A guide to surviving Valentine’s Day

I love a good fairytale. A happily-ever-after romance. Pretty sure I always have.

But life is not always happily-ever-after. Even great marriages have their low points. And all relationships have flaws.

I haven’t been the hugest fan of Valentine’s Day, although it has its charms. (Conversation hearts, anyone?)

love

I’ve been single, separated by war, and married on Valentine’s Day, and none of those statuses made it any easier to stomach. Because sometimes Valentine’s Day makes us think that love has to be perfect to be worth it. Or that romantic love is all there is to life.

That it falls on a weekend this year somehow intensifies the feelings about this holiday. (I use the term loosely.) Whether you’re single and happy, single and miserable, attached and blissful, attached and unhappy, married with or without children, living your marriage dreams or slogging through a nightmare, I want you to survive Valentine’s Day. I want you to know that love is work and relationships are hard and it’s okay.

A few years ago I blogged a list of realistic love songs about marriage.

I want to add to that list with songs, books and articles that will make your situation, whatever it is, feel normal on Valentine’s Day. Few of us live a fairytale every day, and especially on Valentine’s Day, it’s good to be reminded of love in all seasons of life. Feel free to add your own.

My friend Courtney wrote this book called Paper Hearts. And while it might look like a lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day romance, it is so much more. You can read my full review, and I think you’ll be encouraged by the story. It is what real love is like. (Also, check out the video that goes with it.)

Grab a tissue to watch this Casting Crowns video of their song, “Broken Together.” That whole idea of “you complete me” is good for the movies, but this song tells a much more realistic story.

Specific to Valentine’s Day, here’s a great reminder that our day doesn’t have to be perfect to be good: The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date by Kelly Flanagan.

Still have those tissues? Check out the story of Ian & Larissa Murphy in their book Eight Twenty Eight or you can watch some videos and read some articles about them here. A humbling story of sacrificial love and the goodness of God.

And if you have a lot of garbage in your relationship or your past, check out this post by Gary Thomas, which encourages us that our broken pieces can turn into beautiful windows.

So, there you have it. My guide to surviving Valentine’s Day. Let me know what you think if you check out any of these resources. And please, add others in the comments section!

You don’t have to love Valentine’s Day to love this story: Review of Paper Hearts by Courtney Walsh

I sometimes have a love-hate relationship with Valentine’s Day, even as a married woman. There’s a lot of pressure on that one day, and not every February 14 has been memorable or spectacular in my history. Though I still love a good happily-ever-after story, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drawn more to songs and stories that present a more realistic version of love and relationships.

Stuff like this:

But the very best love stories are the ones that are flawed and full of forgiveness and pain and joy and challenges and happiness. All these things make up a love story.

paper heartsThat’s a line from Paper Hearts by Courtney Walsh, which is–and isn’t–a Valentine’s Day story. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

Here’s a summary:

Abigail Pressman lives in a town that is fascinated by love. Founded by a her ancestors whose love story is legendary, Loves Park, Colorado, capitalizes on its name, drawing tourists year-round, all in the name of love. Abigail runs a local bookstore and, to her mother’s disappointment, is single with a waning interest in dating. Reluctantly resolved to remain single and expand her business, Abigail’s plans are thrown into disarray when Dr. Jacob Willoughby arrives in town and buys the building that houses her bookstore. With his own plans to rebuild his life and practice in the other half of the building, Jacob is unprepared for the conflict his plans bring to the town. When Abigail is drafted into a club that gathers in her store and stamps mail with the town’s romantic postmark, she discovers a love story that is both touching and tragic in the form of paper hearts a couple writes to each other each Valentine’s Day. As she uncovers their story through the hearts, her beliefs about love are challenged and her own chance at happily ever after emerges.

This is a story about love, yes, but it’s also a story about dreams, and it’s a novel forged from the author’s own journey of dreams crushed and dreams realized. (You can find that story on her blog.) It’s about happily ever after, in a way, but about how sometimes you have to walk through some not-so-happy days to get there.

It’s a realistic picture of love in real life–not always pretty or tidy but ugly and messy and beautiful all at the same time. Abigail and Jacob were such realistic characters I could picture their actions and words as if they were flesh and blood people. I could see this as a Hallmark or Lifetime movie (please-oh-please producer type people, check this one out!).

