Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.

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Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…

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Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

The Forest for the Trees

We used to drive to nearby farms for our annual Christmas tree. We’d eat those Royal Dansk Danish Butter cookies that were never very good. We’d sip cider out of Dixie cups and then tromp through artificial rows of forest looking for the tree. When we settled on one, the tree would be sawed down, wrangled into a net and, at home, thrust into a stand so we could encase it with 20,000 Christmas-with-the-Kranks lights.

I wasn’t brave enough to cut down a tree the first year on my own with the kids. Instead, I left Paige and Katie with my parents and headed off to Home Depot with Megan and Ryan who wanted to get a tree with Mommy.

I don’t know what it is with home repair stuff, but each time I’ve tried to work on a home project, everything I say conjures up double entendres. I walk into Home Depot and an employee is quick to my aid, “Can I help you find something?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a screw,” I say.

Mr. Orange Apron flashes a flirtatious smile. I turn red.

“I need screw eyes.” Wait. That didn’t help things.

When I was wrestling with my garbage disposal, aka as an “in-sink erator,” a friend at work was trying to talk me through the plumbing repair job. “You take the male pipe and put it into the female pipe but don’t forget the rubber gasket between them…” I glanced around hoping no one from HR was within earshot of our conversation and thought, Pipes have genders? I had a hard enough time with French-gendered nouns! 

As a result, I’ve learned to be more specific when I walk through the sliding doors of the mega hardware store. I tell the men I’m looking for toilet flappers or rubber foam for stripping to keep things warm at night. It’s still awkward to say I need a replacement “ballcock” but I’m managing. (Please keep your mind out of the gutter and on toilets if you think I’m making this up.)

But I digress. Size does matter, so Megan, Ryan and I settled on an enormous Noble Fir that first year. We watched the tree guys make a clean-cut to the base, net it, and hoist it onto the roof of our car. Only, Home Depot employees aren’t allowed to tie trees down—something about liability issues if the tree falls off the car.

We flung bungee cords and ropes around hoping that we were somehow latching the tree to our roof. I didn’t trust my tie-down efforts, so I had each kid hold onto the rope ends inside the car. When we arrived home, we pushed the tree off my roof only to discover I didn’t have a Christmas tree stand big enough to accommodate the tree’s base.

Last year I resorted to an artificial tree. A Frontgate Flip tree. An amazing, ingenious tree where I step on a pedal, flip the tree over and attach the top. It’s beautiful. Easy.  And pre-lit. But it doesn’t smell of a fresh forest and pine needles.

We wheeled it into our family room on Veteran’s day this year and decorated the whole evening because Christmas can very well start in November. Or even July in my book.

While our tree was up in time to honor our soldiers, Christmas became real last Saturday when my friends Alan and Sylvia showed up at church with a live tree for me. They purchased 8 gorgeous trees for a school fundraiser and gifted them to several families. I was one of the lucky recipients.

I had planned to stop by Bellarmine high school’s parking lot after church with an assortment of bungee cords. Instead, Alan and Sylvia delivered the tree to my car at church. It was raining. Not Seattle’s light mist, but a relentless, drenching downpour. Alan, an orthopedic surgeon, stood in the rain and sutured the tree onto my roof with ropes to ensure that I could cross the Narrows bridge with its high winds without mishaps. And I did.

The tree was secure, but the knots gave way with ease when I needed to get it off the roof. One phone call and my next door neighbor Dave was over to help me carry the tree into the house and set it in its stand. (Krinner Christmas Tree Genie XXL = best stand ever.)

The tree is lovely in my living room. The whole house is filled with its smell. And Alan and Sylvia’s gift not only made me deeply appreciative of good friends, it caused me to reflect on what I’ve learned from Christmas trees past, present and future:

Tall trees require broad bases. We all say to each other, “My, how your kids have grown.” And they have. But my children have grown up with a solid base of support from my parents and cousins, aunts and uncles. They’ve had an extraordinary foundation built of our church community and neighbors, teachers and friends. It’s more than I could have ever offered them on my own, but a good base is required for a tree to stand tall.

