Several years ago in a Sunday School class, we watched a video series about John’s final days in Ephesus. In it, he was painted as an old man telling the stories of his days with Jesus to anyone who gathered. He lived the longest of any of the disciples and his account of Jesus’ life is different in almost every way than that of the other writers.

Suddenly, I had a whole new appreciation for John, who must have spent all those years telling and retelling the stories. I wondered what he must have thought when he finally began to write them down. It was his life’s work. Yet even he admits that the whole world couldn’t contain all the books that could be written about what Jesus did (John 21:25).

But back to Easter and the events leading up to it.

His account of what we  now call Holy Week begins in chapter 12 of his Gospel. Could he still hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!”? Could he feel the crowd pressing in, surrounding Jesus, their King who had come? “We didn’t understand at the time,” he says, “but later, we remembered.” Did he smile at their ignorance? How they thought Jesus was there to overthrow Rome when, in fact, His plan was so much greater?

He walks us through the Last Supper, providing details about the extent of Jesus’ love. Did he remember what he felt when Jesus washed his feet? Did the memory of Peter’s insistence that Jesus not wash his feet bring bittersweet thoughts of his companion and friend? Could he taste the bread and wine? Did he still wonder why none of them suspected Judas of betrayal?

I love John’s words for their attention to detail. From him we get stories and words and actions we don’t get anywhere else. He was an observer as well as a participant, and his time with Jesus changed him. How could he forget such an important time of his life?

Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17 of John’s Gospel are almost entirely in red in my Bible, the words of Jesus highlighted to stand out. Here, John passes on teachings, some listed as favorites among pastors and leaders: the vine and the branches, the prayers of Jesus for his disciples, for the world. Years later, as he writes, does John think of the significance of those teachings? Does he realize he is the link from Jesus to the generations to come? Or does he write because he’s called to it? Because somebody has to or no one will know? Does he know that his words will outlive him?

He continues with two whole chapters on the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. Did he cry as he wrote those scenes? Was he exhausted reliving the drama from the garden to the cross to the tomb? Did he lean in to the grief of those days so that his readers, his listeners would understand just how awful this was? John would get a faraway look in his eyes as he spoke. I can imagine how the emotions would have choked him as he told the story. Read John 19 out loud. Slowly. As if you can see it happening. But not even that is close to what it must have been like for John to remember.

But remember he did. And speak, he did. And write, he did.

And then the tomb. Empty!

How his heart must have raced remembering what it was like to sprint to the tomb and find Jesus gone. And the joy of seeing Him alive! In the locked room. On the shore.

Story after story after story and John’s theme is the same: “these have been written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31)

What I learn from John is that he didn’t keep Easter to himself. He didn’t keep Jesus to himself. He spent his life telling the story, not so that he would have a bestselling book with his name on it but so that those who weren’t there, those who didn’t see, those who don’t know, might believe and have life.

We all have a story to tell about our time with Jesus. Who needs to know what we’ve experienced so they, too, can have life?

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On the outskirts of my hometown, on 400 acres of land sets an imposing building surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

It’s the largest medium security prison in Illinois, housing more than 2,000 adult men. It opened five years after I was born, so I can’t remember ever not knowing about it. It’s out of the way of regular traffic patterns, so if you don’t want to drive by it, you don’t have to. I’ve always thought it odd that the country club is on the same road, not even a mile away. Could two worlds be more different and yet so close in proximity?

Also not far from the prison is a neighborhood of low-income housing, built for the families who move to the area to be near their incarcerated loved ones.

The Dixon Correctional Center is on some of the most beautiful property in the county. A wooded bike path passes the backside of the property. Years ago, before it was a prison, it was a colony for epileptics, then an institution for the mentally ill and a school for people with developmental disabilities. I don’t know as much about its history as I’d like to, and I’ve maybe even gotten it wrong now. But I know that I feel sad and hopeless when I look at the building.