And the whole angle of the paper hearts–of creating a tradition where you write what you love about the other person on hearts throughout the year and then reveal them to each other on Valentine’s Day–is such a sweet and creative idea. It’s the kind of thing you can take from this book and apply to life. (Fiction can do that!)

So, if you aren’t yet in love with the idea of this book, then check out this video, which is all kinds of adorable (and real):

And catch up with Courtney on her website or on Facebook.

If this is your introduction to her work, then you also should check out her three previous books: A Sweethaven Summer, A Sweethaven Homecoming, and A Sweethaven Christmas.

When what I need is less not more

“Mommy, what did you get for Christmas?”

We were unpacking our suitcases and the boxes full of presents we’d carried with us to and from a visit to family in the Midwest over the Christmas and New Year holiday. My 5-year-old son had a long list of answers to this question for himself, as did his sister. I answered him honestly.

“That pretty necklace from Daddy. Time with family. A little bit of money. A coffee mug.” I listed a few things of importance, not wanting to dwell on what I did or didn’t get at Christmas. Sometimes, it’s hard, even as an adult, to remember that the holiday isn’t about gifts and getting.

“And what else?”

I think I told him that I didn’t need anything else, that all of those things were enough. I hope that somewhere in his preschool mind he sees that it’s okay to not get at Christmas.

Our Christmas plans were different this year. We took an airplane to visit family. We spent time in Colorado with family. The kids and I stayed extra time while my husband returned to our home to work.

And one thing people asked us was: “So, did you take all the presents with you?”

Today, I’m blogging over at Putting on the New. You can read the rest of this post here.

What the new year is and isn’t

It snuck up on me this year, New Year’s Eve, the new year, like an old friend on tiptoes waiting to cover my eyes and let me guess who was standing behind me. I had a sense it was coming, but still, it surprised me.

It’s not that I forgot its coming. I just lacked the necessary anticipation.

I spent New Year’s Eve talking to my husband by phone, seeking a connection with God, hanging out with my kids and my parents in front of the TV, watching Taylor Swift “Shake It Off” in 30-degree weather in Times Square.

There was no big to-do. I’m not much for parties or large gatherings and frankly did not have the energy for any kind of effort toward special for New Year’s Eve.

I’ve barely had time to reflect on 2014 and look ahead to 2015, and I wonder if I’m already setting myself up for failure in the year ahead.

Liane Metzler / Creative Commons / via unsplash

Liane Metzler / Creative Commons / via unsplash

Doesn’t the new year require a plan? Goals? Checklists?

I have few of those things in mind or on paper, and I have the feeling of being late or behind before the year begins.

As I considered the year ahead, what may or may not happen, I journaled these words:

A new year brings so many hopes and fears and dreams and expectations. Let me not give too much weight to a single day, month, moment or year. Let me see it for what it is–a part of the whole. A piece of something bigger. One chapter in the story. One verse in the song.

And then I read Psalm 90, a perfectly appropriate reading for New Year’s Eve (thank you, Book of Common Prayer). I’d encourage you to read the whole thing but here are the words that give me strength and hope for a new year.

You have been our refuge from one generation to another.

From age to age you are God.

We bring our years to an end like a sigh.

Teach us to number our days.

Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us and the years in which we suffered adversity.

Prosper the work of our hands.

I hate how much pressure we put on a year at its beginning. I believe in fresh starts and chasing dreams and goals that scare you a little, but I’m learning that those things often take more time than we want them to and to put all our hopes in the start of one year is to maybe set ourselves up for disappointment.

I want 2015 to be different. I want to be different in 2015. But I will not let one year of my life–good or bad–define the rest of my years. I will choose to see how each new year builds on the last. How even the hard times are working toward something better and good. I will not give up when a year is full of more loss than gain.

And I won’t rest on the security of good days, imagining them to be the only way from here on out.

2015 is just another year.

You can start fresh.

You can rebuild.

You can look up.

You can leave 2014 behind.

You can hope, dream, expect.

But remember that what happens this year is one small part of something bigger: your entire life.

What happened in 2014 doesn’t define you.

What’s coming in 2015 won’t either.

You are loved by a Creator who is writing your story, one chapter at a time.

Hang on till the end.

The two ways people react to our upcoming holiday plans

It all started with a death in the family. And a secret prayer to be able to spend more time with my extended relatives.