Medium beats well-done.  I tend toward perfection. My kids thrive on adventure and mayhem. I’m often flummoxed by how to manage it all–the schedules, the errands, the repairs, the cost, the sheer orchestration of life. My kids are resilient and forgiving and impervious to near mishaps. Megan and Ryan still laugh about trying to keep our Home Depot tree on our car roof. All of them enjoy hanging the ornaments—many clustered 3 feet from the ground—much more than looking at the tree when it’s finished. Real tree. Artificial tree. No one really cares except that there’s a tree to decorate, and its lights cast a kind glow on the little lives in our home.

Christmas is Receiving. All my life, I’ve heard that it’s more blessed to give than to receive so it’s an odd thing to realize that it’s important to be a gracious receiver as well.

My friends Kari and Tom showed up for dinner the other evening with some gourmet cheese and a cheese knife set, the handles made of beautiful Murano glass. It’s a perfect gift, yet I was mortified that I had been sick all week and hadn’t gotten them a thing in exchange.

Sometimes I am just a receiver, unprepared to reciprocate. I am humbled by all that I don’t know and can’t fix by myself. So I depend on the goodwill of Home Depot men. I accept big, beautiful Christmas trees and the kindness of neighbors and gorgeous glass knives without offering something back.

Christmas is kinda like that. It represents grace of a magnitude that humbles me. Renders me a complete receiver.

I am in awe of the gifts of Christmas: Unmerited grace. The presence and presents of family and friends.

Wishing all of you the gifts of love and joy, peace and astounding grace this season!

No, Katie, There is No Santa Claus

Kids, cousins and Santa in 2009Katie has been asking to take a picture with Santa for the past few days. She usually avoids pictures, so I was perplexed until I heard her whispering to Paige that she wanted to sit on Santa’s lap and pull his beard to see if it was real. “I’m also going to see if the elves’ ears are really pointed,” she told Ryan.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, Katie talked her sibs and cousins into a slumber party in my sister’s family room. They’re sleeping by the fireplace so they can wake up and see if Santa really comes down the chimney.

At bedtime, they were rolling around in their makeshift bed like puppies (puppies dressed in Christmas PJs) when I realized Ryan wasn’t in the picture. My sister went looking for him and found him eating Santa’s Christmas cookie.Ooops! This cookie was for Santa?

I haven’t cultivated the notion of Santa with any of my kids, but Katie’s sorta playing that she’s a skeptic of a cherished belief. You have to know Katie for that to make any sense. She’s the kid who relishes dispelling myths, even as she wants to believe…

With or without Santa, I love Christmas. While I hear others sigh over the traffic and bustle and seasonal stress, I happen to relish it all. Busy downtown sidewalks. Crowded malls. Bring it on. I love decorating the house and wrapping presents. I’m game for the double- and triple- booked days of parties and festivities with everyone!

Even so, I am keenly aware that the real tidings of great joy remain in the proclamation: For unto us, a Child is born. Unto us, a Son is given.

Christmas took on a particular significance the year Eric and I celebrated our first Christmas as parents. It was profound to hold little Megan at 10 months and contemplate the birth of Jesus as a baby in our world.

Today, with a dozen more years of life and motherhood under my belt, my understanding of Christmas continues to change. Sure, it’s still a celebration of our dear Savior’s birth. It’s God’s magnificent gift to this world. It’s only lately that I’ve started to grasp what this joy to our world really meant for God.

According to the parenting plan drafted in our divorce, our kids spend even-year Christmases with their Dad; odd years with me. When school let out for the holidays last year, the kids, their friends, and I baked and decorated cupcakes. My mother was visiting for her birthday, so we brought out a cake, sang to her, and then the kids left for their first Christmas with their Dad and his new wife.

I had never spent a Christmas without them since they were born. The house was too quiet. Too empty. My sister and nieces were stuck in Portland’s snowstorm. My Dad wasn’t flying up to join us until Christmas morning. There was little energy or enthusiasm to cook a big feast, so Mom and I went out to eat at the Lobster Shop for Christmas eve. I was so thankful to have my Mom in town, but it was awful to spend Christmas without my kids.