And I’m just on the outside.

“Want to go to prison with me?”

The man who asked was a friend and mentor, a Bible study leader who spent at least one Saturday a month teaching a Bible study in the prison. It was one of his favorite things to do, and he wanted me to go with him.

No.Yes.NO.Whynot?Okay.

That was what happened in my mind. I was working as a journalist and I almost never passed up an opportunity to do something I’d never done before. But go to prison? I didn’t know if I could do it, even if my friend was going to be there the whole time.

We met in the parking lot. I almost wet my pants just driving onto the property, certain that I’d mess something up and find myself in some kind of trouble. Because I was a good girl. I avoided trouble like contagious disease. I’d never even had a speeding ticket. The one time I’d had to go to detention in elementary school, I was physically sick about it.

Because I could do no wrong. So I thought.

But there I was. Entering a prison. Metal detector, pat down and all.

I was nervously excited. Maybe a little scared.

All these years later, I barely remember that day. But I know the fear faded. I was welcomed by the men who came for Bible study. They were genuinely glad to meet me and to see my friend. They had wisdom and experience to share. They were people. People who had made mistakes and were paying for those mistakes but people nonetheless.

Reading this book reminded me of that experience and reignited something in me. Something I’m still trying to identify.

Our church is partnering with another church during Lent to focus on injustice in the prison system. You can find out more here. I read the compact yesterday and the first day’s devotional, and I’m appalled at my ignorance. I have little firsthand knowledge of the injustice in the justice system. I know it’s not a perfect system, but there’s more to it than that.

What I appreciate about this Lenten compact is the emphasis on restorative justice, or giving convicted felons another chance at life outside of prison. It’s no easy road, from what I’ve read. In the book I referenced earlier, the author learned that women released from prison in Alabama are given $10, a polo shirt and pants, and a bus ticket back to the place where they committed the crime. And with that, they’re supposed to make a fresh start. Think even of movies like Les Miserables and The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t just stories. There’s truth in them.

That prison I mentioned earlier in my hometown? According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, it costs almost $24,000 a year on average per inmate to house them. To me, that ought to be serious motivation to examine how we rehabilitate, who we sentence and what happens when they leave prison. I absolutely understand it’s a complicated issue full of challenges I can’t even imagine.

But, can we do better?

Lent is a season of fasting and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, who came to free us from the chains of death and sin.

Because we are all in prisons, some of them self-imposed, and He offers freedom to us all.

The Lenten Compact begins with readings in the psalms regarding confession of sin and appealing to God’s mercy.

Because we are sinners. And He is merciful.

And we who have been shown mercy are to show mercy.

I confess: this Lenten Compact made me uncomfortable at first. I already felt unprepared for Lent this year, like I hadn’t given it much thought, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe all I need to do is show up and let God lead me through the season, then take appropriate action. I have no idea what that will look like.

But I’ve already been to prison once, so who’s to say it won’t happen again?

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I used to hate Valentine’s Day.

It was a subtle hatred. Well, frankly, it was driven by jealousy, so  maybe it wasn’t really hatred at all. I spent most of my Valentine’s Day single and without a “special someone.” I even wrote a column for the newspaper about how stupid I thought Valentine’s Day was. (I don’t think that was the actual theme. All I can remember is that I rallied the single ladies in our community before Beyonce’s song was even written.)

See, Valentine’s Day used to exaggerate all those lonely, inferior feelings I already struggled with daily. It felt like an exclusive holiday, and I hate being excluded. I didn’t want to be “out” just because I didn’t have a boyfriend. But rather than honestly deal with those feelings, I deflected my insecurities and gave passionate explanations for my feelings.

Love shouldn’t be limited to one day a year.

It’s a Hallmark holiday.

Flowers and candy are a waste of money.

I wouldn’t want a man to celebrate our love just because the calendar says so.

And on and on I went.