Sometime around Thanksgiving every year, my husband and I sit down and think about our travel plans for Christmas. He works in a restaurant with limited time off and the rest of our family lives 800 miles away, so going home for Christmas is never a simple matter. As it was shaping up this year, we were going to get about five days in Illinois with our families. Enough time to drive for a whole day, celebrate some Christmases and drive for another whole day.

I’ve been missing my family, thus the secret prayer to find a way to spend more time with them. The kids have a long school break and my husband was the only one who needed to be back at a certain time. (It was a secret prayer because I don’t like sounding disappointed by our circumstances. After all, I married him with full knowledge that one day we would live in Pennsylvania. I just didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to be so far away from everyone else.)

Then my uncle, who lives in Colorado, died, and we started asking different questions.

Are we going to Colorado?

Who is going to Colorado?

When are we going to Colorado?

How are we getting there?

My uncle was the sort of person who didn’t want people to make a fuss, so he wanted no funeral service, only to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the mountains (an impossibility in the winter months).

But the rest of us need closure and to be together, so the planning began. During the holiday break, when several family members have time off because they work for school districts, a trip to Colorado would happen.

The catch? Several of those family members do not like to fly, so this would be a road trip.

Unwilling to subject ourselves to a possible 16-hour drive with a day off followed by another possible 16-hour drive (did you know Denver is 1,500 miles from where we live in Pennsylvania?!?), my husband suggested something crazy. (At least it sounded crazy to me.)

“Why don’t we fly home?”

We have lived in Pennsylvania for more than six years and have never flown back to Illinois. Mainly because it’s expensive and not perfectly convenient. Since there are four of us, we still need a vehicle in Illinois, so loading up the van and driving for a day or overnight has always been the preferred option.

Until now.

After my initial shock and near-refusal, the idea grew on me. We would arrive in Illinois considerably fresher and certainly earlier than if we drove, and because we would only be in our hometown area for a few days, not having our own vehicle isn’t too much of an issue.

So plans came together. We booked tickets. We arranged flights and school and work schedules.

And that is only part of the adventure.

Forrest Cavale | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Forrest Cavale | Creative Commons | via unsplash

The second leg of our Christmas vacation involves four generations of family in an RV driving across the Midwest Plains to Denver for a long weekend of grieving, celebrating and being together. It also involves one of our particular foursome flying back to Pennsylvania from Denver so he can return to work and the rest of us spending a few extra days in Illinois with a yet-to-be-determined rendezvous somewhere between Illinois and Pennsylvania.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably thinking one of two things. I know this, not because I’m a mind reader, but because every person I’ve told this plan to has had one of these two reactions and nothing in-between.

One reaction is: “That’s awesome! You guys are going to have so much fun! What an adventure! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

The other is: “Wow. That sounds … interesting. I’ll pray for you.”

Honestly, I waver between both of those feelings–excitement and terror. Because, let’s face it, this could be the most awesome thing to ever happen to our family or it could be a total disaster. (In reality, it will probably have moments of both). Either way, this will be one of our most memorable holidays ever.

And that’s worth something.

So, I can’t promise you a bunch of blog posts from the road because I’m not exactly sure what all we’re taking with us. But, if you’re interested in following along the adventure on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram, I’m going to use the hashtag #XCountryXmas for all travel related posts. (You can find me on Goodreads to see all the books I read while we travel, too.) I will be writing down memorable quotes, journaling my thoughts and taking pictures along the way, hoping to bring you a share of our memories in the new year.

And just to give you a teaser, here’s the first memorable quote for the trip to come.

Me: Izzy, I e-mailed you teacher today and she said to have a good trip and that you were excited.

Izzy (the first-grader): Yeah, and I might even see the Platte River.

Me: How do you know about the Platte River?

Izzy: My teacher told me. It’s in Nebraska. I can’t wait to go through Nebraska.

Me: I think you’re going to be disappointed. (No offense to Nebraska.)

To epic road trips and beyond! (And Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that jazz!)

The one gift I can give this year

We’re in a terrible rush these days.

Have you noticed?

It seems no matter where I am, someone is honking or speeding by or cutting someone off or ignoring the people around them. We’re so busy, looking for the shortest lane at the store, the fastest way from here to there.

So hurried.

