Altered Messages

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I have a set of “grown up” alphabet letter blocks as part of my living room décor. With these blocks, I can create a wide variety of sayings and greetings—pretty much anything that can be said in 18 or fewer letters. I have had the letters for many years, though I don’t remember which mail order catalogue I found them in. After my initial set of letters, I asked for the images and numbers for Christmas (or my birthday) one year. Over the years, I have used the blocks for greetings, holiday sayings, birthday wishes, announcements, etc.

The sayings have a spot on the top of the shelf-unit where the television sits. The shelf is six feet high, so I create the sayings on the living room rug, and move the words to their perch one at a time. I move the bottom word first and work in ascending order, placing one word on top of the other until the message is complete. For many years, I could create a saying, place it on the shelf, and not even think about it again until I it was time to change it.

Lately, however, I have noticed that the sayings I write are often … well, altered in some subtle (or not so subtle) way. For example, my Christmas message: Joy, Peace & Love morphed over time. After only a couple of days of sitting on the shelf, it suddenly read: Joy, Geese & Love. Hmm… because everyone hopes for geese at this time of year…?

Now that everyone is tall enough to reach the block sayings, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the message will change from what I write, but there is no doubt that it will be altered in one way or another. I can only sit back, relax, and anticipate the changes. Certainly, the message I put on the shelf makes sense. At least for the first day or two….

One final thought–Christmas antics

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Stuffing stockings—one of my annual Christmas challenges. Have I found enough stuff to fill each stocking? Will I have too much stuff, and if so, what will I do with the extra? Even after years of filling the same stockings, I always second-guess myself.

This year, we approached the holiday in “scaled down” mode. Finances are a little tight, so when I was searching for stocking stuffers, I decided to go the practical route. In addition to some toiletries, toothbrushes, and a tiny puzzle-y-thing or two (okay, and the requisite chocolate…), I purchased socks and underwear to fill the extra space in the stockings because, well… practical (and necessary).

When I started to actually fill the stockings, I found that I did not have enough room for the underwear. I had purchased a package of underwear for each of the teens in my house. While the packages were a good idea and would have taken up a sizeable chunk of space, the stockings were full enough without them. So late on Christmas Eve, I made the decision to place the packages of underwear in the children’s rooms, as if Santa, himself, had gone to their rooms to check on them and placed the item there.

On Christmas morning, I wanted to make sure none of them missed this amazing Christmas treasure. W was the first one up. “Did you see that there is underwear in your room?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he told me, and then his face brightened. “I was so excited that I had to wake C to let him know. ‘Santa came! Santa came! And look what he brought us: new underwear!’” he recounted the scene for me, and I had to smile at his sense of humor and fun. In fact, he actually did wake his older brother with his humorous rendition of childlike Christmas excitement.

And because that childlike excitement of their younger days has tempered to a much calmer holiday emotion, I always smile at the moments like this one—humorous or not.

The big brother who is trying to sleep in … maybe he doesn’t find these antics quite so entertaining.

Christmas Cookies

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Each year at Christmas time, I bake several different kinds of cookies, which I immediately place in the freezer until Christmas Eve. On that day, I make up plates of cookies and distribute them to friends and neighbors.

The day before my son came home from college, I texted him a picture of his favorite Christmas cookies. (Please ignore the fact that one is missing from the cookie sheet. It accidentally slipped from the spatula into my mouth when I was freeing them from the pan. Quality control is imperative, you know).

“Yum!” he texted in reply.

When he arrived home the next day, we sat down to dinner, and when we were done eating, he looked around the kitchen. “Where are the Christmas cookies?” he asked.

“That picture was from last year,” I lied, realizing I shouldn’t have let him know his favorite cookies were in the house. In my head, I could picture nearly empty containers of cookies on Christmas Eve….

“Oh!” he exclaimed in deflated response. “I was looking forward to those….”