We didn’t read the Nativity story or open our stockings on Christmas eve. No one pestered me on Christmas morning to get up to open presents. There were no squeals and shrieks and hugs of joy over long-desired gifts. No demands to find batteries or play a new game or assemble something for someone.

I ached. And I fumed. I hadn’t wanted a divorce; hadn’t chosen this. And yet the standard legal agreements for children of divorce pretty much divide all major occasions without regard to who wanted out. It seemed so unfair. So unjust. Half of me understood that Eric should spend time with his children. And they should spend time with him. But the emotional side of me felt that he chose to leave, that he voluntarily walked away from our family for another one. So why should he get his new wife and his kids while I spent Christmas without them?

I tried very hard to put myself in Eric’s shoes and imagine the Christmases he spent without the kids. I tried to put aside the “he chose this” and find a place in my heart that wanted his joy and his happiness. To be honest, I couldn’t get there.

Our kids kicked a fuss about going to their Dad’s when Eric first moved out, but eventually they settled into the routine. They still balk about the disruption to their lives, the back and forth nature of it all, but I know that they’re mostly okay when they’re with their Dad.

As I trudged through the holiday last year, I thought about how difficult it is to wish someone well when they’ve hurt you. I thought about my kids and how much they mean to me, and I wondered how I’d feel if I knew my kids were going to struggle or suffer when they were with Eric. Suppose I knew they would be mocked, beaten or killed if I sent them there? Would I voluntarily hand the kids over at Christmas out of sheer concern for Eric’s happiness and well-being if it meant my children would be mistreated?

It was the first time that I really began to comprehend that “joy to the world” meant aching sorrow in heaven. In order for us to receive the gift of the Son, the Father had to hand over his beloved child. And He did it. Willingly. For a people who had rejected him…and would reject him again. He did it voluntarily, without a parenting plan telling him he had to. His Son suffered, and God didn’t swoop down to shield him from our harsh world. He was nailed to a cross, and God seemed to have forsaken Him.

Christmas will never be the same for me after last year. I listened to Ryan and Katie’s slumbering breaths as they shared a room with me last night and was profoundly grateful that I had this Christmas with them. I wrapped their gifts and anticipated all the fun they’d have with their cousins ripping off the paper in the morning. I played the game Around the World with Megan and reveled in the fact that she knows a lot these days…and beat me.

I have a tendency to be skeptical about so many things. A bit cynical at times. It’s work to have “faith be my eyes.”

No, Katie, there is no Santa Claus, but still, we can believe. We can believe because while we rejected him, God put our happiness above His own. While we were yet sinners, Jesus came to save us. And so, a weary world rejoices.

Unto us a Son is given. Unto us a Child is born. He is our Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting Father. Our Prince of Peace.

Shepherds Quake

It’s a challenge to meet everyone’s expectations for a Christmas note. Some want a traditional travel log chronicling the highways we crossed in our Winnebago as we camped and visited relatives in the summer. Problem is, we don’t own a Winnebago. And we don’t really camp. And I’m a bit doubtful my relatives would fling open the doors if I pulled up with my four munchkins looking for room in the Inn.

Others expect a litany of my children’s accomplishments. All I can say is that if there are awards given for Most Roles of Toilet Paper in the Toilet or Fastest Rappeler Down the Laundry Chute I might need to think about adding a trophy room to the house.

There was also a hue and cry for failing to dish the details of my dating life in last year’s note. Such curiosity. To which I say, “Get a life, folks!” Surely you all have better things to do than wonder who I’m out with and what I’m doing. Leave it to my father who thinks about this enough for everyone.

I entered my house one evening to the incessant ring of my telephone.

“Oh good, you’re home,” Dad said when I answered.

“Aren’t you out of the country, Dad?”

“Yes, we’re in Tokyo right now. But Mom said you were out on a date, and when I calculated the time, I thought you should be home by now.”