Waiting is an obstacle to accomplishing tasks, patience no longer a virtue.

Life is just flying by, and what do we have to show for it?

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

I am not ready for Christmas. I am never ready for Christmas. I still have family photo cards from last year that never made it to the mail. (Confession: I’m tempted to send them out again this year. Do you think anyone would notice?)

I have a hard time planning ahead to send Christmas cards and shop for gifts. It’s not like Christmas comes as a surprise every year. I just fail to plan for it. Sometime after Thanksgiving (and after our son’s birthday), I start thinking about Christmas, but frankly, it stresses me out a little to add all these other things to my already cluttered life: decorating a tree, sending cards, buying presents, making cookies. I enjoy all of those things; I just don’t appreciate the pressure I feel to get it all done in this short amount of time.

What’s the point of Advent?

A friend asked this on Facebook recently. My answer was less than theological or educated, and her question is not at all surprising. Until a few years ago, I didn’t think much of Advent, that season of the year preceding Christmas. Maybe we opened a calendar with candy in it as kids. Maybe we tried to mark down the days somehow. Even now, with kids, making time for Advent activities seems like one more thing to add to the already busy time of year.

This year we’re using some Advent readings from Thriving Family magazine and twice already, we’ve gotten behind and had to catch up on the days we missed. Sometimes I want to just forget the whole thing. Is it really worth it?

And then it happens.

We find a cute tree. We make room for it in the house and decorate it. We drag out the kids’ nativity set and they begin to tell stories about “the time when Jesus came to be born.” nativity

And even though these acts are small and ordinary, they remind me that this is no ordinary time. It is a time to remember, yes. But also to pause.

A time to wait and expect.

The kids practically bounce off the walls with excitement now that the tree is up and there are presents under it. Christmas is special and they know it.

Do I know it?

I am obsessed with the idea of light breaking into darkness.

Light equals hope. Aren’t we all a bit happier when the sun shines after days of rain? Doesn’t something in us brighten also?

And this is what happens during Advent. We who bear the Light of God proclaim to those walking in darkness (we were once those people, too) that Light has come and Light is coming. Light is breaking through. The world will no longer be dark. There is hope. Hold on just a bit longer. Come with us and we’ll show you the Way to the Light.

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

 —

It is easier, sometimes, to pierce the darkness with light at Christmas. Sometimes we are kinder, more patience, more peaceful, more generous. Sometimes not.

I never quite understood the phrase “the Christmas spirit,” as if our mood during this time was limited to only a few weeks or a month out of the year.

Come January do we all turn back into misers? Is there something magical about this time that brings out the best in us? Or is it just easier to hide the worst in us when all around us is seemingly jolly?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Sometimes when I look at the world I see only hate, sadness, war, hurry, meanness, evil, harshness and greed. (I don’t have to look far. All those things are inside of me.)

So I find it interesting that the fruit of the Spirit is all the things lacking in our world, in my world, today: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These are small battles, for sure, in a war that rages across humanity.

But they are satisfying victories that allow a pinprick of light to shine in the darkness.

This is Advent.

Not a loud proclamation that life as we know it is over.

Not a terrifying battle cry that we’re about to be taken prisoner.

Not a forced servitude.

No.

It is little bits of light in the dark.

It is the hope that comes with a newborn baby.

It is a promise that life goes on.

It is expectation that the world will not always be dark.

It is an invitation to join a revolution whose core value is love.

It is a hand extended in friendship and brotherhood, a voice that says, “Follow me. There’s another way to live.”

It starts with Advent and continues through Christmas, but heaven help us if it ends there.

If I could give the world a gift this year, it would be my own commitment to be Light and Love and Hope all year long.

Of course I’ll fail at that, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Do you celebrate Advent? What does it mean to you?

How does the Christmas season affect you?

The weird thing about grief

My cell phone rang while I was making a special lunch for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost never get calls and almost never in the middle of the day, and when I saw that it was my mom, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

And it wasn’t. My uncle Bill had died sometime in the night. We’d known it was coming. His lungs were failing and his health was deteriorating quickly in the last few weeks. But it doesn’t make the sadness any less sad.

We talked briefly, my mom and I, and just as we were ending the call, her voice cracked, and I almost did, too. I wandered the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come back with our son from preschool (and the final ingredient I needed to finish lunch) when my phone rang again with a number I didn’t know or hadn’t saved since I switched phones. It was my cousin, whose father was the uncle who just died.