Then, 10 years ago, I fell in love. Or maybe love fell on me.

We weren’t dating yet when it happened, but I just knew. I knew that I loved this man, and I was going to be crushed if he didn’t love me back. But I was willing to let that happen because what I felt the day I realized I loved him was bigger than me. We were friends. Probably the best of friends. And I knew going forward that if he didn’t love me back, we couldn’t be friends anymore.

About two months after we started dating.

About two months after we started dating.

That’s storybook stuff, but I can still feel the weight of that realization today.

I loved him. Period. And I had no sure idea how he felt about me.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Have you ever been asked that question? Ten years ago, I couldn’t have given a good answer. I’m not sure I could today either.

Ten years always seemed so far in the future. Yet, here it is. Like turning the page of a book.

I turned 26 that year. Funny, but it was the same year I started to see the possibilities for my writing beyond newspaper journalism. (That’s something to explore another day, I guess.)

My best friend had started dating a guy in our circle of four, and the fourth member of our group was about to head east for military training. But he gave me a present–a Care Bear I’ve loved nearly to death since then–and a promise, to call while we were apart for three weeks.

It was a glimmer of hope, a memory that still makes me smile. He’s always been good at gift-giving, and this was the first of many meaningful gifts.

He did call. We talked on the phone a couple of times while he was away, and I noticed that my world was grayer without him in it. Our gatherings lacked sparkle because he was absent. (He still lights up my world.)

When I took a week to attend a writers conference on the East Coast, I missed his call one night. I was devastated. I was surrounded by writers, some of whom I’d probably be awed by now if I went back and looked at the names. But this blooming love made me blind to any other experiences. This was all that mattered.

We’d spent weeks of our summers at a Bible camp near our hometown, and I first found community at a weekend retreat for the 20-something crowd years earlier. This retreat brought us back to the camp that May, after we’d both returned from our trips.

With some “divine intervention” we found ourselves seated next to each other on a couch for a viewing of The Princess Bride. (It was and is my favorite movie.) I was distracted by his closeness, unable to concentrate on the movie. His arm was resting on the back of the couch, and though it sounds cliche, he eventually got tired of that position and dropped it across my shoulders.

I can still hear the beating of my heart, the questions in my head: What is he doing? Is this what I think it is? Does he mean what I think he means? Is this for real? Am I dreaming?

We were friends. Were we now something more?

I wouldn’t have my answer that night. The movie ended. The spell was broken (so I thought) and we played board games until lights out. I didn’t sleep much that night. And I didn’t want to tell anyone else, afraid that if I did, I would find out I’d imagined it all.

Those fears played with me the next morning. I was sure he would tell me it was all a misunderstanding. That he hadn’t meant anything by it.

Because I was never the pursued one. I was always just a good friend. I was used to rejection. Expected it, almost.

Then he said we should take a walk after breakfast.

And we did. He told me how he felt, and even though I can’t remember the words exactly, I remember how my heart felt like it could fly out of my chest. He held my hand, and we returned from our walk as an “us.”

A year later, at the same camp, he asked me to marry him.

10 years us proposal 1

 10 years us proposal 2

10 years us proposal 3

I said, “yes.”

This will be our 10th Valentine’s Day as an “us,” the 7th as a married couple.

Not every year has been the happily ever after I dreamed of.

Some years have been worse than I ever imagined they could be.

But we still love each other.

And not every day brings the tingly toes and speedy heartbeats of those first days.

Most days reality is not at all like a fairytale dream.

But.

That’s why I no longer hate Valentine’s Day.

Because for a day, we tap into those earlier lovey-dovey feelings and remember what it was like.

Before kids.

Before unpaid bills.

Before marriage problems.

We remember why we fell in love and what it felt like.

If our marriage is like a fire, then most days it’s more like embers than flames. But for a day, we can fuel the embers with memories and keep the fire burning.

I’m no marriage expert. We don’t have it all figured out.