“Well, the beauty of technology, Dad, is that I can forward my home phone anywhere…”

Can’t help but give dear ol’ Dad a hard time. He recently suggested that when someone asks for my phone number, I should give the guy his number instead. Sure, Dad. Let me just go upstairs to my room and don my Burka while you pre-screen my dates.

If you must know, I had a very memorable Valentine’s eve this year. I got home from work and decided I was too tired to cook. I changed into a comfortable pair of old sweats and ordered pizza.

The kids and I started decorating Valentine’s day boxes: Princess Barbie stickers for Paige and Katie’s boxes; Darth Vader and the Death Star to hold Ryan’s love letters. Romance was in the air.

When the doorbell rang, I grabbed my purse, opened the door, and was rummaging to find my wallet when I heard Pizza Guy say, “Wow! You’re an absolute beauty.”

Hmmm I thought. I’m going to have to wear these sweats more often.

Before I could look up to lock gazes with the man/boy of my dreams, I heard him say, “You’re the best looking labrador I’ve ever seen.”

There stood Whistler, sniffing wistfully at the pizza box with his tail wagging. My ego took a dive, as did Pizza Guy’s tip for the evening.

So there you have it. The rest of the stories, well, I just don’t think it’d be polite to talk about the men I’ve dated this year. Not until I publish the book, at least.

My married friends shake their heads and say they’re so glad they don’t have to date again. Perhaps. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that life is all about perspective. Consider my chagrin that Whistler continues to drink out of our toilets; Whistler, however, wonders why his inconsiderate family keeps peeing in his water bowl.

Dating is an interesting pastime on breaks from work and motherhood. I’ve rather liked discovering new music, books, food, and favorite haunts through the guys I’ve met. And for their part, they’ve been consummate gentlemen and excellent company at restaurants, movies, hikes, charity events, the theatre.

As for the strange guys? Writing fodder.

Life is so different than I envisioned in my early 20s—before I had children and while I still knew what parents were doing wrong in restaurants and grocery stores, and especially at Target. I knew back then, that I would one day hold my children on my lap and read E.B. White to them. (For my Adventists friends, just assume I meant E.G. White.)

We would bake and decorate sugar cookies together (my kids, not Ellen White). I think my children were sepia-toned and wore Florence Eiseman shifts over their cherubic wings.

Fast forward 15 years. I no longer know how to parent now that I am one. In the early sleep-deprived days, I’d show up at the office with burp rags on my shoulder. I’d head out for an afternoon outing without a diaper bag and end up begging for Huggies. And, “Could I please borrow, like, three wipes from you?”

(Come to think of it, maybe there’s some Freudian reason that Ryan feels the need to use an entire roll of toilet paper…something to do with feeling deprived or insufficiently cleansed as an infant?)

The more prepared ladies in the women’s lounge usually refused to consider my request for a loaner.

“Keep it,” they’d say, with withering looks. Maybe they sensed I wasn’t really planning to use and return their offered items.

Whereas I used to work tirelessly to coordinate the twins and match the girls down to hair accessories, shoe clips, and tights, I’m more inclined these days to let Paige and Katie wear whatever their hearts’ desire: Usually their Princess Halloween costumes. To the supermarket. In April.

Sure, I read to my kids, but I tend to read them the riot act more often than the “Trumpet of the Swan.” How else do you respond when Ryan unscrews every last sprinkler head to create gushing geysers in the backyard? Or when Ryan uses up the Costco multi-pack of Edge gel to have shaving cream wars against his sisters in my shower? Or when Ryan floods the bathroom filling water balloons for battle until it seeps and leaks through the laundry room ceiling?

Hmmm. Seems to be a common denominator here…

I had life so figured out at 20-something. Two kids, not four. Golden wedding anniversary not a failed try for ivory. Change the world. Change diapers. Sometimes, it’s important to just throw out the script and wing it so that you obediently stay in bed when your little girls tell you that they’re bringing you breakfast. I wouldn’t have known to plan for a bowl of microwave popcorn. But it was perfect. My best breakfast ever.