We’ve rarely talked on the phone, he and I, but that day, I was glad to hear his voice. (He lives in Colorado; I live in Pennsylvania.) We didn’t talk about much, but his voice, too, cracked as we ended the call. While we were talking, my husband came home and I must have had a distressed look on my face because he seemed to know, too. I ended that call, having not shed a tear yet and just sobbed into my husband’s chest while he wrapped his arms around me.

I cried for the loss and the pain that my family members were experiencing and the separation that kept me from being with them in their grief. My mom, my other uncle, my grandparents are at least all in the same state and have each other to grieve with. My cousin has his mom and my uncle’s friends and co-workers. I’m feeling a bit lost in the process out here in Pennsylvania.

And did I mention that it was my son’s birthday and I still had a cake to decorate? How is a person supposed to decorate a birthday cake and celebrate the passage of another year of life when death has just visited your family?

grief_cake

I don’t know.

When my tears subsided, I finished making lunch. We talked to our son about why mommy was crying. And then my husband played Legos with the birthday boy while I decorated the cake in the kitchen. grief_dad_boy legos

It was surprisingly therapeutic to create something fun and beautiful with my hands while sadness made its home inside of me.

We continued our birthday celebration. We told our daughter the news when she got home from school. We ended the day as normally as possible, though we did stay up late putting Legos together. Whenever there’s a tragic loss of life, especially if it is close to home, I always want to spend more time together with the people I love. It’s like grief and loss remind me that nothing is guaranteed and every moment matters.

I haven’t experienced a lot of grief for deaths in the family. At 36 years old, I still have both of my parents in good health, and three out of four grandparents. Our losses have been few in my lifetime, though I realize that somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the losses could accumulate more rapidly than I’d like.

I know almost nothing about the grieving process except that it’s different for everyone and takes varying amounts of time and really, there are no rules when it comes to how people process loss.

My uncle and I weren’t terribly close. He lived in Colorado for most of my life. But his son, my cousin, is like another brother. We are nearly the same age and my brother and I spent many summers with him at our grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have many memories of our escapades together. A few years ago, my husband and I got to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding, and there I had the chance to get to know my uncle again and spend time with him as a grown-up. I’m so grateful we took that trip even though our basement had just flooded in a freakish rainstorm.

So, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process this loss. How much do I grieve the loss of a man who is important to me because he is important to people I love?

The day after his death, my emotions were raw and I was feeling everything. Grief felt like a heavy blanket over my head and I couldn’t get enough air. grief_legosI played Legos with my son and again found a measure of relief. I don’t know if it’s the creating or the focusing on a task or doing something childlike but whatever it was, it lifted the fog a bit.

grief_birthday candlesThat night we helped decorate the church for Christmas, something I haven’t done yet at our house, and the joy and light of Christmas decorations reminded me that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (That’s in the Bible. Don’t ask me to cite it right now.) That hope descends to the hopeless. That love has the last word. (That’s a line from Jason Gray.)

I desperately want to spend time with my family right now, and I may get my wish over Christmas. Until then, though, this grief thing is weird. Yesterday and today life has been almost normal. But I can’t say whether that will last.

I am not sticking to a healthy eating plan right now because sometimes grief says, “Eat a cupcake.” But it also says, “Take a walk. Slow down. Be present. Notice what’s around you.”

I am trying to do those things.

Maybe I’ll be able to write a post soon telling you about my uncle and the things I appreciated and loved about him. But that’s not for today.

Today, I just want to say that grief is weird. And that’s okay.

No words of wisdom from me.

But maybe you have some to share?

To the boy who turns 5

All I did was write the title of this post, and already, I’m nearly in tears.

It’s not that I don’t want you to grow up. I do want that because that’s the way of things.

Sometimes, though, I wish it didn’t happen so fast.

Wasn’t it just a minute ago that you were barreling into the world via emergency C-section because you were bigger than life?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

And seconds ago you were a smiley baby I snuggled tight while trying to balance your needs and your toddling sister’s needs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now you’re five. You’ll be on your way to kindergarten next year, and though I am looking forward to the days of having my own schedule again, I have to admit that I will miss you.Corban and mommy

You’ve never known anything but a mom who stays home with you. And these last two years, when your sister went off to school, it’s been just you and me, precious time I wouldn’t trade for anything because I saw your personality bloom.