And then I felt bad for telling him I didn’t have any. What kind of mother was I, sending him a picture of his favorite cookies and then telling him they weren’t in the house? I was caught between a lie and the possibility that my cookies would disappear before Christmas Eve.

I took a deep breath to calm myself. “They’re down in the freezer,” the words escaped me in a very small, quiet voice.

I sat back and watched as he ate a cookie. Then another. And another. Finally, I spoke up. “You have to put the cookies back in the freezer now.” And he did. Of course, I haven’t checked the contents of the containers since that night about a week ago now, so I am only assuming he hasn’t had more since.

But having my cookie connoisseur home with me has its advantages, as well. Last night, I made a new type of cookie for my Christmas plates. When they came out of the oven, I cut one in half and tried it. It was good. I brought the other half into the living room for C, who was the only one still awake. He thought it was good.

Of course, half a cookie isn’t a good indication of whether or not a recipe is actually tasty. A little while later, C came into the kitchen and asked if he could have one of the cookies fresh from the oven. I nodded and steered him to the baking sheet that had been cooling the longest.

I was at the sink cleaning up the dishes. I pretended not to notice when he polished off his first full cookie and took another, but secretly, I knew these cookies were a success. Score one for the new recipe!

Snow day with a side of snark

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Monday was a snow day in our school district, the first for the school year, and an early one, at that. Despite the fact that a day off will have to be made up at the end of the year, I must say, it was a welcome break at this busy time of year.

Throughout the day, it seemed my daughter’s mood was fueled by the energy and anticipation that pre-Christmas snow days can bring. I was folding her laundry when I realized I once made a sweater very much like one she had in the wash. I dug it out of the cedar chest and brought it to her room. I let her know that I made it when I was in college, and asked her if she would want to wear it.

“Sure,” she responded, taking the sweater from me and holding it up to examine it. “It’s perfect! I have an ugly sweater party on Friday, and I can wear it!”

“Um…” I started, reminiscing on the January term that I had painstakingly knit the sweater in question, placing each stitch of the Fair Isle pattern in exactly the right place. And now it was considered an ugly sweater? She looked up and saw my expression.

“I don’t mean this is an ugly sweater,” she back-tracked. “But it would work for the party because it’s in the style of an ugly sweater. There’s a difference.” This last bit was said as she turned to walk back into her room. No doubt so I would not see her silently laughing.

Her snark-streak continued after lunch, when she asked if she could eat one of the Christmas cookies I had just made, my famous snowman cookies. These cookies end up dispersed among family and friends, so I tend to be a bit stingy with them. “You can have one of the ugly ones,” I told her. “Pick one that’s cracked or deformed.”

She looked them all over. “Don’t worry,” she assured me as she selected a cookie. “There are plenty of ugly ones here.” Indeed.

Still later, I was coming up the stairs from the laundry. I had been singing made up songs that probably were a bit crazier than I thought. “Hey Mom…. Oh, never mind, that wasn’t going to come out right,” she said as I entered the living room.

“You’ve spent the day saying things that didn’t come out right. You may as well just say it,” I coaxed. It was actually a challenge, but she didn’t know it.

“I was just wondering, is it ever too early to put someone in assisted living?”

“Oh my. So I’m going to assisted living already?”

“I’m not planning anything. I’m just preparing. In case you might be going crazy….” Her voice trailed off. “But don’t worry. I’d take care of you at home before I put you in a facility.” She smiled that sweet smile that let me know she was going to do whatever she needed to once I had slipped into the depths of crazy. It’s always nice to know your kids have plans to keep you safe.

I wish I could say that was it for the day, but it was not. After dinner, I prepared for my tap class. I was talking to myself as I walked through the kitchen, saying how much I loved tap and how happy I was to be going to class. But then I stopped. I looked right at her, and I said, “But no worries. I would never dance on stage, like in the recital. I would look ridiculous, and nobody wants to see that.”