Megan’s life is growing increasingly full these days: honor student parties, birthday/slumber parties, outdoor camp, volunteer events, children’s church. Whatever people tell you about adolescents not communicating with you, it’s simply not true. Megan and I have very open, broadband-like lines of communications. She emails me from her bedroom. I open her notes on the kitchen computer. It really is today’s equivalent of sitting down at the kitchen counter to have milk and cookies after school each day.

To be fair, the emails came at my request. Megan had a habit of waiting until bedtime to tell me what she needed from me at, say, 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

(I’m thinking that the mother of a pre-teen wrote the story of Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold throughout the night based on her daughter’s expectations of what could be accomplished by Mom in the wee small hours of the morning.)

After a few lectures about this, Megan has now taken to emailing me lists of what I need to do for her by Monday, by Tuesday and, graciously, “Stuff I need you to do whenever you can get to it.” In organizational-speak, I think it’s called, “managing up.” So while I’m learning to throw out my life’s script, Megan’s taken to scripting some of my life for me.

As we approach this Christmas season, my advice is to enjoy the elaborate pageantry of perfectly orchestrated music and lights and presents and parties, but leave some room for the unexpected wonders of, well, those unscripted moments.

Every year, my church, like most churches, holds a special Christmas service. The program is perfectly planned. A glistening tree finds its place on the platform, and the requisite poinsettias and candles are positioned along the stage and pew aisles.

It wouldn’t be our Christmas service without Wes Hart singing O Holy Night and our congregation closing with Silent Night.

My kids are keenly attuned to the sacredness of this service—a time of peace and sharing with others as we attach our tithe and offering envelopes with paperclips to the tree.

Last Christmas, Katie sat beside me scrawling on a Batman coloring book. (Okay, I confess that I failed to bring superheroes of the Bible or something a bit more appropriate than the winged-vermin in black vinyl.)

Paige was doling out crayons to Katie. Pink for Batman’s cape. Purple for his tights.

I think I was meditating on Long lay the world, in sin and error pining when the scuffle broke out. Katie didn’t want the color Paige was thrusting at her. Another crayon was seized, fought over and snapped in two. Teeth and claws, and I was whispering firmly to Paige when the strains of Silent Night began.

She slipped off the pew onto the floor in a pout. The lights dimmed as the program participants streamed off the stage and carried their candles down the aisles to illuminate our sanctuary in soft candlelight.

Katie’s black velvet shoes hung straight off the pew and swung in tantalizing reach of Paige’s face.

“All is calm, all is bright,” the congregants sang. Paige ripped Katie’s shoes off her feet and hurled them at her. Shoeless Joe Jackson, I mean, shoeless Katie Johnston flew off the pew and threw herself onto Paige.

Shepherds quake at the sight…

I don’t know what was going on by the time we reached the verse about With the dawn of redeeming grace.

That might have been the moment a fistful of paperclips fell out of Ryan’s pockets…paperclips he had collected off of the offering envelopes from the Christmas tree.

Life is so not what you expect at times, but maybe we are inept at setting the right expectations for ourselves anyway. I am beginning to think that the whole beauty and mystery of the Advent season is that a Child was born to unlikely parents, in chaotic circumstances, in a manner that confounded everyone’s expectations. There are human plans and then there is Divine provision.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that joy and peace, redemption and grace come to us in the unanticipated moments of our lives. Gushing geysers of grace as you anticipate Eggs Benedict and find, instead, popcorn on your plate.

Wishing you unexpected joy and laughter this season and unmeasured merriment in the New Year!

Off-White Humor

This was the year I was going to create a line of Asian greeting cards off of my mother’s recollection of profound (or profane) Chinese aphorisms. (Remember last year’s, “If a man had a conscience, a dog wouldn’t eat his s–t?”)

Unfortunately, there have been quality control issues. For starters, I was concerned the cards would be printed with lead ink. Then I discovered that my mother’s grasp of her native language is a bit rusty. “A thousand grains of rice create a thousand varieties of people,” she announced.

Her sister corrected her. “It’s ‘One grain of rice creates a thousand varieties of people,'” my Aunt said.