You’ve become my helper. At grocery shopping. At running errands. At washing dishes and doing laundry. You’ve kept me sane through some insanity because you are funny and compassionate and easy to please, when the occasion warrants.

Corban cooks

I thought I knew everything about babies and children after your sister was born. Having a second child seemed easier than the first time around. But you’ve kept us on our toes–from the numerous ear infections as a baby to the urgent care visit in Illinois to our first trip to the ER for a “pediatric head injury.” You live life wild and hard and sometimes you have cuts and bruises and scars that appear from where you’ve tried to take out a wall on accident. (Even when you play soccer with your sister, we see the football–the other kind–potential in you.)

Without you, I wouldn’t know that it was possible for a person to be noisy from the moment they woke up to the moment they fell asleep. The house is quiet without you. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on inside your brain, but occasionally, during the noise, all the thoughts and questions and ideas leak out. I can’t wait to see what happens when you’re in school.

Corban dragon

And speaking of questions: you have so many. I can’t really complain because I was the same way as a child. Even as an adult, I’m asking questions all the time, even if I don’t voice them. You love to know how things work and the reason for things. Just the other night, I was amazed by the workings of your little brain. We walked downtown in the city, you holding my gloved hand with your gloved hand. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps from the car and you were studying a building and a staircase, trying to figure out where it went and how it got there. The amazement I heard in your voice made me pause to be amazed, too.

This, too, is what you’ve done to me. You’ve made me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see. Because of you I see trucks of all kinds on the road. I know the difference between a bulldozer and a backhoe and a skid loader because that’s what you want to read about. I’m learning about trains and bridges and trucks because those are the non-fiction books you find at the library. (And you want to read every word because you want to know how it works.)

Before you were born, I wondered if I had enough love for two children. In some weird way, my love wasn’t split; it was multiplied.

Corban batman

And now you’re 5 and the years have already passed so quickly. And I wonder if I’ll blink and you’ll be on the verge of manhood. Will I always see you as a little boy?

You bring so much life to our lives. I know we don’t have a lot of proof of our love, at least not in the form of pictures. It’s true what they say about subsequent children and the lesser amount of photos. We were too busy loving you and your sister, figuring out our life as a family of four, becoming a healthy place for you to grow up. You might never read these words, or maybe you will someday when you’re much older, but let them reflect all the love I don’t say, all the love you don’t see when you look for pictures of your childhood. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You are so very loved, wanted from the moment we knew you were coming, even though it scared us.

We can’t imagine our family without you.

Happy birthday, Corban. You are, and will always be, what your name means: a gift given back to God.

Shake up your holiday shopping by making a difference in the world

I know it’s Thanksgiving and we’re not supposed to be online hanging with our virtual friends when we’re supposed to be spending time with family and loved ones (and don’t worry, I wrote this post yesterday!) BUT on the off chance you’re headed out to do some Thursday/Black Friday/I don’t know what to call it anymore shopping tonight or tomorrow or this weekend, I wanted to once again ask you to consider changing the way you shop this holiday season.

Because to hear the advertisers tell it, I’m not really thankful or happy this year unless I put in new carpeting or redecorate my house or buy the latest gadget or spoil my children with every.single.toy in the store.

You know that’s not true, right?

You know you have the power to change that story, right? For you and for others?

The holidays, Christmas, in particular, don’t have to be about accumulating more stuff or buying in a frenzy or going into debt. You can choose meaningful gifts, ones that even make a life-saving difference in someone else’s life. Really.

I think we can all agree that we have a lot of choices in our lives. Confession: I nearly had a meltdown in the bread aisle the other night because we had a dozen different choices about what kind of hamburger buns we could buy. (Kaiser. Potato. Wheat. Slider size. Regular size. On and on.) And somewhere on the other side of the world, a mama doesn’t have enough money to buy any bread. Period.

Let that sink in but don’t let it paralyze you.

You can do some good. Right here. Right now. For someone else who truly needs it.

There are hundreds of companies doing good with their goods, and that can be overwhelming, I know. So, here are a few ideas to help you shake up your holiday shopping, if you don’t know where to start.