Her eyes narrowed as she considered my words. “I think you should dance on stage, Mom. Everyone would watch you, and they would see how much you love it. They would be so happy for you.”

I might have thought that was a very sweet thing to say. But as teenagers too often do, she continued down this road, one she should not have traveled. “They might be laughing, Mom, but they would be laughing with you, not at you. Because you just said you know how ridiculous you would look.” And again, the smile.

Ah, life with teenagers. If you ever have a moment when you think you might actually feel good about something, just wait. One snarky comment, and they will humble you in an instant.

And if I am perfectly honest… I wouldn’t want it any other way!

[Image is the “ugly” sweater in question]

The Things that are Missing…

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At that university where I work, I meet with student writers from all walks and backgrounds. I mainly meet with undergraduate writers, but I also work with students who are professionals in the midst of careers—returning to school for professional development or to get a degree. And then there are the graduate students who range in age from 22 to 92.

Recently, I met with a woman who was an acquaintance of mine in a former iteration of my life—years ago when I was single and worked a different job. She is in a demanding graduate program, she works full time, and she deals with the every day stresses and curve-balls of life that we all deal with.

She was struggling. Her professor had told her that her final essay could end her participation in the program; she was under more pressure than usual, and she was taking it out on herself. Briefly, she let me in on the frustrations she had with the class—the only class in which she had struggled in the program thus far. Now, she felt the need to put exactly the right words on the page, which is never good for the writing process; she was over-editing because she felt under-confident.

I asked her how many classes she had completed in the program. Seven. And then I reminded her that she had seen me two years earlier—when she had first started her program—feeling almost exactly the same way. And I reminded her that she hadn’t seen me since. “What is it about these two classes that stripped you of your confidence?” I asked her.

Her response had nothing to do with school. She mentioned the loss of a loved one several years earlier; the holiday season without that person; the stresses of her work; a birthday celebration that needed to happen in the midst of everything else. And the pressure to finish this one last paper.

Often at this time of the year, we are too able to focus on what’s missing. The longing for what is missing blurs the present and what we have. And sometimes, we don’t even consciously recognize that we are struggling with loss or stress or the need to be everything to everyone.

And so I say this: be gentle with yourself, not just at this time of year, but always. You are not alone. We are all in this together. Chances are, if you are willing to say, “You know what? I am struggling today,” someone will step in to offer support and to lift you up.

The Butter Monster

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When my children were little, I tried to make boring chores relatively entertaining for them. I felt that if I could bring a little fun to the mundane, it would help my children to develop a sense of adventure as they approached every day situations. I don’t believe I always succeeded, but we certainly had some fun along the way.

Years ago, as school was starting, the stores were pushing autumn baking, I was in the grocery store with two little ones taking care of our weekly shopping. Because I knew it was not their favorite time, we began to play a game. As we walked through the store, out of the blue, I told them that we had to be careful not to be seen by The Butter Monster.

Truth be told, I have no idea where that came from. Nor did I have any idea what we were running from. However, we made our way through the store, ducking behind displays and dodging other shoppers. We moved quickly up and down the aisles, grabbing the items we needed as we passed.

My two little children (I think they were maybe 4 and 6 at the time) were giggling and squealing like they were outside playing a game of tag. And then it happened….

We turned into the baking aisle and nearly bumped into a display of baking mixes, that was topped by a huge cardboard cut-out of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “Ah!” I practically screamed, trying to maintain some composure while I still entertained my children. “It’s the Butter Monster!!” I whipped the grocery cart around and high-tailed it out of that aisle. We hid one aisle over while we caught our breath and tried to stifle our giggles. Somehow, we managed to finish our shopping.

On my next trip to the store, I asked the manager if it would be possible for us to have the cut out of Dough Boy when the store was done with the display. While they thought I was completely insane, they saved it for me. We brought the Butter Monster with us to Thanksgiving dinner that year and sat him at the table, spreading our fun to extended family.