Mom’s errors of recall gave me pause as I thought of other “lost in translation” episodes. Earlier this year I told her I bought the CD, “Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone” for my dad. Later she asked me, “What was the CD you bought Dad about ‘Yo Mama?'”

I unfairly pick on my mother when all of us trip over what we say versus what we mean. For the past two years, Paige has been going to speech therapy to improve her articulation. Words like “self,” Paige pronounced as “selth.” One day, her speech teacher sent me a note which read, “Paige is making good progress. Please help her work on her ‘F’ words at home.” Duly noted.

As for the Chinese greeting card line, it likely would have to be marketed as limited-edition cards because my mom hardly mutters Chinese aphorisms anymore. I take it as a sign of growing peace and healing for her… and for all of us.

There’s less time spent looking in the rearview mirror these days. Objects and issues are smaller than they appear. I still struggle with the notion that I know what should happen in my life and what God needs to do to make things just and fair in the world. That mindset usually produces enormous frustration and anxiety because I know what’s supposed to happen, and God isn’t following my directions. When I manage to set aside my arrogance and my expectations and work to relinquish my tight-fisted control, life is surprisingly full of serendipitous joy.

It’s crazy to admit this, but I love my heap of kids and our zany lives. I love our Thursday “backward dinner” nights, where we start our meal with dessert and then work our way back to entrées and vegetables.

I love the kids’ inventive stories of Mr. Mouse. Not sure how that one started, but maybe a year ago all four of them started telling me tales of Mr. Mouse sightings and adventures. Mr. Mouse goes to Daddy and Angela’s house on weekend visitations. Mr. Mouse traveled with us to Disney World, Legoland, Whistler, and Maui this year. Mr. Mouse’s cousin came for a visit. Mr. Mouse only eats steak and drinks root beer.

I think it’s healthy to encourage children’s imaginations and whimsy. At least, I thought that’s what I was doing until I went to retrieve the trash from under the kitchen sink the other week and found mouse droppings there. Now I wonder how many of us really did travel to see Mickey Mouse last spring…

When Paige isn’t singing It’s a Small World, she’s crooning Crocodile Rock or Jesus Loves the Little Children. One day, when she got to the lyrics about the different ethnicities, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight,” I had to stop her to ask, “What color are you, Paige?”

“I’m off-white,” my Asian/Caucasian daughter answered. Later, the kids wanted to know more about their heritage. I explained I was 100 percent Chinese, and Daddy was made up of many nationalities from Scottish to American Indian.

“We’re Indian?” they asked.

“Partly,” I answered. A few weeks ago, I heard Katie announce to several people that she was “half Chinese and half idiot.” Just for the record, I didn’t teach her that!

I’ve been blogging here without adhering to those Christmas letter protocols that require me to provide you an update on each child’s age, academic progress, and extracurricular activities. Somewhere along the line, having four kids became the extra-curricular activity so I need to say up front that in terms of encouraging musical skills, my kids sing along with the radio; and we’ve turned carrying groceries from the car to the house into an athletic event.

I’ve referred to their birth certificates and called the district and am pleased to report that Megan is 10, and she does attend school–the 5th grade to be exact. She’s passionate about her friends, books, and the computer.

Ryan and Paige, 6, started kindergarten. They have a great teacher, Mrs. Odman, who spends time not only helping them read and write, but talks to the children about the importance of making “good decisions” in life. The lessons are sinking in because Ryan came home and announced to me that “some girls got into trouble today because they were not making wise choices.”

I’m not sure if this meant his classmates were sniffing glue sticks or if they were simply talking during quiet time, but I’m hoping they grow wiser each day!

Paige chafes at rules and structure. It makes no sense to her that she’s supposed to draw letters instead of hearts and flowers. She brought home her alphabet book to show me her “letter A flower” and her “letter B flower.” The pages contained Paige’s alphabet with leafy stems and petals drawn on each letter.

Katie, the “half idiot,” is 4 and in preschool this year. She uses the functioning side of her brain to drive her siblings crazy.

Oh darn, constrained by paper size, so I’ll spare you stories about me, work, the Chicago marathon, or my dating life. Christmas greetings to all, and to all a good night!