1. Imagine Goods. This company is one you will hear/read about from me all.the.time. The co-owner is a friend who lives in the same town, but even if I didn’t know her personally, I would want you to shop here. They sell beautiful home goods like tablecloths, cloth napkins and aprons, as well as fashionable clothing for women, children and men. And the clothing is all made in Cambodia by women who have been sexually exploited or are at-risk of exploitation because of financial or family situations. Imagine Goods offers them decent working conditions and a livable wage. As a bonus, the company partners with other organizations doing good, such as Love146, making clothing and products for them, as well. (They’re running a 20 percent off sale through Sunday with the code “Thankful Hearts.”)

2. Ornaments4Orphans. I just learned about this organization last weekend at a Christmas open house another friend hosted. They sell handcrafted ornaments made in East Africa through fair trade practices, and the proceeds benefit programs that help orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly in Uganda. If you’re looking for unique Christmas tree decorations, look here.

3. Ten Thousand Villages. I had never heard of this until we moved to Pennsylvania six years ago (because it’s based here), but this is one of my favorite places to shop/browse. Everything sold in stores and online is made by artisans in countries all over the globe. These artisans are paid fairly for their work. You can find jewelry and home decor and wall art and more. If you don’t have a store near you, browse online. Unique gifts made with care.

4. Imana Kids. If you decide that you and your loved ones really do have enough stuff, you can still spend money and make a difference in the world. Another friend is involved with this great ministry in Rwanda, caring for orphans through safe homes, basic needs and education. They’re currently trying to furnish a home that can serve as a safe haven and meeting place for the kids until permanent homes are found. They are aiming to raise $30,000 and you can help by buying plates and bowls, blankets, sheets, furniture and one month of clean water. Check out their gift catalog for the full list of gift options. These are basic needs, not above-and-beyond needs.

Truly, you (and I) have no reason not to support organizations such as these. And not only at Christmas but year-round. Will it mean sacrifice? Yep. Will it mean discomfort? Yep. (Will it mean a meltdown in the bread aisle because you have so.many.choices? Maybe!) But I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Count the cost this Christmas. The cost of whatever it is you think you need compared to the cost of basic needs a fellow human being needs.

You don’t have to overhaul your whole shopping list today (or even this year). Start small if you have to. Make one better choice this year. And then maybe next time you need a gift, you make another choice like this. And then maybe next year you’ll be ready to make even more changes to your shopping list.

I know it’s not easy. Trust me, I do. We do not have loads of money to spend on things, but we have more than enough of what we need. And I can’t in good conscience live my life only and always for myself. I just can’t. (Though sometimes I try really hard to do just that.)

Maybe you have some other organizations to add to this list. Feel free!

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this post. I can personally vouch for Imagine Goods and Imana Kids, if you’re worried about accountability. They are good friends doing good work that is also very hard.

Any excuse you are thinking of right now, I’ve said it to myself.

This is not about guilt. (I’m sorry if it sounds that way. I’m a mom! I think it’s ingrained!)

And it’s not about charity.

It’s about justice. About making things right. About doing for someone what you would want them to do for you. In an honorable and dignified way.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to fall into a turkey induced coma.

Just think about it, okay?

That’s the last I’ll say about it. Today.

3 words I never thought I’d hear in church

On any given Sunday, I can expect to hear certain things during a church gathering. Songs of praise. Prayers. Announcements about activities. Bible verses.

But a couple of Sundays ago, I heard three words I never, ever, ever, expected to hear in church.

They weren’t swear words or anything like that, but they were a bit shocking.

Are you ready for them?

Here they are: washable feminine pads.

Sorry if I lost a few male readers with that revelation, but if you’re not too squeamish, stick around and hear why these words were part of our service.

Every once in a while, members of our church volunteer at a GAIN (Global Aid Network) distribution center in our county. Recently, a group took a Wednesday night to help out at the center, and the following Sunday, our pastor reported on their activities. Sometimes, the groups work with boxes or blankets. This time, though, they helped in a completely different way.

They traced a pattern and cut material to make washable feminine pads for women in developing countries.

Now, ladies, I don’t know about you, but I can hardly even talk about my monthly “gift” without squirming and getting embarrassed. My husband is completely comfortable making a run to Target or CVS for supplies when I’m desperate, but I feel like I might as well be wearing a blinking sign when I purchase the same products. So, I could hardly believe my ears when this topic was talked about at length at the start of our service by our pastor.