But if I’ve learned anything in 10 years it’s that the flame won’t keep burning on its own.

Ours was almost reduced to ashes once, and I never want to be there again.

So, I embrace Valentine’s Day, not because I want jewelry or candy or flowers or an expensive dinner out. Not because I think we HAVE TO celebrate or our relationship is doomed.

No. I embrace Valentine’s Day as a sacred pause. A time to remember. A celebration of joy. A day of gratitude.

I know it will be a hard day for some. For ones who’ve lost or never had or feel like they are losing.

And because of that, I say, that those of us who have love on Valentine’s Day ought to share it. Valentine’s Day need not be exclusive to those married, engaged or dating. Because love is more than that.

Whatever you do today, love others. And love well.

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I woke up feeling unwell in body and spirit. A challenging sermon on holiness at church yesterday and the onset of a cold that’s making its way through our family have left me drained before I’ve even started today. That, and the need to do EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE IMMEDIATELY.

Tell me your Mondays are like this.

With piles of laundry mocking you as a failure.

With kitchen counters covered in dirty dishes singing “You’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good.”

Back to school. Back to a sometimes routine. The first full week of a new year.

And I’m blowing it already.

While it’s true I no longer make resolutions, I still feel the need to make changes in my life every time the calendar turns another year. Maybe I’m not calling them resolutions, but I’m still taking the opportunity to change.

And there’s plenty of opportunity for change.

As the first of the year dawned, I pledged to myself (again, for the third time) that this would be the year I finish my novel.

Last year, I felt mostly bland about my writing. Frustrated. Discouraged. Sure that I’d never make anything of myself. I chipped away at the story, adding words here and there without regularity.

Give up. Give up. Give up. The voices told me lies, but I wanted to listen.

Nevermind that my husband switched jobs and we moved and our daughter started school. Transition upon transition.

And when I dared to look at how much writing I’d actually done, I was surprised to learn that in all of 2013, I added 20,000 words to my novel.

It felt small and like nothing when it was happening. But at the end, it had amounted to much more.

I tried on three outfits before church yesterday because I’m having a love-hate with my body. I have some clothes I’d like to wear, to rediscover, and they.don’t.fit. Curse them.

I had a plan for Christmas Eve, to wear this purple dress I love and got on sale and haven’t worn in two years. It looked awful, which in my mind means I feel like I look awful.

But Christmas is full of holidays and eating so I allowed myself the feast, knowing that there would be a season of less come January. On December 31, I started a new plan. I would get up early. I would exercise. I would intentionally eat healthier. Oatmeal instead of a bagel. More fruit. More salad. I love all those things but they take more time to prepare. More effort. And, of course, I have to have them in the house in the first place.

As of today, I’ve worked out four times in the last week, which is four times more than all of fall, I think.

Yet I feel like a failure because there are no results.

It’s only been a week.

Time. Discipline. It won’t happen overnight.

(And for the record, I’m not aiming for a weight or a size but a healthier lifestyle overall. The older I get the better care I want to take of myself so I can enjoy my kids and life as a whole.)

A few months ago while sorting through some old newspaper clippings of columns I’d written back in my mid-20s, I had the urge to wad them all up. Or burn them. Something destructive.

Because the girl who wrote those words has changed in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Some of it was her choice. Some of it wasn’t. But she’s different. I feel like that girl barely exists in my memory. I wanted to shake her. Or punch her in the face. And tell her that she had no idea what she was talking about.

Life wasn’t like she thought. Faith wasn’t what she thought.

It was like looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of me 10 years ago. And I saw not only how I looked on the outside but what I thought on the inside.

The urge to destroy passed, and now I’m grateful for the look into the past.

Because change has happened. It has taken years. But the differences are obvious to me. Ten years seems like a long time, but with those clippings in my hands, I felt like no time had passed at all.

A week is not a worthwhile measure for change.