Maybe grocery shopping isn’t such a “boring chore” after all. I realize that I might have made a hasty judgment. Just because I find a chore “boring” doesn’t mean my kids need to, as well. Perhaps, with memories such as these, my children can reframe the “boring chores” and look on tasks such as food shopping as an adventure!

{Image is a photo of the Butter Monster being placed at the Thanksgiving table years ago}

Period. #atozchallenge

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Recently, I found a chocolate bunny that was left over from the Easter holiday. I stuck it in a sandwich bag, and I broke it into pieces. (Had I done the reverse—broken it up and then put it in a sandwich bag, I might have lost some of the smaller pieces…). I had been eating little bits from the bag each night.

After a few days of this nibbling, I went into the pantry closet to have my nightly ration. I looked where I thought I had left the bag, but I couldn’t find it. I searched one bin, then another. No bag of bunny bits. Bummer.

I must be going crazy.

The following night, I thought I should look again. Perhaps I had missed it the day before.  Again, I searched the logical places, and again, I came up empty. Where could I have put that bag? I strained my memory trying to recreate my actions in returning the bag to the pantry.

“I know I had a chocolate Easter bunny in here,” I said to no one in particular. “I just can’t seem to find it.” I sighed. Loudly.

“Wait. That was yours?” C asked from where he sat in the living room.

I turned and looked through the doorway, studying him sitting on the couch, suddenly alert. “Did you eat it?” I asked accusingly.

“Nope. When W got home from school the other day, he found it in the pantry, and he asked if it was mine. I said no, so he assumed it was his. He ate it.”

“He ate my chocolate bunny?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” he said, sounding not quite certain. “You’ll have to ask him.”

“Ugh! I have been going crazy looking for that bunny!” I made the statement as dramatically as I could.

“Mom,” C retorted. “You are going crazy. Period.”

Mixed Up

My mixer died at the worst possible time. Last week, as we were preparing for Thanksgiving, my chef-son was making focaccia bread. He had a large lump of dough in the mixer being kneaded with the bread hook. The normal whir of the motor was strained, with skipping pauses each time the hook traversed the bowl.

“That doesn’t sound good,” I told him, thinking he had put too much dough, or the dough was too stiff. It was a warning, really. I could hear the mixer deciding whether or not to continue its work.

“It’s fine, Mom,” C retorted in that terrible, sarcastic I’m-a-teenager-and-I’m-smarter-than-you way. “This is what it’s designed to do.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that mixers are supposed to, well… mix. But my mixer is 20+ years old, and because I am a baker, it gets a lot of use. Every year at this time, it whips up batches of gingerbread, sugar cookies, butter cookies, chocolate pretzel cookies, and armies of snowmen. At this time of year, it is mixing twenty-four-seven. Well… almost.

And that’s why I was concerned that the normal whir was sounding like a hiccupped whine. It is “this time of year,” and I am just about to ramp up my baking.

I stood over the mixer, watching it knead the dough, debating whether to turn it off and have C knead by hand, or let it keep struggling. And just as I was about to say, “Stop!” …it did. Not exactly the way I meant. It just stopped working. For a moment, I stared in shock. What am I going to do now? I wondered to myself, thinking about the dozens of cookies that would not be mixed and baked for Christmas.

I looked at C, my mouth still hanging open, but he was already removing the focaccia bread dough from the bowl, preparing to knead by hand. He wasn’t going to let a little mixer malfunction stop him.

I swallowed hard and took my cue from my son. I closed my mouth and moved on with my Thanksgiving preparations. It was a lucky thing that my mixer died two days before the Black Friday sales. I got one heckuva deal on a new one—one that is (according to W) almost twice as powerful. I’m looking forward to my holiday baking.

If I really think about it, my mixer died at the best possible time!

Resolutions

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The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is almost as interesting as the tradition of breaking them a few weeks down the road. Somehow, we think that just because the calendar turns to a new month that ends in a new number, we should somehow change. We believe if we make significant changes in our behavior that our lives and our year will be different and better.