And there were pictures! Pictures of our church people doing this work. I wanted to crawl away or laugh nervously.

But then I got over it. Or I tried. Because the reality is this: I have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Women in developing countries face real shame about their femininity. You can read more here. Shunned. Degraded. Ostracized. Imagine if you had to miss 20 percent of your school year? If you couldn’t go out in public for the duration of your period?

The simple solution is this topic we talked about in church: washable feminine pads.

Shame on me for being embarrassed to talk about it. And for thinking only of myself.

How easy it is for me to go to a local store and pick up what I need and carry on with my day (mostly) during that time of the month. How easy it is for me to not even think that someone else doesn’t have it that way.

And this is my main problem as privileged American: selfish, narrow-minded thinking.

Slowly, I’m gaining knowledge, becoming aware of the needs of people worldwide, convicted of how my selfishness negatively affects people I don’t even know.

I won’t ask if you’ve ever thought about the menstrual cycles of women in developing countries because until that Sunday, I hadn’t.

But what about the source of your luxuries?

We’re entering a season of the year where sweets and food and gifts take front and center. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. This is an important question all year long, but at least during this end-of-the-year stretch, we need to talk about it and remember.

When you eat chocolate, do you think about how it got to you? Do you know about children enslaved to harvest cocoa beans so you can have a sweet treat?

What about when you drink tea or coffee? Do you wonder if the farmers who grow it get paid fairly?

How about that quinoa you eat because it’s a health food fad and is a good source of non-meat protein? Do you wonder if your consumption of it, our demand for it, impacts the Andean people where it’s grown?

What about your chocolate hazelnut spread that uses palm oil thus destroying the habitat of orangutans? (I learned this while visiting a zoo.)

I could keep going talking about our technology and the minerals used in our phones and computers, about the diamonds we covet and the corruption bred in the countries where such things flourish.

It’s overwhelming. Really. There’s almost no part of our lives untouched by the corruption and exploitation of others. That’s the bad news.

The good news is we have choices. Lots and lots of choices. And we have knowledge.

And even if we can’t change everything, we can change some things. Now. Even if it’s just one thing.

Not long ago, I switched to fair trade coffee in my house. This is not a huge sacrifice because Costco sells it in bulk and it’s not terribly expensive. It hasn’t really affected the amount of coffee I consume. It’s not as easy when I’m drinking coffee away from home, but it’s possible. More companies are using direct-trade, fair trade or other sustainably sourced beans in some of their coffees.

Then I started buying fair trade tea. I don’t drink as much tea as coffee, and this one is much more obvious in its impact on my finances. Fair trade teas are not cheap. But neither is justice.

Our next move is chocolate, and I will confess that this one is hard because chocolate is everywhere and it’s cheap. The fair trade kind is expensive (and delicious!) and not in every candy aisle. It’s a special trip or an online order. But, it’s not impossible.

October is fair trade month, and through the website Klout, which tracks online influence, I received a box of fair trade products as a gift. Snacks made with fair trade chocolate, a quinoa/rice blend in a box made with fair trade quinoa. Tea, both hot and cold. All of it delicious and all of it fair.

So. What’s my point? I started off talking about washable feminine pads and now I’m on to fair trade food.

I think my point is this: it’s easy to look away or think only of ourselves, of the cost to us, which is really only monetary. It’s easy to want to be comfortable and not talk about things like child slavery or women being shunned for having a period.

But we need to know. And we need to talk about it. And we need to act.

It’s good to get a little squeamish. It’s good to talk about things that make us uncomfortable. Because then we’re better able to identify. To say, what if it was me?

My challenge to you (and to me) this season is to make one small change you can carry through beyond the first of the year. Swap out your favorite tea with a fair trade brand. Buy a bag of fair trade coffee. Check the source of your favorite chocolate treat. Ask more questions about where your food comes from. Buy your next new outfit from a company whose clothes are ethically sourced and fairly made. Read a book about human trafficking or corruption in governments whose resources are valuable.

There are a lot of companies to choose from, a lot of lists on other blogs out there to help you with these decisions. If you need specific direction, leave a comment about the change you’d like to make and I’ll see if I can point you in the right direction.

Or just leave a comment about the change you plan to make so we can encourage each other to stick with it.