It is good to want to change. It is good to have a plan. It is good to pursue what is better and whole.

It is not good to expect immediate change. But oh, how I want a quick fix for everything.

It is not good to expect perfection. But oh, how I want to do it right the first time.

It is not good to give up after only a week. But oh, how I want to say “forget it” to all my plans and intentions.

Here is what I am learning. Slowly, but I’m learning.

Change can’t happen alone. I need community.

Part of my writing plan was to join a group for word count accountability. Nothing happens if I don’t meet my goal, but I can be encouraged by what others are writing and knowing I’m not the only one struggling.

As for the other areas where I want to change and need to change: community applies there too. But that’s hard. I can’t go to a gym right now. But I can let someone else know my plans.

Invitation is a key to transformation. I have to let people in, and that starts with talking about my failings. Then it moves to sharing my plans. It continues with commitment. And it doesn’t end with failure.

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We got to go home to Illinois for Christmas this year. It had been almost a year since Phil and I had been back to our hometown, and we missed Christmas last year. Even as much as we wanted to see family, we approached the trip with a little bit of dread and stress. Because when you only come home once a year, it seems like everyone wants to see you, and we hate to disappoint people.

As the days passed, though, we found ourselves having a lot of fun and with less stress than we had expected.

Here are five of the best things that happened while we were away for Christmas break:

1. Our daughter picked out gifts this year. She shopped at school for her grandparents and her brother, and when she got to Illinois, her great-grandma took grandparents giftsher shopping for Phil and me. We had no idea what any of the gifts were, so we were just as surprised as anyone else on Christmas. She got one set of grandparents a pen each that said something fabulous about grandparents, and the other set of grandparents got refrigerator magnets that also said something fun about grandparents. For her brother, she picked out a pair of squishy ducks in his favorite colors. He played with those all afternoon on Christmas. For me, she picked out a set of three pairs of earrings because she knew that I wanted to start wearing earrings again. And she got ones for sensitive ears because she knows mine hurt sometimes when I wear them. For her dad, she picked out a notepad and pen–“for work,” she said. More than the gifts themselves, it was fun for us to see the thoughts that went into each gift.

kaiden2. Playing with our nephew. We’ve seen him less than a handful of times in his two years of life, which means that when I ask for a hug he says “no.” But that’s okay. He did warm up to us eventually. We took advantage of our time and played as much as possible.

3. A daytrip to Chicago with my brother as tour guide. I’m not allowed to post pictures of him. (“No Facebook,” he kept telling me as I snapped photos with my camera.) But it was the best day. We rode every form of mass transit–the Metra to downtown, then after a few blocks of walking we took the subway to an intersection where a trolley picked us up to go to Navy Pier. We ate good food at Harry Caray’s and walked around the pier. I got to see the water and the skyline and breathe Chicago air. It’s weird, I know. We’ve never lived in Chicago, but every time we’re back, it feels like home. It’s my favorite city in the world, and probably always will be. When our day was done we took a bus back to the train station before heading west again. We did exchange gifts but I’ll take “presence” over “presents” any day. I don’t see my brother that often, so it’s always good to be together. And he’s the best tour guide in Chicago.

chicago skyline

4. A double-date with my husband’s brother and our sister-in-law. We ate delicious burgers at Buffalo Wild Wings then we went bowling. Bowling! It was like a time warp to my teenage years. The alley even smelled the same as I remembered. And though we were mostly terrible and felt a little too old to be participating in said sport, we had a good time as grown-ups doing grown-up things.

5. Being together. It sounds sappy, but the four of us–my husband, our daughter, our son and me–don’t spend a lot of time together as a foursome. I’m home with the boy a lot. Our daughter’s at school and my husband’s at work. Our together time is limited, an unexpected downside to starting school. So, these days of long van rides, fun experiences, family meals and just hanging out were a refreshing reminder of how much I love our little clan. Even when I want to pull my hair out.

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