On New Years Day, we take on the challenge to change our lives all at once. We decide to lose weight, to work out, to eat healthier, and to live happier by reaching out to the less fortunate and changing our attitude. Really? And we wonder why we give up a week (or two… or four…) in.

Life change is an on-going process. It’s called growth, and growth is something that is constant and continuing until the day we die, regardless of our contribution to the process. While we have the option to make choices to help steer our growth in a positive direction, it is never advisable to make changes in all aspects of life at once. Unless we want to fail. If one truly wants to lose weight or get in shape or be more altruistic, one would do so regardless of whether the calendar changed.

In 2014, my greatest growth came not from changes I made, but from my choice to grow from the situations in which I found myself. Through these situations, I experienced one of the most important epiphanies of my life as a single parent, and consequently, I was able to release one of the long-standing stresses I have had. This growth is not something I could have predicted on January 1st, but will change my approach to similar situations in the future.

My resolution for 2015 is one that was originally made 17 years ago, and is one that I am still working on. Before my son was born, I resolved to be the best mom I could be, and I am forever working on this resolution as I define and redefine what it means to be “the best mom I can be.” My definition is different for teenagers than it was for toddlers, and what they need from me also transforms and evolves. My life as a single mom poses challenges that are neither constant nor predictable. But by striving to be the best that I can be in the situations that arise, I am making a promise—to myself and to my children—that I will be a presence that they can rely on and a role model that they might choose to follow.

And so I continue to work toward my goal on my journey as a parent. But I know I must do so one day at a time. January 1 represents a new day, 24 hours in which I can work on my goal to be the best I can be.

Joseph

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Christmas is over, but my reflection on Christmas is not. This year, I have been drawn to a particular song and the story it tells; the song, “A strange way to save the world” by the group 4-Him, is told from the point of view of Joseph as he finds himself in the unlikely position of being in the stable in Bethlehem, staring into the face of Jesus. He wonders how he ended up here, and why God is using a mere baby to save the world.

We don’t often think about Joseph when we think about the Christmas story. He was not directly involved in the miracle of Christmas… or was he? He certainly had an opportunity to say no. He could have told Mary that because she was pregnant, he was no longer interested. Or he might have said he didn’t particularly want to raise someone else’s child, Son of God or not. He could have walked away and been free of the responsibility that God was asking him to take on.

But he didn’t.

First, he accepted that the child Mary was carrying was the Son of God, acceptance that was a miracle in itself (though the angels may have helped to sway him). Second, he agreed to raise this child as his own, to provide for the boy to the best of his ability. Third, he accepted the challenges that would arise in raising the Son of God. (“Jesus, you have got to stop walking on the lake! Bobby nearly drown yesterday because he can’t swim. His parents are furious…!”) Most importantly, he accepted that he would take a backseat to the child and to Mary, who figured prominently in our historical accounts of Jesus’s life. Joseph was a behind-the-scenes figure in this story.

When God said, “Joseph, will you…,” Joseph stepped up. And then he stepped into the background. The shepherds came and went. The Wise Men brought gifts and disappeared. Joseph remained constant, but we hear little about him.

No doubt, this situation was not what Joseph was expecting for his life. He was expecting to get married to the woman he loved. He was expecting to lead a quiet life with no fanfare and little drama; yet suddenly, he found himself with the heavy burden of supporting a child, raising the Son of God. What faith he demonstrated in accepting this challenge!

As we move through life, we should strive to be more like Joseph. We should strive to have the faith to accept the challenges that God throws our way. Joseph did not say, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t fit into my plan.” He didn’t reject the inconvenience of having a bride and a baby that wasn’t his. He realized that since God had chosen him, God would provide the tools to help him complete the job. He accepted God’s plan with all of its uncertainties and inconveniences, and he stepped out of the way to let God work through him.